If you were to sit down and try to think about the number of different chemicals we are willingly exposing ourselves to in our daily lives, your head would probably explode.
Before we even leave home in the morning, our bodies are bathed in a dizzying assortment of chemicals and substances; in our toothpaste, personal care products, clothing, cleaning products, on our pets, in our plastics and on our surfaces.
Some of them are unnecessary or even ineffective, and can have devastating consequences for the environment.
Associate Professor Vincent Pettigrove, who heads the Center for Aquatic Pollution Identification and Management at the University of Melbourne, said these were often not the ones we thought were causing the damage.
You might think that cleaning products like bleach and ammonia would be as bad for you and the environment as they smell.
In fact, these more basic products tend to break down into relatively harmless byproducts very quickly, Professor Pettigrove said, so they weren’t really on the environmental radar.
The real problem, he said, were the chemicals and products that take a long time to decompose, that linger and accumulate in the environment, and that often have unforeseen toxicities.
He singled out three groups or household chemicals that he said we should reduce or avoid altogether.
Microplastics are tiny beads, pieces or fibers of plastic measuring less than five millimeters.
They are found in products such as toothpastes, facial cleansers, body scrubs, shampoos, and some abrasive household cleaning products.
They are also found in ever-increasing amounts in aquatic and marine sediments, where they are absorbed by filter-feeding organisms, which in turn are eaten by fish that might end up on our tables.
“Microplastics can also absorb chemicals on their surface, so it’s of great concern that aquatic organisms that filter water are picking up these microbeads with a lot of toxic chemicals attached to them,” Professor Pettigrove said.
The US and UK have banned them, and Coles and Woolworths in Australia have decided to phase out products containing them.
Meanwhile, Australian Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced a voluntary phase-out of products by 2018.
It is also quite easy to eliminate them from your life yourself. Avoid any product that mentions microbeads (unless they use a non-plastic alternative, like a crushed shell), or that lists polyethylene in the ingredients.
Another common household ingredient that is of concern to both health and the environment is triclosan.
Our obsession with cleanliness and hygiene has seen a huge increase in the number of cleaning products claiming to be “antibacterial”. Unfortunately, this usually means that they contain triclosan.
The United States Food and Drug Administration recently banned the use of triclosan and triclocarban in over-the-counter soaps and body washes.
They pointed out that there was no evidence that these antibacterial chemicals were better than regular soap and water, and that long-term use could pose health risks such as antibiotic resistance and hormonal effects.
Triclosan is also found in a specific brand of toothpaste (Colgate Total). Although it has drawn criticism from some groups, the use of triclosan in toothpaste is still approved by the FDA, which has said it is effective in reducing gum disease.
In 2013, the well-respected Cochrane Collaboration reviewed the risks and benefits of using triclosan in combination with fluoride in toothpaste. They concluded that the benefits of reducing gingivitis were significant, but found no evidence of harmful effects over three years of use.
Human health concerns aside, triclosan is a problem for the environment because it does not dissolve easily and therefore stays for a long time, mainly in aquatic sediment, Professor Pettigrove said.
“They could kill a lot of the microbial fauna in the sediment, and many of these organisms can help clean up the environment by removing pollutants like nitrogen,” he said.
Pesticides and herbicides
No one likes spooky critters going where they’re not welcome, and Australia has no shortage of bugs that love to make their home in our closets and other nooks and crannies.
But urban pesticides are an environmental concern, especially if they are used on hard exterior surfaces such as concrete or paving stones as they get washed into waterways.
“A lot of these things won’t necessarily have an effect on human health, but they are quite toxic to aquatic life, including fish,” Professor Pettigrove said.
“Our research center does a lot of monitoring for contaminants in the waterways around Victoria primarily, and we generally see more pesticides in urban areas than in agricultural areas.”
In particular, surface insecticidal sprays, such as those intended to deter cockroaches, tend to find their way into waterways, as they are often used to create a barrier to keep insects from outside out. get inside.
“Permethrin and bifenthrin, those commonly used by pest controllers, are toxic to household pests but also to aquatic life, including fish, and they remain in the sediments of streams for months,” even years, where much of the aquatic life lives, “said Professor Pettigrove.
He said imidacloprid, which has been banned in Europe because of a link to bee death, is less harmful.
“It’s more soluble so … it doesn’t accumulate in the sediment.”
Likewise, herbicides that kill plants are also a preventable health and environmental concern.
Professor Pettigrove and his colleagues found that a common household herbicide called simazine used to kill weeds on concrete was still there a year later and still drip into the sewage whenever it rained.
This particular chemical is the subject of global attention because it can persist in soils for a long time and is classified as toxic to wildlife, especially aquatic organisms. It was banned for non-agricultural use in the UK in 1993 and is listed as a “priority substance” in the EU Water Framework Directive.
Professor Pettigrove said it was a household chemical that we could easily do without.
“There are other ways to deal with weeds on concrete walkways, so for me it’s very preventable.”
“Use boiling water or just remove the suction cup.”