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Are You Slowly Killing Your Family with Your Laundry Detergent?

When most people think of pollution, they think of the outdoors -- garbage-choked streams or industrial waste. But you probably spend a large portion of your time indoors -- as much as 80 to 90 percent of your life. You work, study, eat, drink and sleep in enclosed environments where air circulation may be restricted.

The typical American home contains 3-10 GALLONS of toxic materials -- everything from glass and bathroom cleaners to garden pesticides and fertilizers.

David Steinman Delivers Press Conference
on 1,4 Dioxane in Laundry Detergents

Health effects of ingredients in common household products include:

  • Respiratory problems
  • Eye irritation
  • Cancer
  • Disruption of the endocrine system

As a result of cleaners and other toxic household products, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the air inside the typical home is 2-5 times more polluted than the air immediately outside -- and in extreme cases, 100 times more contaminated.

Did you know that cleaning products are responsible for nearly 10 percent of all toxic exposures reported to U.S. Poison Control Centers[1]?

Contributors to indoor pollution include the products you use everyday in your home, which can come in contact with your skin and lungs. Household products have been found to contain very powerful and often toxic chemicals that you unknowingly expose yourself to in the course of an ordinary day.

One of the most common products is laundry detergent.

The detergent you’re using may contain a potent cancer-causing chemical that the manufacturer doesn’t even have to list on the label. This loophole reduces the odds that you’ll ever discover it’s in there.

The chemical is called 1,4-dioxane.

Loathsome Laundry List

David Steinman, an environmental health consumer advocate with the Green Patriot Working Group (GPWG) and former representative at the National Academy of Sciences, has been on a mission since 2007 to organize product testing for the petrochemical 1,4-dioxane in your personal care and household cleaning products.

He forged a partnership between his organization and the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to get the dirt on dioxane-laden products.

In 2008, the focus was personal care products, and 2010 has brought the spotlight to laundry detergents.

In 2008, the findings were shocking. Many popular brands of shampoos, body washes, lotions, and even baby products -- as well as many “natural” and “organic” brands -- were found to contain 1,4-dioxane. It is reassuring, however, that all brands with the USDA organic certification were found to be dioxane-free.

High enough levels of contamination were found that many companies have come under legal attack for poisoning consumers.

Unfortunately, this phase of testing proved no lesser threat. About two-thirds of the laundry detergents tested contained 1,4-dioxane.

Results suggest it’s time for these companies to clean up their acts.

Why You Should be Concerned About 1,4-Dioxane

Don’t confuse 1,4-dioxane with dioxin -- they are completely different compounds.

Dioxin is not manufactured commercially but is a byproduct of combustion, like from forest fires and the burning of garbage, and is a family of 17 different compounds of varying toxicities[2].

How does 1,4-dioxane get into your products?

It’s not added intentionally.

According to the “1,4-Dioxane Product Safety Watch” website, dioxane is a byproduct of ethoxylation, “a cheap shortcut process companies use to provide mildness to harsh cleaning ingredients.” Ethoxylation involves combining low-sudsing ingredients with ethylene oxide (which is a known human carcinogen) to produce softer detergents that produce more suds.

The result is diethylene oxide, or 1,4-dioxane, or simply dioxane.

Since it is a byproduct rather than ingredient, it doesn’t have to be listed on product labels. But you really DON’T want to have your skin coming into contact with this stuff, byproduct or not.

1,4-dioxane is considered by the State of California to cause cancer and has been found to be potentially toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys, liver and respiratory system, according to the CDC.

According to the Organic Consumers Association’s 1,4-Dioxane Facts Sheet:

  • The cumulative effects of 1,4-dioxane exposure, even at very low levels (a few parts per billion) resulted in laboratory animals developing cancer.
  • 1,4-dioxane is readily absorbed through the lungs, skin and gastrointestinal tract of mammals.
  • The U.S. federal regulation systems consider dioxane’s potency to be equivalent to or greater than many pesticides considered dangerous to humans.
  • Cosmetics (and detergents, presumably) contaminated with 1,4-dioxane may also have traces of other contaminants, including formaldehyde, nitrosamines, and phthalates.
  • There are many inexpensive and effective alternatives to ethoxylation in the manufacturing of your personal care and cleaning products.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) substance profile sheet confirms that 1,4-dioxane is “reasonably expected to be a human carcinogen” based on the research to date, and even trace amounts bring cause for concern.

The Need for Greener Cleaners

At a press conference in Anaheim, California, on March 12, 2010 (see video at top), Steinman shared the test results from 20 laundry detergents -- 13 conventional brands and 7 “natural” brands.

As you would expect, the natural brands fared better.

The three conventional brands with the highest 1,4-dioxane levels were:

  1. Tide (55 ppm)
  2. Ivory Snow (31 ppm)
  3. Tide Free (29 ppm)

Overall, products made by Procter & Gamble (which include Tide and Tide Free) were the most contaminated. Five of the seven “natural” brands tested completely free of the chemical:

  1. Clorox Green Works
  2. ECOS laundry detergent (Earth Friendly Products)
  3. Life Tree laundry liquid
  4. Method Squeaky Green laundry detergent
  5. Seventh Generation Free & Clear laundry detergent

For a complete list of results for all brands tested, click here.

The Organic Consumers Association and Green Patriot Working Group have put together a handy printable guide for Personal Care and Cleaning Products that includes everything from dish soap to hand soap to deodorant, and everything in between.

It’s in the Water

Dioxane is an increasing threat to water supplies across the country and is of growing concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dioxane has fouled the water in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and in several towns in Orange County, California.

But it is likely present in many other places that do not routinely test for it. Since it has only recently been identified as a health hazard, it hasn’t been tested for. So nobody really knows just how prevalent it is.

Water filters can’t remove it -- and it doesn’t biodegrade.

When you use a laundry detergent contaminated with dioxane, it goes everywhere. It never breaks down. According to a quotation Steinman uses from the March 2008 issue of Chemosphere:

“As a groundwater contaminant, 1,4-dioxane is of considerable concern because of its toxicity, refractory nature to degradation, and rapid migration within an aquifer.”

What we do know is, when it’s tested for, it often shows up -- and that fact is of great concern.

What Else is in Your Laundry Detergent?

Besides 1,4-dioxane, the average detergent has a long list of chemical ingredients, none of which are good for you or the environment. Anything in such a product can potentially be absorbed through your skin, or evaporate into the air you breathe.

Typical chemicals include:

  • Linear alkyl sodium sulfonates (LAS), a.k.a. anionic surfactants
  • Petroleum distillates (a.k.a. naphthas), which have been linked to cancer
  • Phenols, which can cause toxicity throughout the entire body
  • Optical brighteners, which cause bacterial mutations and allergic reactions, and can be toxic to fish
  • Phosphates, which stimulate the growth of certain marine plants and contribute to unbalanced ecosystems
  • Sodium hypochlorite (bleach)
  • EDTA (ethylene-diamino-tetra-acetate)
  • Artificial fragrances, which have been linked to various toxic effects on fish and animals, as well as allergic reactions in humans

Over time, many of these toxins can build up in your body and cause a number of unknown effects.

But you can take control of your household environment. To be proactive about your own health, you have to learn how to read labels. To avoid 1,4 dioxane, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends avoiding products with indications of ethoxylation.

Look for the following suffixes in the ingredient list:

  • "Myreth," "oleth," "laureth," "ceteareth," any other "eth"
  • "PEG"
  • "Polyethylene," "polyethylene glycol," or "polyoxyethylene"
  • "Oxynol"

For example, sodium laureth sulfate (as well as sodium laurel sulfate) are often contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.

And polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80 are also often contaminated with 1,4 dioxane, according to Dr. Samuel Epstein[3].

There is some good news, however.

As of March of 2008, twenty-five states had banned phosphate-containing cleaning products, including laundry and dishwashing detergents. This increased awareness has forced the industry to incorporate safer ingredients into their products, at least in terms of phosphates.

Insert paragraph about Greener Cleaner when available. Don’t have any copy on it as of yet, so not included in this draft.

Hopefully, public awareness about dioxane will, in time, result in bans similar to those on phosphates. The wheels of progress are slow, but at least they are turning!

[1] Worldwatch.org, “Cleaning products” http://www.worldwatch.org/system/files/GS0008.pdf

[2] “Dioxane is not the same as dioxin” (March 2009) DioxinFacts.org http://www.dioxinfacts.org/dioxin_health/dioxin_rumors/dioxane.html


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