Detergents under scrutiny
The virtually unregulated use of pollutant chemicals in the Indian detergent industry is a situation that needs to be quickly reversed, says Toxics Link.
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October 2002 - Cleanliness has been an important consideration for human beings from time immemorial, but the relation between personal and environmental cleanliness is a less obvious one. Soap making dates back to about 1500 BC, the earliest records indicate that a combination of animal and vegetable oils with alkaline salts was used to form a soap-like material. In ancient India too, people used soap preparations made from plant or animal fats. Modern technology has provided synthetic detergents that have slowly replaced soaps. The first detergents were used chiefly for hand dishwashing and fine fabric laundering. This was followed by the development of all-purpose laundry detergents introduced in the U.S. in 1946.

Today, India has a diverse range of detergents available off the shelf. The annual consumption of detergents in India ranges to hundreds of thousands of tonnes. The formal sector with its increasing ability to influence consumers via advertisements is expanding its market share aggressively. The detergent market has evolved into a highly competitive one where a myriad brands vie with each other to get the customers' attention. Each brand claims to clean whiter, boasting of technologically dubious terms such as fighting granules, power pearls, etc.

Detergents and health
Detergents are household chemical cleaning compounds used for laundering and dishwashing. They contain wetting agents and emulsifiers, based on non-soap synthetic surfactants. Synthetic detergent powders consist of surface-active agents, builders and fillers. In addition they have additives like anti re-deposition agents, optical fibre brighteners (whitening agents), bluing agents, bleaching agents, foam regulators, organic sequestering agents, enzymes, perfumers, and substances that regulate the density and assure crispness of the material they are used on.

A study done to understand the Indian consumers knowledge of harmful effects of detergents on health and environment, showed that 77.6 percent of respondents had experienced some kinds of skin irritation due to detergents. Of these the majority comprised of dhobis and rural women. Conventional laundry detergents leave chemical residues on the clothes. These residues enter our bodies either through the skin or through the lungs. They cause many common health problems including allergies, skin infections and in rare cases, cancer. The fragrances used in laundry detergents can prove allergic and be highly irritating to lungs, causing serious health effects to people with asthma or chronic heart problems.

The usual result of a continuous and excessive exposure of the skin to detergents is drying, fissuring and dotting of the keratin layer leading to increased permeability that causes sensitization, which may develop into dermatitis. Elderly people are more susceptible to infections that may lead to developing eczema.

Detergents and water pollution
Most laundry detergents in India are phosphate based. Phosphates are a major source of water pollution that has become the direct cause of 42 per cent of human and animal diseases. In India, per capita consumption of detergents in 1994 was 2.8 kg per annum. This is projected to rise to over 4 kg/capita by 2005. In rural areas the use of detergent bars is expected to grow 7-8 per cent annually. The figures are of concern because high quality detergents have as much as 35 per cent STPP in them. According to Prof Narinder K. Kauschik, Professor emeritus for environmental biology at the Canadian University of Guelph, "the main problem is that of phosphate-based detergents promoting eurtrophication of aquatic environments."

Eutrophication or Nutrient pollution is a process by which water bodies gradually age and become more productive. Any natural process like this might take thousands of years to progress but human activities accelerate this process tremendously. The presence of excessive plant nutrients causes pollution of water bodies. These plant nutrients are supplied primarily in the form of phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon to water bodies in various ways. Sewage perhaps is a particular source of phosphorus when detergents containing large amounts of phosphates are drained during washing. The algal boom leads to consumption of the oxygen dissolved in water, creating hypoxic, and at times, near anoxic situation. This can lead to excessive eutrophication that kills the fish, cause odour and increase pathogenic animals.

Seasonal impacts
Run-off of phosphates into water streams is not only due to detergents, but also due to fertilizers and manures. Findings show that during the dry seasons when the run-off from agriculture is virtually zero, and manure run-off is down to one fifth of the total annual rate, detergents are responsible for additional loadings of rivers by about 7.3 per cent which poses significant eutrophication impact risks. In India, it is not uncommon to see ponds, lakes and part of rivers choking with algae or other aquatic plants. In the Indian context, this is a grim situation since these water bodies are the primary sources of water for a large section of the population.

India has addressed the eutrophication problem only at the level of sewage treatment plants (STPs). The ever-increasing demand of phosphate-laden detergents in rural areas will increase eutrophication of the local water bodies that serve as the primary water resource. Even metropolitan cities like Delhi, Calcutta, Mumbai, and Chennai are partially sewered. More specifically, only 43 per cent of class I cities and 12 per cent of class II cities are sewered. Of this only 37 per cent of sewage is partially treated in class I cities and 5 per cent in class II cities.

Prof. Kauschik reveals that in Canada, and in many states of USA, public pressure has led to the regulation of phosphates in detergents since early 1970s. According to him these countries have spent $8.5 billion in 1970s to upgrade sewage treatment plants to remove excessive phosphates. Canada successfully implemented the appropriate regulation to control phosphates emission into water systems by limiting the amount of phosphates in laundry detergents to 0.5%.

While India's Environment Protection law (1989) recognizes and categorizes phosphine, phosphorus and its compounds as toxic chemicals, there are no regulations that are applicable to household detergents. Research conducted by Raka Sharan of IIT Kanpur on the "Socio-Demographic context of detergent consumers : A case of Kanpur(India)", found an increase in detergents being used throughout India. Dhobis, rural women, and urban women extensively use phosphate-containing detergents.

Progressive labeling requirements - BIS
The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) has separately laid down the standards for eco-labeling of detergents in India. Based on the quality, safety and performance of these detergents, a set of general and specific requirements for an Ecomark have been established. The specific and general requirements laid down by BIS for ecomarking of detergents states that they should not contain any phosphate. They also stress that the surfactants issued in the manufacture of household laundry detergent powders should be readily biodegradable and the products be packed in packages made of recyclable or biodegradable materials. Despite laying down this Ecomark plan which encourages phosphate-free environmentally-friendly detergents, not a single compliant product has made its way to the consumer. According to Professor Kauschik, the industry has simply sabotaged the plan. Lack of proper labeling of products make it nearly impossible for consumers to choose detergents on the basis of their eco-friendly performance. A recent test done by Consumer Voice on detergents show that of the 14 brands selected, only one complied with the BIS standards for detergent labeling.

Each packet of detergent powders should be marked with a set of information on name/grade of material, indication of the source of manufacture, and caution statement which reads: "Detergent solutions can be skin irritants. Avoid prolonged contact. Rinse garments and hands thoroughly." The label should also carry information about critical ingredients used in the formulations.

The Detergent Industry
Detergent industry refuses to take any action due to a lack of mandatory legislations. As a proactive response to environment risks as result of increasing levels of phosphates, the industry needs to reduce the perilously high phosphate levels of 30 per cent to far lower numbers. Industry representatives have declined to do so on grounds that the amount of phosphate used in northern countries is higher as compared to that in India. The fact is that India relies only on Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) which are not fully functional even in metropolitan cities unlike northern countries where STPs are installed for every few households. Industry ought to label its products voluntarily for containing phosphate so that it can be left to the consumer to decide.

According to Prof. Kaushick strict regulations in North America and Europe makes it mandatory for the multinational detergent industry to produce detergents with nominal phosphate content (or even phosphate-free detergent). The same industry absolves itself of this responsibility in India, where it manufactures detergents with a high phosphate content. The industry vehemently opposes any regulation of phosphate use in detergents. It is not prepared to indicate the percentage phosphate content on detergent packages.

Better options - Eco-friendly household cleaning powders
An environmentally superior detergent is the one that makes use of lesser chemical ingredients. The toxicity of detergents decreases by non-addition of additives like perfumes, colour and brightening agents. Minimal packaging can also reduce environmental harm substantially. Synthetic surfactants may be replaced by non-petrochemical surfactants or vegetable oil soaps; builders like phosphates can be replaced by sodium citrate and sodium bicarbonate; dyes and fragrances can be eliminated or minimized. For a simple formula to make your own detergent, write to Toxics Link.

Detergent use can never be a totally non-polluting activity. The consumer needs to be informed that the smaller detergent products can also be the least polluting ones. Consumers must press for implementation of labelling standards and regulation so that they may avail of environmentally friendly choices. Using 'green detergents' that do not contain non-essential additives like perfumes, colour and brightening agents in minimal packaging will go a long way in ensuring a cleaner and healthier environment.

Toxics Link
October 2002

This article is made available on India Together by arrangement with Toxics Link, New Delhi. Toxics Link, H-2 Jungpura Extension, New Delhi 110 014. Tel: +91 11 4328006/0711.

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