How Personal Care Products Threaten our Waterways

July 5, 2017
How Personal Care Products Threaten our Waterways
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Common chemicals in our daily lotions and shampoos can affect us in ways beyond their intended purposes like cleaning and moisturizing. Many preservative, softening or fragrance ingredients can be toxic to our bodies, making us more vulnerable to serious health conditions like cancer and diabetes. Some may even disrupt the function of our hormonal system, interfering with key processes that guide the development of our bodies. And even more troubling is that personal care products that we use daily may also release large amounts of toxic chemicals into our environment, polluting the streams and lakes that we rely on for water, food and recreation.

Invisible pollution
Most of Canadians have by now heard of microbeads. Those tiny plastic particles added to face wash for exfoliating purposes are washed down the drain causing contributing to unprecedented levels of microplastic pollution in the Great Lakes. The good news is that the Canadian government is getting closer to banning microbeads in personal care products by declaring them toxic in June 2016.

But action on pollutants shouldn’t end there; dozens of chemicals from our daily soaps and shampoos continue to wash down the drain every day. Unlike microbeads, these are invisible and arguably even more harmful to our wildlife and biodiversity. While some businesses working with environmental principles in mind do not use these chemicals in their products, sadly many companies are still using substances that pollute.

Let’s take a closer look at three polluting chemicals: triclosan, phthalates, and siloxane D5.

The chemical triclosan is widely used in toothpastes, deodorants, and soaps to give the product anti-bacterial properties. The trouble with triclosan is that it’s contaminating waterways and may have detrimental effects on the development of aquatic wildlife like frogs and fish. Many scientists have also raised concerns about the serious impacts that the wide use of triclosan may be having on promoting drug resistance in bacteria, contributing to the problem of so called “super bugs”!

Environmental advocates and medical doctors in Canada have for many years pushed for a ban triclosan and similar compounds like triclocarban (now linked to premature birth). Very recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decided to ban triclosan in hand wash products because the industry failed to show that it is safe and needed. There is no evidence to show that anti-bacterial soap is any better than regular soap for killing germs. In Canada, we are still waiting for the government to ban triclosan, four years after it declared the chemical toxic to the environment.

Phthalates, a group of known hormone-disrupting chemicals, are generally used to make plastics softer, but they have found their way into personal care products as preservatives or fragrance ingredients to increase “staying power” of the scent.

Fragrances are composed of many ingredients, and some businesses list the chemicals used in their fragrances online or on the product label. However, if this voluntary step is not taken, it’s impossible for customers to know what exactly is in“fragrance” and/or “parfum”. That’s because the law doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients comprising a product’s fragrance.

Companies with environmentally friendly practices like Green Beaver use essential oils or other non-polluting ingredients to make products smell great. But companies that don’t have strict policies about ingredients may use hundreds of chemicals – possibly even phthalates and artificial musks, to create a fragrance. Customers have no certain way of finding out whether the scent is made of problematic chemicals unless companies volunteer this information.

What’s troubling about phthalates? Research is showing that they may be contributing to rising rates of obesity, and once they make it into our waterways from wash-off personal care products, they persist in the sediments and accumulate in tiny aquatic organisms, fish and higher up in the food chain.

Siloxane D5

Silicone-based chemicals like siloxane D5 are increasingly being used as softeners in personal care products like deodorants and especially in frizz-reducing hair products. Siloxane D5 has also become a common dry cleaning solvent falsely marketed as “green” and promoted as an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional dry cleaning with cancer-causing PERC.

Siloxane D5 is now among the top chemical pollutants in Great Lakes fish (in the top five pollutants in lake Ontario), according to a recent study by government scientists. While the European Union has decided to restrict the use of siloxane D5 in personal care products due to its environmental risks, Canada still allows it in consumer products and dry cleaning.
You can help to protect our water

Canadian consumers have a big part to play in protecting our public health and environment from toxics in consumer products. Here are three things that you can do:
1) Look for products that do not contain these problematic and polluting chemicals, and continue to support companies such as Green Beaver that have committed to using safe ingredients.
2) Download our Toxic Ten Pocket Guide to help you avoid chemicals of concerns in personal care and household products.
3) Take action by supporting Environmental Defence’s efforts to reform Canada’s toxic chemicals regulations, which are currently being reviewed by a parliamentary committee. Sign our petition today and sign up to our toxics newsletter to receive monthly updates about our progress.

– Muhannad Malas, Toxics Program Coordinator, Environmental Defence

François Lanthier

Communications & Media Manager - BCoMS Social media fanatic, digital communication +++ Coconut body lotion is his fave.

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