We don’t think of our homes as part of a water cycle. Water goes in. Water comes out. We wash dishes, shampoo, flush the toilet, and without really thinking about it, contribute chemicals that directly affect water quality in our neighborhoods.
Everything from the pills we take, to the cleaners we choose has an impact on water quality. Here are a few strategies to help minimize negative impacts on the water systems in your area.
Cleaning agents: Cleaners with labels containing the word “Danger,” “Poison” or “Caution/Warning” are considered household hazardous waste at disposal. These are dangerous substances — the chemists who work at household hazardous waste collections show up in hazmat suits and gas masks to handle them. Keep that in mind the next time you make a choice about a new cleaner.
Additionally, overuse of sanitizers and disinfectants can kill “good” microorganisms in municipal water supplies and residential septic systems, disrupting the water treatment process.(1) Follow these guidelines to reduce your impact:
- Clean only to the level required. Typically wiping off surfaces is enough.
- Much household cleaning does not require disinfection or sanitization (except in special circumstances of illness, diaper changing, or compromised immune systems).
- Less is more: to destroy common foodborne germs, only one tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water is needed.(2)
- Purchase environmentally‐preferable products certified by EPA Safer Choice or Green Seal.
- Read labels! Follow instructions on amount and concentration.
- Download the Safer Cleaning Guide by the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District for more information and DIY cleaner recipes. (http://www.cvswmd.org/reducing-toxics.html)
If replacing a cleaner, store harmful unused products in a safe, dry area until the next household hazardous waste collection day. Never pour these down the drain or throw in the trash. Vermont, Massachusetts and New York all have regular collections, and, in some cases, permanent drop- off sites. Go to your state’s Department of Environmental Conservation for details.
Body Care Products: Many self-care and cosmetic products contain toxins and are harmful to environmental and personal health. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Skin Deep (Environmental Working Group), and Think Dirty all work to help you make safer and more informed choices. Look for their third-party certifications on body care products.
Swimming and showering can cause traces of body care products to enter the water system and may have a devastating effect on marine life. Typical sun screens and hand sanitizers contain endocrine disruptors, which, even in imperceptible amounts, kill coral and adversely impact fish.(1)
Recipes abound for easy DIY body care products, such as these ten recipes from No Fuss Naturals: https://nofussnatural.com/10-easy-body-care-products-anyone-can-make/.
Prescription Pills: Never flush pills down the toilet. Pharmaceuticals end up in the water supply through human excretion, flushing, and even landfilling old pills, where they contribute to toxic leachate. Pharmaceuticals pass through waste water treatment and go directly back into the water supply.
According to the United States Geological Survey, prescription medications “… pollute directly from pharmaceutical manufacturing plants or from humans and animals. As these chemicals make their way into terrestrial and aquatic environments, they can affect the health and behavior of wildlife, including insects, fish, birds, and more.”(3)
If you have unused prescription pills, bring them to a Permanent Collection Location, or Drug Take Back Day location near you. Contact the FDA to find a site near you, or go to https://www.getsmartaboutdrugs.gov/content/national-take-back-day for details about National Drug Take Back Day on April 25.
To summarize: choose carefully what you purchase and minimize toxic products going down your drain or into your trash. If toxic products get into the water or solid waste systems, they can have a negative impact the environment, animals, and humans.
Cassandra Hemenway is the Outreach Manager at the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.
1. State of Vermont, n.d., Pollution Prevention brochure.
2. How Your Sunscreen Harms Water Quality, University of Washington College of the Environment, August 20, 2019, https://wsg.washington.edu/how-your-sunscreen-harms-water-quality/
3. Pharmaceuticals in Water, USGS, n.d., https://www.usgs.gov/special-topic/water-science-school/science/pharmaceuticals-water?qt-science_center_objects=0#qt-science_center_objects