A wide variety of household products contain ingredients that are potentially hazardous to human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (see References 1). You can minimize these risks by selecting household products with less-hazardous ingredients that biodegrade into harmless components.
Definition of "Biodegradable"
A forensic look at the word "biodegradable" indicates that it means the breakdown of organic material into nonpolluting substances by biological processes. To the EPA, however, biodegradability is measured by the extent to which a substance degrades through natural means and by how fast that process occurs (see References 2, page 5). Unfortunately, there is no regulatory definition of the term "biodegradable" as it applies to a complete product, since the only standardized testing in place for biodegradability pertains to individual ingredients (see References 3, page 6).
For consumers, looking for certification by a third-party agency that qualifies a product as containing low-toxin or nontoxic and biodegradable ingredients is more meaningful than relying on vague environmental claims made by the manufacturer. One example of a certifying party is the EPA's Design for the Environment Program, a collaborative initiative that encourages industry participation on a voluntary basis. More than 2,500 consumer products carry the DfE seal, and according to the EPA, the program has spared the environment from hundreds of millions of pounds of "chemicals of concern" since its inception. (See References 4)
DfE qualification involves a review process, and no product can display the official certification seal without going through this process. The manufacturer must verify that the product is formulated with biodegradable surfactants and solvents that are less toxic and less persistent in the environment than ingredients typically found in household products. (See References 2, section A.7, page A4).
Types of Products
The majority of household products reviewed for DfE certification are cleaning products. They include but are not limited to laundry detergents, glass cleaners, drain cleaners, carpet cleaners, floor-care products, bathroom cleaners and all-purpose cleaners (see References 2, page 9). This program also partners with producers of other types of products that are applicable to many households but that are not used inside the home, such as marine, recreational vehicle, aircraft and car-care products (see References 5).
Products such as all-purpose cleaners and laundry detergents include petroleum-based surfactants, which are simply wetting agents that enable the other ingredients to spread across a hard surface or to permeate fabric. Another common ingredient in many detergents is ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, or EDTA, which doesn't biodegrade well because it binds to metals (see References 6). Alternative ingredients with better biodegradability include vegetable-based surfactants from coconut or palm, plant-based enzymes to break down proteins and bleaching agents that don't contain chlorine, such as sodium percarbonate.
- Environmental Protection Agency: Indoor Air Pollution: An Introduction for Health Professionals
- EPA: Standard for Safer Cleaning Products
- EPA: Factual Statements -- OPP's Response
- EPA: About Design for the Environment (DfE)
- EPA: Labeled Products and Our Partners
- EPA: Tolerance Reassessment Decisions Completed by the Lower Toxicity Pesticide Chemical Focus Group
Karyn Maier has been a full-time freelance writer since 1992 specializing in health, particularly botanical therapies. She has written many feature articles and columns for numerous national magazines, including "Better Nutrition," "Your Health" and "Mother Earth News," and she has authored numerous natural health-related books currently published in four languages. She also has more than 10 years' experience as a legal assistant.
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