Make Your Clothes Last Longer with Good Laundry Habits

Last updated on June 6, 2024.

Tan wicker Laundry Basket with colorful Clothes on a White Background.
Photo by Marco Verch Professional Photographer on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Have you ever struggled to figure out how to do the laundry without hurting the environment? Do you want your clothes to last longer? It is a challenge, one I’ve been figuring out for years. Here are ways you can practice environmentally friendly laundry habits that will allow you to wear your wardrobe for a long time.

First, Wash Your Clothes Less

Many sustainable fashion experts tell us to launder as little as possible. “If a garment has had no contact with sweat and isn’t stained, you can wear it multiple times before you need to wash it. Repeated laundering breaks down the fibers and fades colors, making garments look old and worn more quickly.”1 You can wear some clothes several times before they need washing. There are ways to “freshen” clothes without washing them. Any time you can avoid washing clothing saves time, energy, money, and water. It also protects our water from pollutants and chemicals. 

“Americans in particular overwash their clothing and rely on machine washing instead of steaming or airing out their clothes, which shortens the life span of what we wear.” -Elizabeth L. Cline, The Concious Closet2 

In 2014, the CEO of Levi Strauss, Chip Bergh, said that jeans should never be machine washed, admitting that he hadn’t machine washed his jeans in more than a year. When he does wash them, he handwashes and hangs them up to air dry. Bergh argued that not using the washing machine keeps jeans in mint condition and is better for the environment.3 

Washing Our Clothes Sheds Microfibers

A 2016 Plymouth University study found that more than 700,000 fibers were released during a thirteen-pound load of laundry, with fleece releasing the most.4 In 2017, a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that 35% of all microplastics in the ocean came from laundering synthetic fabrics.5

Michiel Roscam Abbing, author of Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, noted that fleece, as in a fleece jacket or those cheap $4 blankets at big box stores, is one of the biggest villains. That fabric is made from used water bottles, the clear ones with the #1 RIC symbol. While recycling is important, washing fleece releases large numbers of microfibers into water, and eventually the ocean.6

Wastewater treatment plants are not designed to filter out microfibers. These fibers do not decompose or biodegrade. When the microfibers travel through pipes to a wastewater treatment plant, “the vast majority of fibers (somewhere between 75 and 99 percent) settle into the sludge…sludge from wastewater treatment plants can be used as agricultural fertilizer, and it is slathered…onto fields.” From there it can get into the soil, groundwater, or grazing animals that are later consumed by people.7

“Tiny particles of plastic have been found everywhere — from the deepest place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, to the top of Mount Everest. And now more and more studies are finding that microplastics, defined as plastic pieces less than 5 millimeters across, are also in our bodies…In recent years, microplastics have been documented in all parts of the human lung, in maternal and fetal placental tissues, in human breast milk and in human blood.”8

Close-up of a stainless steel front loading washing machine, with off-white towels going in.
Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay.

How to Stop Microfibers from Entering Water Systems

The most obvious solution is to stop washing so many synthetic fabrics by buying fewer synthetic clothing items. For those items you do own already, there are a few solutions:

      • The Guppyfriend bag is designed to prevent microfiber pollution. It is a zippered bag that you place synthetic clothing into and then put into the washing machine with everything else. The microfibers that shed collect at the edges of the bag, which you can scoop out and throw in the garbage. This prevents the microfibers from getting into the water. Alexander Nolte, co-founder of Guppyfriend, said that “the bag is designed in a way which prevents fibers from breaking in the first place. So, it’s not about what you find in the bag, it’s what you do not find in the bag. Whatever you wash inside the bag has a longer lifetime.”9

        Guppyfriend bag, white bag with blue wording along zipper.
        I bought one several years ago. While I like it and still use it, my solution has been to buy less synthetic clothing. Unfortunately, Guppyfriend bags are not big enough for jackets or blankets.
      • The Cora Ball is a ball that you toss into the washing machine with your clothes. It helps prevent shedding and collects microfibers that you can remove and throw into the garbage. I have not personally tried this yet.
      • PlanetCare is a washing machine attachment with filters that the company claims to collect 90% of microfibers. Each filter comes with reusable cartridges that you replace once they’re full of microfibers. You can return the cartridges to the company so they can refurbish them for future use. I haven’t tried this yet either.

While these solutions are thoughtful and probably work well, they come at your own expense. Does it make sense to buy cheap clothing only to have to spend money trying not to pollute the water with them?

“In 2017, Greenpeace found microfibers in the waters of Antarctica.”10

Close-up of a white washing machine with a PlanetCare filter attached to its side.
Photo by PlanetCare on Unsplash.

Do Laundry Better

I am not a laundry expert, but I certainly do a lot of laundry for my family! Many of the tips in the following section came from sustainable clothing writers, including Zoe Edwards (Mend It, Wear It, Love It!), Erin Lewis-Fitzgerald (Modern Mending), Elizabeth L. Cline (The Conscious Closet), and Sophie Benson (Sustainable Wardrobe).

Washing:

Except for undergarments or sweaty clothes, wash clothes less and not after every wear. Airing out will sometimes be enough to remove odors (like from a restaurant or campfire). If it’s only a spot that’s dirty, spot clean with a damp cloth and mild soap (like hand soap). This is better for the garment than a full wash. Elizabeth L. Cline wrote that undergarments or “anything that sits next to your crotch, armpits, feet…and comes into close contact with sweat and skin is a good candidate for regular washing.” Clothing worn over undergarments and clothing that doesn’t cling to your body can be washed far less frequently.

Sometimes the cheapest clothing requires the most expensive care. “Polyester, nylon, and blended fibers with a heavy percentage of synthetics attract odors, meaning so-called easy-care synthetics have to be washed more often.” Wearing more natural materials can help you reduce washing.11 

Wash items inside out to reduce wear and pilling; fasten zippers and undo buttons before washing to prevent damage. Turn delicate clothes inside out.

Always separate lights and darks.

Empty and check pockets – especially children’s clothing!

Use cold water – it is gentler on clothes, prevents shrinkage, saves energy, and is better for the environment. According to Energy Star, heating water accounts for about 90 percent of the energy used when running a washer, so the less hot water used, the more energy saved.12 Also, be sure not to overload the machine, because clothes need to be able to move around.

Neutralizing odors:

You can neutralize odors by hanging something outside or in the sunlight for a few hours. Hanging items in the shower allows the steam to remove odors and release wrinkles.

“For garments that need a little deodorizing, lightly spritz the fabric with vodka to kill off odor-causing bacteria; just don’t use it on delicate fabrics like silk. Direct sunshine is also nature’s disinfectant, keeping clothing free from dust mites and odors. Expose each side of the garment for thirty minutes.” –Brigette Allen and Christine Wong, Living Without Plastic13

3 Girls' dresses (left to right: pink, white, yellow) on an outdoor clothesline, sunshiny blue sky and green tree background.
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

Drying:

The heat and friction from dryer heat weaken and break down fibers, eventually ruining your clothes. It also causes shrinking and fading. Air drying, especially outdoors, is the best method. You can use dryer racks if you don’t have a clothesline. The sun acts as a disinfectant, whitener, and odor remover. But even indoor air drying on a drying rack is better for your clothes. You can add half a cup of distilled white vinegar in the rinse cycle as a fabric softener, but avoid conventional products. Read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets.

When you handwash, hang lightweight items up to drip dry, but lay heavier articles on a towel so that they retain their shape and don’t stretch.

“Hanging clothes outside on a line or drying rack, whenever possible, will do wonders for the longevity of your clothing, and significantly lessen their environmental impact.” -Zoe Edwards, Mend It, Wear It, Love It!14

The energy use of dryers is enormous! “Clothes dryers consume more energy than any other household appliance. In the United States, dryers consume 60 billion kilowatt-hours of energy per year.” In many other countries, clothes dryers are not a common household appliance. Only one-third of the British own one.15

“Air-drying clothes reduces the average household’s carbon footprint by 2,400 pounds per year.” -National Geographic16

A dryer rack full of colorful clothes, with brick wall and greenery in background.
I use dryer racks at home. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Clothing Care Labels:

Read clothing labels but use your best judgment. Cline wrote, “The problem with care labels is that they describe the washing conditions a garment can withstand, rather than the ideal care methods. A care label’s instructions, from advertisements on heat settings to the use of bleach, are a garment’s maximum tolerance, not a recommendation.” For example, “a recommendation to ‘machine wash warm’ doesn’t indicate that a warm wash is required, only that your garment can withstand warm water without shrinking.”17 Below is a handy chart that explains the symbols on clothing labels:

Wash Care symbols chart, black and white.
Wash Care Symbols Vectors by Lia Aramburu on Vecteezy.

Dry Cleaning

Anything marked ‘dry clean only’ needs to be handled with care, and special items, such as mattress covers, and outdoor or technical gear usually have very specific care guidelines that you should follow.18 Avoid buying ‘dry clean only’ clothing as much as possible. The cleaning process uses a lot of chemicals, some toxic, that end up in our water and environment. Dry cleaning uses a chemical called perchloroethylene, which is toxic to the human body.Further, plastic-film dry-cleaning bags add 300 million pounds of waste to US landfills each year.20 

White and aqua iron standing, on a gray ironing board with a white button down shirt on it. Aqua wall background.
Photo by Filip Mroz on Unsplash.

Ironing:

Ironing can damage clothing over time, so taking clothing out of the washer as soon as possible is the best way to prevent wrinkling. If you do have to iron, check the clothing label and match your iron setting to the correct setting for that fabric, so that you don’t damage it. Also, iron inside out or use a pressing cloth when possible to further protect your clothing. Sophie Benson wrote that if you iron in batches, “it’s best to order your ironing pile from coolest to hottest, that way you’re not switching between temperatures and there’s no risk of accidentally putting a hot iron on a delicate fabric.”21

Read my article on using an ironing mat if you don’t have an ironing board.

Stains:

Treat stains as soon as possible, as the longer they sit the better they set. Use a small amount of laundry detergent and cold water to remove the stain. Avoid over-rubbing because that can discolor clothing permanently. I personally use a stain stick that is quite effective, and I’ve had the same one for years!

Buncha Farmers stain stick with green packaging.
Buncha Farmers stain stick. This is the one I use but there are many brands out there.

For oily stains, blot up liquid by sprinkling baking soda or cornstarch, brush off, then apply liquid detergent to the stain and let it sit for a few hours.

Never tumble dry clothing that is potentially stained, since it will permanently set the stain. Hang dry first so you can see if the stain is visible.

If you cannot remove a stain, consider dyeing the garment. This is a great way to extend the life of an article of clothing. Natural dyes have a lower environmental impact. Even tie-dying is a good way to revive old clothing! If there is a small mark or stain, consider covering it with some simple, discreet embroidery. Use online tutorials to find simple flower or shape motifs.22

Laundry Detergents

Commercial detergents can be laden with chemicals and toxins that you should avoid. Plus companies package detergents in large plastic bottles. However, DIY laundry detergents can be tricky to make and use, and are not always recommended. Since this is a huge topic on its own, please read my article on Non-Toxic and Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents.

Your Clothes Will Last Longer

Our clothing and other textiles will last a lot longer if we take better care of them, especially when it comes to laundry care. And we can be better stewards of the environment. I hope this article helps you! What tips do you have? Feel free to leave me a comment. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Guppyfriend bags website.*

Cora Ball website.*

PlanetCare website.*

Video, “Your Laundry Habits Affect the World,” Elizabeth L. Cline, Penguin Random House, November 13, 2019.

*I do not necessarily endorse these products and I do not get paid to mention these.

Footnotes:

Non-Toxic & Plastic-Free Laundry Detergents

Laundry basket with clothes on a coffee table, couch and sleeping cat in background, warm lighting.
Photo by Sean Freese on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

If you read my article on replacing toxic fabric softener and dryer sheets, then it won’t surprise you that commercial laundry detergents also often contain harmful, toxic ingredients. The chemicals and fragrances are harmful to the human body as well as the environment. Additionally, many detergents come in some form of plastic container, whether it’s a bottle, plastic bag, or “pod.”

Homemade or DIY laundry detergents sound like a great alternative, but in practice, I have not found that to be the case. My conclusion is that while I cannot recommend a specific brand or set of ingredients, I can tell you what to avoid. Following are my findings.

DIY Laundry Detergents

Various ingredients in boxes and bottles with a Kirk's Castille bar of soap and a measuring cup with soap shavings.
Photo by Kim F on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED).

The photo above is not my own but still a familiar scene. I have tried many homemade DIY laundry detergent recipes from bloggers, authors, and environmentalists. Most homemade laundry detergents combine baking soda, washing soda, and/or borax, as well as a cleaning agent, typically grated bar soap. I even tried buying laundry bar soap that you dissolve in water and then use as a liquid detergent. But all had poor results. Our clothes either had an odor or what looked like grease stains on them. Our clothing, towels, and sheets just weren’t getting…clean.

Close-up of a laundry bar, brown with white speckles.
Laundry bar. Photo by Marie Cullis.
Laundry bar dissolving in a white bucket of water.
The laundry bar dissolving in a reused white bucket. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Then I discovered that soap residue can actually trap dirt and oils in textiles. Kathryn Kellogg, author of 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste, advises against DIY laundry detergents. “Most homemade laundry detergent is really laundry soap, which can clog your washing machine, void the warranty, and ruin your clothes.”1 The soap doesn’t come out because modern washing machine agitators are not as tough on clothing as older machines were. According to Kellogg, a true laundry detergent does not contain fats and oils.2

Soap Nuts

Green glass dish with decorative edge featuring orange and green flowers, soap nuts piled on the dish.
Photo by Khadija Dawn Carryl on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

Soapnuts, which are actually berries, are the fruit of the Sapindus Mukorossi tree, which grows in India and Nepal. The husks, or shell, of the fruit “contains plant saponin, a completely natural and gentle soap that has been used for centuries to clean skin and clothes. Saponin works as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the water and creating a lather that lifts dirt and grease…this is just one example of how nature offers many solutions for…plastic-free living,” wrote Sanda Ann Harris, author of Say Goodbye To Plastic: A Survival Guide for Plastic-Free Living.3 Soapnuts are compostable after use, so they create no waste.

I tried these, excitedly! I followed instructions from myplasticfreelife.com that said to boil the soapnuts into a liquid, and then use the liquid as laundry detergent.

Soapnuts boiling in a pot of water.
Soapnuts cooking in a pot. Photo by Marie Cullis.

I also tried putting them straight into the washing machine. But they didn’t work great all of the time, and I often had to rewash my clothes. Kathryn Kellogg wrote that she also does not recommend soap nuts. “Both of these items contain saponin or soap. The soap will cause buildup on fabric, preventing it from being absorbent, and the residue can cause skin irritation. Historically, people used soap to clean their clothes, but they washed their clothes by hand. The agitation process was harsh enough for the soap to wash clean. Our modern machines aren’t as rigorous so the soap clings to the fabric.”4 

Angled photo of laundry detergent bottles on a store shelf, Ajax and Fab brands most visible.
Photo by Pixel Drip on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Commercial Laundry Detergents

Over the years I have tried all manner of commercial laundry detergents, both powdered and liquid. Powders don’t seem to dissolve well unless I use hot water, and I wash almost everything in cold water. Liquids work better, but their quality runs the gamut. I still don’t have a single brand that I can recommend or that I even buy consistently. But I can tell you what to avoid in detergents.

Plastic Bottles

Plastic blue laundry detergent or fabric softener bottle, lying in a sand dune.
Photo by nicholasrobb1989 on Pixabay.

Almost all liquid detergents come in plastic bottles. Also, liquid laundry detergents are 60 to 90 percent water! This means we are shipping huge amounts of water in plastic jugs all across the country, which creates more carbon emissions. This seems wasteful!

Worse, even though most laundry jugs are ‘recyclable,’ they don’t often actually get recycled. Humans have only recycled 9% of plastics ever created. Brands like Seventh Generation use 80% recycled plastic in their bottles. While they are also recyclable, there’s no guarantee the bottle will get recycled. It’s best practice to stay away from bottles if you can.

In Part 11 of my Packaging Series, you can read about brands that use different types of packaging, and even some that offer refillable options.

Toxic Ingredients

There are lots of chemicals in most commercial laundry detergents. Those scents are a combination of hundreds of chemicals, many that scientists have linked to illness and disease.

Person pouring laundry detergent into a washing machine, from a blue laundry detergent bottle.
Photo by RDNE Stock project on Pexels.

Phthalates

These are in the fragrances of detergents, so you’ll believe your clothes are clean because they smell good. They are a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, meaning they interfere with our hormone systems and fertility. They are associated with rashes, asthma, allergies, learning and behavioral difficulties in children, and an increased risk of cancer. These are not regulated because companies use the term “fragrance” in the ingredients list under the guise of propriety.

Surfactants

Many laundry detergents use surfactants like petroleum distillate or naphtha because they boost the cleaning power of laundry detergents. However, they can cause respiratory problems, eye and skin irritation, nervous system problems, hormone disruption, and sometimes cancer. Many are also toxic to aquatic life. Other surfactants include quaternium-15, diethanolamine, nonlphenol ethoxylate, and linear alkyl benzene sulfonates.5

Phenol is one more surfactant that can cause irritation to the skin, eyes, nose, throat, and nervous system. “Severe exposure can cause liver and/or kidney damage, skin burns, tremor, convulsions, and twitching.”6

The European Union (EU) and Canada banned Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs), but they are allowed in the U.S. These are also endocrine disruptors and may cause cancer. They can lead to extreme aquatic toxicity in the environment.

1,4-dioxane 

This is a known human carcinogen and neurotoxin that is always present in trace amounts when ethoxylated surfactants are used because 1,4-dioxane is a byproduct. “1,4-dioxane is never listed on labels because it’s not an intentionally added ingredient, but there are some easy tricks to avoid it. Ethoxylated surfactants usually follow a few naming conventions. If the ingredient ends in “-eth”, such as laureth-6 or sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), ceteareth or steareth, it’s ethoxylated.”7 Sodium lauryl sulfate is another one to steer clear of. 1,4-dioxane is also a common water contaminant.

Phosphates & EDTA

Manufacturers use Phosphates and EDTA (Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid) “to make detergents more effective in hard water, and to help prevent dirt from settling back on clothes when they’re washing.” These chemicals cause environmental damage, especially in waterways. They also cause algae blooms that damage ecosystems.8 Phosphate-free products are important to help reduce eutrophication, a process that causes algae to grow uncontrollably and cause the death of all life in bodies of water.

Others

Companies use Formaldehyde as a low-cost preservative and antibacterial agent. It can irritate the eyes and lungs and is a suspected carcinogen.9

Dyes cause allergies and rashes, almost all are endocrine disruptors, and many are carcinogens.10

Benzyl acetate is toxic to skin, the nervous system, the kidneys,11 and has been linked to pancreatic cancer.

Dichlorobenzene is a water contaminant and has a highly toxic effect on aquatic life. They are carcinogenic and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system.

Laundry Pods

Single Laundry pod, orange, white, and blue liquid detergent in a plastic sealed pod.
Photo by Erik Binggeser on Unsplash.

Laundry detergent pods are purely convenience items. They contain concentrated amounts of detergent encapsulated in a “dissolvable” pod made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA or PVOH). PVA is a synthetic, petroleum-based polymeric plastic. When marketers say it “dissolves” in water, they mean that the plastic breaks down into smaller plastic particles, called microplastics. The microplastics are discharged as part of the wastewater, then enter our water systems, and eventually end up in our bodies.

“Dissolvable” detergent sheets

I tried laundry detergent eco sheets because they are indeed free of huge plastic bottles. While I’ve always been leery of laundry pods because they feel like plastic, I assumed these were different. However, I discovered that these also contain PVA (polyvinyl alcohol).

Again, PVA is a plastic, and while it is designed to dissolve, that doesn’t mean it disappears. A study cited by the company Blueland “suggests that over 75% of PVA persists in our waterways and our soil after it dissolves in laundry and dishwashing machines, flows through wastewater and ultimately back into our environment.”12

In fact, in November 2022, Blueland, the Plastic Pollution Coalition, and a large group of other nonprofit organizations filed a petition with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to readdress PVA and its effects. “This petition requests that the EPA conduct requisite human and environmental health and safety testing for Polyvinyl Alcohol, also known as  PVA or PVOH as it is used in consumer-packaged goods, with particular attention to the use of PVA in laundry and dishwasher detergent pods and sheets. The petition also requests that until such testing is completed, the EPA remove polyvinyl alcohol from its Safer Choice Program in order to curb plastic pollution.”13 Unfortunately, the EPA denied those requests.14

Avoid any laundry pods or dissolvable sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

White washing machine with blue clothing in, door open.
Image by taraghb from Pixabay.

Powdered Detergents

Two Meliora cardboard and metal containers, lavender laundry powder at left (white and purple lable), and oxygen brightener at right (blue and white label).
Meliora powdered detergents, shipped plastic-free! Photo by Marie Cullis.

In general, I have trouble getting our clothes clean with laundry powder in our washing machine. I’m not sure if this is because I wash everything in cold water, or if we have hard water, or just an old washing machine. So when I do wash something in warm or hot water, I use Meliora laundry powder. I also use this laundry powder for all of my handwashing. I ordered the refillable containers on my first order, and the refills arrive in a recyclable brown paper bag. These products do not contain toxic ingredients or fragrances, and the company lists all of their ingredients on the packaging and its website. I recommend this brand (I do not get paid to write that nor am I an affiliate of the company).

Protecting Your Health & the Environment

While this may all seem overcomplicated, it doesn’t have to be. Just do your best. Steering clear of toxic ingredients and avoiding plastic are the goals. Avoid using chlorine bleach and “brighteners” as these are strong chemicals that are toxic to humans and the environment. Find a solution that works for you and stick with that. Sometimes it takes a while.

Feel free to comment on what works for you! I’d love for you to share. Thank you for reading, and please share and subscribe!

 

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 2

Last updated on May 9, 2024.

Green dye flowing into a river that also has a white film floating in it.
Photo by the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1

Water Treatment is Necessary

All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Wastewater treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treating the water with chemicals. As Seth M. Siegel wrote, “Unless connected to a septic system, what goes down the sink, shower bath, dishwasher, washing machine, and toilet is transferred to one of these facilities.”2  Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”3 

“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water

There are more than 16,000 publicly owned wastewater treatment facilities in the United States.4 Many of these now use an alternative disinfectant method, a mixture of chlorine and ammonia, called chloramine. They’re doing this increasingly in order to meet federal disinfection byproduct requirements. It is the cheapest way but it is dangerous. Chlorine normally evaporates somewhat quickly, but chloramine lasts longer in the water. Chloramine is “a known carcinogen and causes more rapid deterioration of the municipal infrastructure and degradation of water system valves and fittings. In systems that still use lead pipes or lead components (which means millions of homes and buildings), the chloramine causes lead and other metals to leach out of faucets and showerheads and into our drinking water. Studies indicate the formation of toxic byproducts in drinking water may be higher when utilities use chloramines.”5

“Public water utilities didn’t, and still mostly don’t, see themselves as part of the community’s public health infrastructure…utilities deliver water that is ‘good enough’ at the lowest cost possible.” -Seth M. Siegel, Troubled Water6 

Chlorine Burnouts

These happen when the water utility is trying to meet testing standards. It makes the water strongly smell like chlorine. “It’s a dirty practice that cheats the system,” wrote Erin Brockovich. A burnout is when the water treatment changes from chloramines to free chlorine. “They do this to clean the water pipes and essentially flush the entire system,” and then test the water before and after, but not during. “The regular use of chloramines doesn’t remove all the harmful organics and dirt from the water supply, so the system gets ‘flushed’ with chlorine, forming thousands of chemical combinations that cause cancer and other health issues…The levels of chlorine used in a burnout produce chloroform, which if inhaled in a hot shower or through medical devices (humidifiers, CPAPs, or nebulizers) can cause chemically induced asthma and pneumonia.”7

“It’s important to know that chlorine in clean drinking water doesn’t smell. When you smell what you think is chlorine in water, it’s due to exceedingly high levels of toxic chemical compounds reacting with the chlorine.” – Erin Brockovich8

Aerial view of a Wastewater treatment plant.
Wastewater treatment plant, image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer

Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.9 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.

In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.10

“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well? -Erin Brockovich11

Children Are Getting Cancer Too

Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.12 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.13 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.

“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich14

Colorful oil floating in water.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?

“Of the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce in the U.S., fewer than one hundred drinking water contaminants are on a list of those regulated by the EPA.” -Seth M. Siegel, Troubled Water15 

Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.

Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.

Aerial view of a farm, the pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in north Carolina
The pink pond at the bottom of the image is an example of a Hog Lagoon, in North Carolina. Photo by The Waterkeeper Alliance on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Image slightly cropped and fade corrected.

“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich16

Improve Infrastructure and Treatment

Landfill leachate at a place called Maendy. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill
Landfill leachate in Wales. The orange froth is a mixture of solvents, phenols and other chemicals from a landfill created before regulations. Photo by richie rocket on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”17

“It’s enough to make a tap lover cry.” -Elizabeth Royte18 

Monitor Pollution

Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”19 Otherwise, cancer and related illnesses will continue to grow.

“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich20
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility.
Aerial view of the San José-Santa Clara Regional Wastewater Facility. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

What Can You Do?

As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my list of Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.

Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.

In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

 

Additional Resources:

Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.

Website, Waterkeeper Alliance.

Website, Erin Brockovich.

Interactive Map, “PFAS Contamination in the U.S.,” Environmental Working Group, updated October 4, 2021.

Map, “Contaminant Occurrence Map,” Water Quality Research Foundation.

Article, “Health Professionals: Fracking Can’t Be Done Without Threatening Public Health,” Environmental Working Group, March 16, 2018.

Map, Oil and Gas Threat Map.

 

Footnotes:

What’s In Your Water? Part 1

Last updated November 18, 2022.

Photo of a person pouring water into a glass from a kitchen faucet, with a splash.
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.

For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.

Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!

A Broken Brita pitcher

Brita filter pitcher with broken handle and orange top.
My broken Brita pitcher.

After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.

Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.

Shopping Leads to Discoveries

On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?

Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.

But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.

“Since the Industrial Revolution, factories and manufacturers have used freshwater sources as a convenient spot to dump their waste. Add on top of that waste from agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and stormwater runoff, and you can see why we’ve got so many substances floating around in our water systems.” -Erin Brockovich2

Kitchen sink with faucet running.
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay

What’s In Your Water?

When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”3 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.

“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group4

My Water

On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.5 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!

Screenshot of the 7 contaminents found in my local water.

Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.

“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group6

Hexavalent Chromium

Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.7 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.8

Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.

It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.9 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.

“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.10

EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.11 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”12 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.

“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich13

Glass of drinking water
Image by Bruno Henrique from Pixabay

Total Trihalomethanes

Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”14

Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”15 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.

Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.16

“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group17

Close up image of a water/drinking fountain.
Image by Jason Gillman from Pixabay

Haloacetic Acids

This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.18 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. [They] are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”19

Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.

Nitrate

Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.20

The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.21 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.22

Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.23 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.24

“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”25

Radium

Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse,  radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.26

Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.27

Other Contaminants in My Water

There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.

Photo of a bird drinking water from a pipe with a green foliage background.
Image by 165106 from Pixabay

Now What?

I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?

As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.

But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a list of Common Water Contaminants. Please watch for Part 2 as well. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” bABC News, June 10, 2021.

Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018

Footnotes: