Can common household products harm Northern Wisconsin lakes?
Wisconsin’s lakes are facing some serious challenges, among them the significant problems of invasive species and mercury pollution, to name only a couple. But threats to lakes don’t just come from distant lands and faraway power plants. In fact, they can originate right on area lake shores as people use certain chemicals in and around their homes for house cleaning, lawn and garden care, and other tasks.
Toxic substances are found in any number of products people use around their homes. Many people may be aware that solvents, oils, paints, antifreeze, fuels and spot removers aren’t intended to go into septic systems and should be properly disposed of at waste management facilities. A lot of people, though, may not stop to consider whether some of the other products they use around their homes may damage the lakes they love.
“They definitely can,” says Tyson Cook, director of science and research for Clean Wisconsin, an environmental advocacy organization based in Madison. Pesticides, fertilizers and detergents used outdoors can run off during rain events and end up in streams and lakes, Cook notes. “They can also just soak down through the soils.” As for the chemicals used in cleaning and cosmetic products, he says, “Everything that goes down the drain essentially goes into the environment.”
That’s because private septic systems may not treat all of the chemicals found in common household products. Some chemicals will break down or dissipate, of course, but others will persist in the environment.
In addition to surface water, the chemicals found in common household products may also leach into a home’s supply of drinking water.
So, which chemicals commonly used around the house should be avoided, or at least minimized?
“For individuals,” Cook says, “the biggest things to worry about are antibacterials.”
He cites triclosan as one example. It’s most famously used in antibacterial soaps and hand sanitizers, but its presence is bigger than many people realize. This chemical is also found in a staggering array of other products, among them cosmetics, personal care items, kitchen products, fabrics, some office products and more.
A U.S. Geological Survey study found that triclosan is one of the most frequently detected compounds in streams.
An article about triclosan on the Minnesota Department of Health Environmental Health Division website notes that typical treatment plants don’t remove 100 percent of the triclosan in wastewater. While the article states that levels of triclosan in Minnesota’s drinking water supply don’t appear to be cause for concern, it warns that this chemical does affect the aquatic food chain, bioaccumulating in fish and aquatic plants, and impacting the endocrine system function in fish. Triclosan, the article goes on to report, also breaks down into possibly harmful products once it’s in the environment. Studies show that it may also contribute to the increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Chlorine, which is highly poisonous and doesn’t exist in nature, is another antibacterial. It’s often used to treat the water leaving wastewater treatment plants. In households, it’s used to whiten clothes when doing laundry, and for disinfecting surfaces. When chlorine is poured down the sink or toilet, it produces organochlorines. Chlorine-based pollutants are known to cause reproductive problems in wildlife. Chlorine is also an ingredient in the formation of dioxins, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifi es as possible human carcinogens. Dioxins become magnified in the food chain and accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals and humans.
Ammonia, used for a number of cleaning jobs, is another product that can be harmful to the environment and aquatic life.
“Ammonia itself is really toxic to fish,” Cook says. In addition, “Ammonia breaks down into nitrogen compounds so it ends up being a nitrogen fertilizer.”
The EPA lists ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen as volatile organic compounds. These substances are water contaminants and in large quantities can lead to toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds.
Nitrates are nitrogen-oxygen chemical units, according to the EPA website, and they combine with organic and inorganic compounds. A source of nitrates in drinking water is the runoff that comes from excessive fertilizer use.
“That’s why you have to check [private well water] for nitrates, especially if you live in an agricultural region,” Cook says, noting that in regions where agriculture is a major industry, nutrient overload can be a big problem. However, areas in which agriculture isn’t a major industry aren’t exempt from this risk; an article on the EPA website notes that leakage from septic tanks and the erosion of natural deposits are also sources of nitrates in drinking water.
Many homeowners regularly use pesticides to rid themselves of insects, weeds, rodents, fungi and other unwanted guests. These chemicals can find their way into streams, rivers and lakes after rain events, and may have different effects on aquatic life. The chemicals in some pesticides may bioaccumulate in fatty tissues of fish or become magnified in the food chain; they may cause reproductive problems, tumors, lesions or cancer in fish and animals; or they may cause physical deformities. A famous example of the negative effects of pesticides is the thinning of bird egg shells attributed to the banned pesticide DDT.
It may be tempting for an individual lakefront homeowner to conclude that the use of a few chemicals won’t harm the lake. The problem is that when a number of property owners think the same way, those amounts add up. In fact, efforts to minimize or eliminate the use of triclosan, chlorine, pesticides and other toxic substances will only help improve lake health. And when enough lakefront homeowners realize this, they will make a real difference.
Minimizing the impact of household chemicals
The items mentioned above are only a few of the potentially harmful chemicals that are commonly used around homes. Space restrictions prevent listing additional household pollutants, among them products that contain optical brighteners and microbeads.
Fortunately, there are ways to prevent further effects on lakes and wildlife from commonly used household chemicals.
Maintain the septic system
“Regular septic maintenance is really important for breaking down excess nutrients,” Cook says.
• Once again, dispose of substances like pesticides, solvents, oils, gas, antifreeze and paints properly, according to instructions from local hazardous waste facilities – don’t pour them down drains or toilets.
• Minimize the amount of antibacterials that go into the septic system. To function properly, bacteria are needed in septic systems to break down solids. “You don’t want to put anything down those drains that’s going to kill the bacteria,” Cook says.
• There are septic tank additives available, some of which are solvent-based and claim to reduce the amount of grease or fat in the septic system. Another type of additive is said to replenish bacterial populations in the system. Some experts advise that when a system is properly functioning, there’s really no need to use septic tank additives of either type.
Clean up the cleaning products
• For household cleaning, it’s not hard to find effective alternatives to commercial products that may contain toxic chemicals. Many plant-based cleaning products now on the market work well, or some people simply concoct their own cleaners out of baking soda, vinegar and other “safe” substances. In addition, it’s worth noting that effective plant-based disinfectants have become available.
Pay attention to what’s in personal care products
• When it comes to triclosan, “Limit how much you use,” Cook advises. “It’s not any better or safer to wash your hands with antibacterial soaps.”
• Get in the habit of reading labels to find out whether triclosan, optical brighteners or other undesirable chemicals are present in products.
• When washing a vehicle, do it on a lawn or other pervious surface, in order to keep the suds from making their way to a water body.
• Minimize fertilizer use whenever possible. Consider using compost to provide nourishment for plants instead.
• “If you’re spreading pesticide or fertilizer,” Cook says, “do it on a day that’s not windy and when there’s a little bit of moisture on the grass.” That will make it easier to less of the product and it will minimize the risk of the product drifting into unintended areas.
• To deal with pests like insects, rodents, weeds, fungi, etc., practice integrated pest management (IPM) techniques, which involves learning to identify pests, working proactively to prevent problems with them and utilizing a combination of biological, physical, mechanical, cultural and chemical means to keep them under control.
• Whenever it’s possible, avoid using pesticides. When they are used, choose products that are the least toxic and least persistent in the environment. Read and follow label instructions and never spray pesticide near burrows, dens or nests. Spray only the areas that need treatment and use the lowest application amount recommended on the label.