Household Chemicals and the Water Environment

Revised December 2012

We all use chemicals in the home and in gardens. Some chemicals, such as cleaning agents and detergents, may be discharged directly and legitimately to the drains and hence enter water bodies. Others, such as paints, solvents or surplus pesticides, may be disposed of with little consideration for the environment, and enter water bodies after diffusing through the soil or via surface water drains.

There is concern that many of the products used by the average household may pose a risk to health and the environment, especially in the long term. Legislation to protect both health and the environment is being constantly re-evaluated and improved. Nevertheless, we are often ignorant of the chemicals found in household products and what sort of risk they might pose to the environment. General public ignorance is understandable; a vast range of chemicals and formulations of chemicals are used in the home because of their active chemical properties.

Our aquatic environments include rivers, streams, lakes, underground aquifers and the sea. These water bodies receive water run-off and percolation from farmland, moorland and urban areas; they may also receive wastewaters treated in sewage and other effluent treatment plants. If the run-off, percolated water or wastewater is polluted the receiving water may be affected rapidly and obviously (e.g. the extermination of all fish in a river reach). However, effects may be less obvious and long-term, affecting the growth and diversity of plants and aquatic fauna; an example is the feminising of fish, which has been reported as a result of the so-called endocrine disruptor chemicals. Furthermore, some chemicals may jeopardise the use of water bodies in the environment, such as for drinking-water supply, recreational bathing or water sports.

This review, intended for non-specialists and those with an interest in promoting environmental responsibilities, considers the number and range of household chemicals. It is confined to products that are deliberately added to water (such as cleaning agents), substances that find their way into water indirectly (such as cosmetics or pharmaceuticals) and those that are not intended to reach water bodies but often do (such as automotive fluids and garden chemicals). The review considers the risks these chemicals pose to the aquatic environment and to our water resources, and the means of controlling these risks.

This review contains 36 pages and has 26 references

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, price £15.00, less 20% to FWR Members.

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