Here are ten of the most environmentally-damaging chemicals that are either made by humans or are problematic due to human activity. It is essential to become “label literate” and more aware of how things are made, in order to choose eco-friendly products and protect our environment.
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane or DDT is an insecticide that was initially used during World War 2 to control the spread of malaria and typhoid. After the war, DDT was used to fight pests in agriculture. In the 1960s it was discovered to be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, highly damaging to the reproductive health of humans and wildlife, particularly to bird species. DDT is highly absorbent in both soil and water, accumulates in the food chain, and has a half-life in soil for up to 30 years. Although DDT has been banned in agriculture worldwide, it is still used to control disease in some areas.
Polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDDs) or simply dioxins, are environmental pollutants linked to cancer, hormone disruption, liver toxicity, immune system damage, and developmental problems in people and animals. In terms of human activity, dioxins are produced during organochlorine manufacture, paper bleaching, metal smelting, and burning materials containing chlorine, such as PVC.
Chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs are used as refrigerants, propellants in aerosols, and solvents. As greenhouse gases more potent than carbon dioxide, the manufacture of CFCs was supposed to have been phased out after the Montreal Protocol in 1987 to protect against ozone depletion, to a complete ban by 2010. However, in 2011 a study reported that Brazil and China’s production of CFCs was increasing.
While phosphate is a naturally-occurring mineral, its unrestricted use in agriculture as a fertilizer has become problematic. Excess phosphate not absorbed into the soil is dumped into rivers and oceans via runoff. High levels of phosphate in water sources can cause algal blooms, reducing the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water and destroying species and their habitats.
Benzene is a constituent of crude oil, a highly toxic and carcinogenic substance that is used to manufacture other chemicals, as well as certain rubbers, lubricants and pesticides. Benzene can contaminate soil and water resources downstream of petroleum and petroleum by-product industry operations. This affects both the people and wildlife that rely on them for survival.
A known human carcinogen, formaldehyde is highly toxic to all animals. Originally used as a disinfectant and for preserving biological specimens, formaldehyde is most frequently produced by humans for resin-based construction materials (e.g. carpet glue), and via the combustion of organic compounds, e.g. vehicle exhaust emissions.
#7: Propylene glycol
Propylene glycol has a number of applications, such as a moisturiser in cosmetics, an emulsifier in food products, and a solvent in food colourants and flavourings. When it degrades in water, it consumes large quantities of dissolved oxygen, reducing the size and quality of aquatic habitats and reducing numbers of aquatic species.
#8: Sodium dichloroisocyanurate
Sodium dichloroisocyanurate is highly toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long-term damage in the environment. It is used to remove bacteria, algae, grease and oils from drinking water, chlorinate pools, and in industrial applications such as bleaching textiles.
Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent found in many personal care products such as soaps, toothpastes and shaving creams. It is also found in mattresses, insulation and flooring that have been pre-treated to prevent bacteria. Triclosan is toxic to aquatic bacteria, inhibits photosynthesis, and has been found to disrupt hormones, growth and development even in low doses in animal species.
Diethanolamine or DEA is a foaming agent found in cosmetics such as face wash or shampoo. Although only high concentrations were found to affect body weight and toxicity in blood, liver, kidneys and testicles during animal tests, DEA has been found to potentially be toxic for aquatic species.