During the stay-at-home time caused by the pandemic, we have all learned to wash our hands more often. We’ve learned to clean surfaces more frequently. Those are good things, but do the added chemicals from all the handwashing and surface cleaning eventually end up flowing into the Mississippi River and its tributaries? Will they affect aquatic life, birdlife, or habitat?
In the midst of all the bad news coming from the coronavirus crisis, one bit of good news is that the answer to the second question is likely negative.
“The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency staff do not expect the increased use of cleaners to translate into levels of concern in river systems,” said Catherine Malakowsky, information officer for MPCA. “It is imperative that we use proper disinfection to help limit the spread of COVID-19.”
The MPCA strongly recommends that people follow the guidelines regarding washing hands, wearing a mask, cleaning households, and taking care of sick people published by the Minnesota Department of Health. Those guidelines can be found at www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/coronavirus/prevention.html.
“Basic soap and peroxide break down rapidly,” Malakowsky explained. “As far as bleach, most of its ingredients will break down during use. After the solution is washed down a drain, wastewater treatment will do a great job of managing bleach, removing any ingredients that do not break down during use.”
She warned some detergents contain endocrine active compounds such as nonylphenol ethoxylate. These detergents can negatively affect fish and other aquatic life, so she recommends avoiding those products.
The Environmental Protection Agency notes that consumers can avoid products that contain nonylphenol ethoxylate and other dangerous chemicals by “looking for products with EPA’s Safer Choice Label on the shelves of major retailers,” according to the EPA website. “When you see the safer product label on a product it means that EPA scientists have evaluated every ingredient in the product to ensure it meets stringent human health and environmental criteria. Learn more about consumer products that carry the safer product label at:http://www2.epa.gov/saferchoice/learn-about-safer-choice-label.”
Malakowsky said that one related cleaning problem is that people flush wipes down the toilet.
“Even if labeled ‘flushable,” wipes do not break down in the wastewater system and result in expensive clogs for residents and cities,” she said. “All wipes should be placed in the trash. The same goes for facial tissue, paper towels, and napkins.”
Only human waste and toilet paper should go down toilets and into city systems, she said, adding that the same holds true for on-site sewer systems.