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Cleaning your home shouldn't dirty our waterways

Do you care about protecting and preserving your lakes? If so, this blog post is for you! Did you know that there are many different products that can negatively impact the health of lakes near you? Actually, it's not only the products themselves that can be an issue, but also their packaging as well.

While it’s true that lakes can sometimes be out of sight, out of mind. When you’re not visiting your cabin, camping, ice fishing, or partaking in any other fun lakeside activities, the health of your favourite lake might not be on your mind. But that doesn’t mean that your actions don’t have negative consequences.

The products we use, especially cleaning products such as soaps, detergents, and shampoos, have the ability to enter our sewage systems when they are rinsed down the drain and become wastewater. Now, sewage plants are supposed to treat wastewater and make it safe for reuse when possible. However, it is sometimes possible that wastewater can flow directly into our lakes and waterways.

Wastewater spills can occur when wastewater treatment plants or pump stations experience a loss of electrical power or when sewer mains are blocked or broken. Additionally, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, good sewage plants can only remove about half of the nitrogen and 30 percent of the phosphorus from domestic sewage.

What happens when cleaning and self-care products get into lakes?

Detergents and soaps might seem relatively harmless at first glance, but they actually have a pretty devastating effect when they get into our lakes. This is because these cleaning products introduce excess nutrients into the water. This multi-step process is called eutrophication.

First, excess nutrients do what they do best – allow plants to grow! One specific plant in particular, algae, starts to grow on the water surface, creating unsightly mats of scum that decrease recreational value and prevent sunlight from penetrating the water.

When sunlight is no longer able to penetrate the water, certain aquatic plants will die. In addition, the algae blooms themselves eventually die. This dead plant matter is then decomposed by bacteria that multiplies and consumes dissolved oxygen from the water. The depletion of oxygen is detrimental to fish and other aquatic species, as this oxygen is needed in order to “breathe.”

If there is not enough oxygen present in the water to sustain life, a so-called “dead zone” is created.

Lessons from Lake Winnipeg and the Gulf of Maine

Some examples of lakes that have succumbed to these conditions include Lake Winnipeg and the Gulf of Maine.

Harmful algae blooms have been increasing in size and frequency on Lake Winnipeg for a number of years. These algae blooms have not only reduced water quality, but they have contaminated the beaches for human use and damaged Manitoba’s important fishing and tourism industries. As you can see, the impacts of contaminated lakes go far beyond the waters themselves.

Similar issues have been occurring in the Gulf of Maine for a number of years as well. In fact, the most well known harmful algal bloom on the east coast is Alexandrium catenella, also known as the Gulf of Maine “red tide.”

Red tides occur when algae within algal blooms become so numerous that they discolour coastal waters and release toxins that can cause illness in humans and other animals.

As a result of human activity, both local communities have been tasked with a huge undertaking: controlling and repairing these sickly water bodies.

Lake-Friendly Certification to the rescue

What we can do to help is purchase cleaning and personal care products that don’t contain ingredients that are harmful to our lakes. This is a relatively easy and straightforward step that you can take towards a more sustainable lifestyle.

Especially because lake-friendly certified products exist! A lake-friendly certified product means that the product in question has been approved by a well-respected third-party group such as Green Seal, and as a result, is safe for the environment (especially our waterways). Green Seal certifies products, services, restaurants, and hotels. In order to get certified, a product or service provider must meet certain performance, health and sustainability standards.

These standards are based on a lifecycle approach, meaning that everything from raw material extraction to reuse or disposal is taken into consideration in the evaluation process.

Other trustworthy certification organizations include ecologo and ecocert.

You might also want to check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) guide to healthy cleaning if you are interested in the environmental ratings of the cleaning or beauty products you already own or are looking into purchasing.

Look out for “Phosphate-free”

To make things relatively easy for you, when you’re trying to be lake-friendly in terms of the products you are buying, you’ll want to keep an eye out for items that avoid or contain low amounts of phosphates. Products that are advertised as “phosphate-free” are what you’re looking for!

Phosphates have been used in commercial and household cleaning products since the 1950s. Phosphates are added to cleaning products as they help to soften hard water by preventing calcium and magnesium ions from binding with surfactants.

Why is this beneficial? Because calcium or magnesium in water tends to bind to surfactants (ie. soap) which results in soap ‘scum’ being left behind after cleaning. Phosphates resolve this issue by binding to calcium or magnesium, forming a soluble molecule that is easily washed away, leaving nothing behind.

Despite these benefits, environmental consequences such as the eutrophication process make it necessary to avoid phosphates wherever possible. And luckily for us, it is quite easy to find phosphate-free detergents and cleaning products.

To help you with your home cleaning needs, I developed this free resource full of eco-friendly and safe  green cleaning solutions. They are made of ingredients that you probably already have at home and work really well, without the negative effects on the environment - or on your health!

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