Okay, admit it … you have no clue what happens when you pour things down the drain. The sink is like a magic receptacle that takes all the half used cologne you bought in high school, leftover toner you never use and whole myriad of other mystery liquids and simply washes them away. We will admit we’ve definitely partaken in unsupervised sink-dumping. After all, what are you supposed to do with all these unwanted items?
But just because you can turn on the faucet and wash all remnants of said unwanted substance down the drain, doesn’t mean that it goes away. It really just goes somewhere else. And sadly, as with a lot of the waste we create, it’s likely that it will end up in streams, rivers, groundwater, and eventually, the ocean. While your half of a bottle of old anti-frizz hairspray might not be the cause of major concern, when you consider the fact that millions of people are also pouring their respective leftover liquids down the drain, then we start to see a problem.
Emerging Environmental Contaminants
Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are two major pollutants that make their way into the environment by way of household drains. When chemicals, both medical and non-medical, are poured down the drain, they enter the wastewater system, which usually filters into a local treatment plant. However, these chemicals persist through the water treatment process and end up discharged from water treatment plants back into the surface and groundwater. Yikes.
The EPA has identified pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) as “contaminants of emerging concern” for fish. In the early 2000s, the EPA started studying the presence of PPCPs in groundwater and surface water, but it didn’t appear as if these chemicals were accumulating in the skin or tissue of fish, which seemed like a good sign. Usually, these chemicals are diluted and spread throughout a body of water, so the threat is not as dire – but the catch is, they will bioaccumulate over time.
At a high enough concentration, these chemicals can cause endocrine system disruption in fish. This can lead to reproductive and behavioral disorders, a compromised immune system, neurological problems, and even cancer. As other animals consume fish that are poisoned with these chemicals, they bioaccumulate up the food chain and increase in toxicity. This can damage an entire ecosystem, and if humans eat these fish directly, it doesn’t bode well for them either.
What to Look Out For
Okay, so we know that the prognosis sounds bleak, but there are easy steps you can take to make sure you’re not contributing to this problem.
Now, you have probably looked at the back of your shampoo, perfume, sunscreen bottle, etc., and noticed parabens, phthalates, and sodium lauryl sulfate. While they might seem like non-assuming chemicals, these items can pose a serious threat to aquatic life (not to mention, you probably don’t want to be using them on your body either).
What You Can Do
So now that you know you can’t pour old personal care products down the drain, what can you do? The answer to this question is actually pretty complicated. Rather than pouring these items down the drain, one alternative option would be to put them directly in the trash, but in so doing you are really just sending these environmentally toxic chemicals to a landfill where they will inevitably leak and cause the same damage.
Grist guru, Umbra recommends that you consolidate all your old liquids into one bottle, recycle the empties and only throw out one chemical cocktail shaker (rather than multiple ones). You can also contact your local Household Hazardous Waste facility to see if they will take make-up and perfume (some do!).
There may be no perfect answer to do with your old products, but you can learn to be a smarter, more conscious consumer when buying new ones. Look out for these chemicals listed, in fact, finding all natural replacements for everything in your personal care repertoire is the best way to go for the planet, and for you!
Remember, we’re all connected somehow and every nasty chemical we put out into the environment will come right back to us in some way, shape, or form. It’s time we started putting out good stuff instead.
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Graphics by Hannah Williams