Optical Illusion of Clean

We trade health for laundry detergents with fluorescent chemicals

Optical Illusion of Clean, Healthy Living Magazine, Health

Optical Illusion of Clean, Healthy Living Magazine, Health

Twenty years ago chemists discovered that bluing agents could be added to laundry to make clothing appear whiter. This was why white shirts always smelled like ink and had a blurry hue on sunny days. Since then bluing agents have been replaced by a family of fluorescent chemicals called stilbenes, derived from petroleum and plants. The stilbenes used in most laundry products absorb ultraviolet light and re-emit the blue hues that make grays and yellows disappear. With optical brighteners embedded in fabric, materials emit more light than actually shines. Little is known about their long-term effects, though. And concerns have been raised that the stilbenes used in optical brighteners are structurally similar to chemicals used to manufacture hormones for pregnant women.

Hormone-Like Effects

The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment was one of the first agencies to raise concerns about the long-term safety of optical brighteners. In 2000, they issued a report stating that the major chemical used in brightening agents is a structural element of the synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol (DES). According to the Federal Institute, DES was once used as a medicinal product for pregnant women but was withdrawn from the market because of severe side effects on offspring, such as malformations and carcinomas in the genital tract. Two studies conducted in a cohort of male workers (33 currently exposed to DES and 26 previously exposed) employed in a factory manufacturing the intermediary chemical “raised fears about possible hormonal activity due to reduced testosterone concentrations in the exposed men’s bloodstreams. When interviewed, there were reports of loss of libido and potency. The authors suspect that occupational exposure…led to an impairment of sexual functions.”

Elsewhere in Germany technicians at the University of Kaiserslautern examined the estrogenic effects of optical brightening agents in a study titled “Determining the Hormonal Activity of Food Ingredients and Environmental Contaminants using Functional Reporter Gene Assay.” Using test tube analyses, the investigators looked at distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate, a commonly used brightener, and found it was 200 times less potent than estradiol, a female estrogen, but only lower by a factor of 11 compared with DES. The authors of the risk assessment report added, “We do not know of any targeted studies to determine the hormonal activity of these substances in vivo or in biological systems.” However, results from a test system comparing human breast cancer cells (using gene assay) with distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate and CI Fluorescent Brightener 260, another brightening agent, “indicate estrogenic potential...”

Systemic Toxin

Reports such as the one conducted at the University of Kaisersluatern have begun to raise concerns in the US. In an article titled “Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergents” from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) program experts noted, “Aminotriazine- or stilbene based whiteners...may cause developmental and reproductive effects.”

The researchers said, “In our opinion, there is a need for research into the release of optical brighteners from clothing textiles. There is also a need for further clarification regarding the relationship between hormonal activity and optical brighteners… particularly in the case of distyrylbiphenyl sulfonate, where minor dermal intake cannot be ruled out and where there is a potential for systemic toxic action.”

The DfE program is partnering with companies to promote safer alternatives to potentially toxic chemicals like optical brighteners. In fact, one company, Earth Friendly Products, has had its entire product line approved by the DfE program; their laundry products are free of optical brighteners as well as fragrances, dyes and alcohol ethoxylates. Earth Friendly Products’ oxygen-based, non-chlorine bleach, Oxo Brite, uses sodium percarbonate, a natural mineral stain remover, and sodium carbonate to soften water and infuse the wash with more oxygen, a non-toxic whitening agent.

Babies and Estrogen

Another area of concern is for newborns, whose relatively unprotected skin easily absorbs the chemicals in optical brighteners. “Laundry is one of the most largely used cleaning products that we put our baby in immediate contact with,” says Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks, vice-president of Earth Friendly Products. “The skin is the largest organ of the body. We absorb things more quickly through our skin than through what we put into our mouths. So especially when washing infants’ clothing and bedding, it’s critical to have a laundry product that’s safe.” That’s where Earth Friendly Products’ Baby Ecos steps in. Baby Ecos Laundry Detergent is free of optical brighteners and other toxic ingredients. Plus, it’s hypoallergenic and specially formulated for babies’ sensitive skin.

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