Pollution from Domestic Cleaning Agents : Environmental Impacts

Welcome back to our blog! Having understood what constitutes domestic cleaning agents and the chemicals commonly associated with them, we will be sharing more about how toxins in domestic cleaning agents harm the environment in this post.

Recall, nitrogen, phosphorus, ammonia and VOCs are present in domestic cleaning agents.

Aquatic pollution

When domestic cleaning agents are used, they are often rinsed down drains or flushed down toilets after the cleaning process. As these cleaning liquids head to the sewage, the nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia present in them go down together. While it can be argued that wastewater is treated before being discharged to open water bodies, these three chemicals are NOT removed by the waste treatment process. This is very concerning as nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia are dangerous water contaminants in large quantities (Davis, n.d.).

Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB)

The most prominent consequence of nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia being washed into water bodies is eutrophication. Excess nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia over-enrich the aquatic ecosystem with nutrients (Carpenter, 2005), thereby resulting in Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB). The occurrence of HAB poses a threat to the aquatic ecosystem as it causes oxygen depletion of surface waters, leading to massive fish kills. The release of toxins by algal death further pollutes the water and render it useless.


Air pollution

The emission of VOCs through the use of domestic cleaning agents pose a risk to human health as exposure to VOCs could lead to carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, teratogenicity, as well as the irritation of the eyes and nose (Ciccioli, 1993). This is especially concerning given that these VOCs is likely to concentrate within the household environment due to poor or inadequate ventilation. Indeed, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) studies found that there are 3 to 5 times more common organic pollutants inside homes than outside (EPA, 2019).

In addition to human health, VOCs pose a risk to environmental health as well. VOCs are precursors to photochemical smog. When VOCs are mixed with nitrogen oxides (NOx ) and irradiated by ultraviolet (UV) light, a complex chain of reactions converts them into products generally indicated as photochemical pollutants (Ciccioli, 1993), creating a brown haze above places referred to as ‘smog’. Here is a chart to visualise the formation of smog (EPA, 2004):

The way forward

Given that the use of domestic cleaning agents poses a variety of environmental problems, there is a need for us to search for alternatives or employ ways to mitigate these problems. More on mitigation will be discussed in our next post!




Carpenter, S. R. (2005). Eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems: Bistability and soil phosphorus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.0503959102

Ciccioli P. (1993) VOCs and air pollution. In: Bloemen H.J.T., Burn J. (eds) Chemistry and Analysis of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Environment. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi-org.libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/10.1007/978-94-011-2152-1_3

Davis, J. (n.d.). How Does Household Cleaner Affect the Environment? https://homeguides.sfgate.com/household-cleaner-affect-environment-79335.html

EPA. (2019, August 1). What are volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-are-volatile-organic-compounds-vocs

EPA. (2004, March). Photochemical smog: What it means for us. https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/files/8238_info_photosmog.pdf