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Detergents occuring in freshwater

What happens when detergents get into freshwater ecosystems?


Types of freshwater pollution

Toxicity response

Acids & alkalis






Organic pollution



What are detergents?
Detergents are organic compounds, which have both polar and non-polar characteristics. They tend to exist at phase boundaries, where they are associated with both polar and non-polar media. Detergents are of three types: anionic, cationic, and non-ionic. Anionic and cationic have permanent negative or positive charges, attached to non-polar (hydrophobic) C-C chains. Non-ionic detergents have no such permanent charge; instead, they have a number of atoms which are weakly electropositive and electronegative. This is due to the electron-attracting power of oxygen atoms.

There are two kinds of detergents with different characteristics: phosphate detergents and surfactant detergents. Detergents that contain phosphates are highly caustic, and surfactant detergents are very toxic. The differences are that surfactant detergents are used to enhance the wetting, foaming, dispersing and emulsifying properties of detergents. Phosphate detergents are used in detergents to soften hard water and help suspend dirt in water.

What do we use them for?
Detergents are very widely used in both industrial and domestic premises like soaps and detergents to wash vehicles. The major entry point into water is via sewage works into surface water. They are also used in pesticide formulations and for dispersing oil spills at sea. The degradation of alkylphenol polyethoxylates (non-ionic) can lead to the formation of alkylphenols (particularly nonylphenols), which act as endocrine disruptors.
High phosphate detergents such as tri-sodium phosphate (TSP) can be purchased at some paint and hardware stores. Regular cleaning with high phosphate detergents has proven to be effective in reducing lead dust. Lead dust accumulates in window wells and around doors or any other high friction surfaces.

What occurs if detergents show up in freshwaters?

Detergents can have poisonous effects in all types of aquatic life if they are present in sufficient quantities, and this includes the biodegradable detergents. All detergents destroy the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites; plus they can cause severe damage to the gills. Most fish will die when detergent concentrations approach 15 parts per million. Detergent concentrations as low as 5 ppm will kill fish eggs. Surfactant detergents are implicated in decreasing the breeding ability of aquatic organisms.
Detergents also add another problem for aquatic life by lowering the surface tension of the water. Organic chemicals such as pesticides and phenols are then much more easily absorbed by the fish. A detergent concentration of only 2 ppm can cause fish to absorb double the amount of chemicals they would normally absorb, although that concentration itself is not high enough to affect fish directly.
Phosphates in detergents can lead to freshwater algal blooms that releases toxins and deplete oxygen in waterways. When the algae decompose, they use up the oxygen available for aquatic life.
The main contributors to the toxicity of detergents were the sodium silicate solution and the surfactants-with the remainder of the components contributing very little to detergent toxicity. The potential for acute aquatic toxic effects due to the release of secondary or tertiary sewage effluents containing the breakdown products of laundry detergents may frequently be low. However, untreated or primary treated effluents containing detergents may pose a problem. Chronic and/or other sublethal effects that were not examined in this study may also pose a problem.

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