Living for the Long Haul: Should we be concerned about what we put down our drains? Part 2

Many chemicals should not be flushed, and some are illegal to flush


PINE RIVER — In part 1 of this series we talked about our sewage, a topic we rarely think about let alone talk about.

We learned that, for many of us, our sewage goes into our own backyards via septic systems and, for town folks, it typically goes to a sewage treatment plant where the treated liquid portion (effluent) is discharged into a body of water and the solid portion (sludge) frequently goes on farm fields as fertilizer.

We realized that our sewage doesn’t go “away," it stays right here in our community.

What goes down our drains may come back to bite us

We reviewed concerns about our sewage contents by looking at household cleaning products. Now we continue that search for additional potentially harmful products that end up in our sewage.

Personal care products, including makeup, soap, perfume, shampoo, conditioners, oils and hair colorants, typically contain large numbers of chemicals. A typical bottle of shampoo contains 30 or more chemicals. Many personal care products contain one or more polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).


These chemicals consist of about 9,000 different chemicals used in bar soap, cosmetics, dental floss, moisturizers, etc. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they survive in the environment indefinitely. They accumulate in fish and other animals, and can even be found in our own blood.

PFAS have been associated with some forms of human cancer, decreased fertility, and developmental and behavioral changes in children.

Many personal care products (mouthwash, shampoo, hand cleaner, deodorant, toothpaste) and some cleaning products contain triclosan. Triclosan is an antibacterial and antifungal agent. Its usefulness and effectiveness in household settings is questionable but, despite this, is still present in many products.

Triclosan has been associated with a higher incidence of food allergies and has been shown to inhibit male and female sex hormones. The presence of triclosan in sewage has been associated with the killing of environmental bacteria, fungi and algae and to result in the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Many shampoos, conditioners, makeup, moisturizers, etc. contain parabens as preservatives. Parabens persist for a long time in the environment and act like the female sex hormone estrogen on plants and animals. Ultimately, parabens pose a hazard to humans as well.

Many other chemicals in personal care products are potentially toxic to human health and the environment. Some of these include toluene, oxybenzene, formaldehyde, and formaldehyde-forming products, siloxanes, N-methyl pyrroledone, coal tar and phthalates.

Surprisingly, many cosmetics contain heavy metals including lead, mercury, cobalt, cadmium, arsenic, nickel and aluminum. These are found in lipstick, eye shadow, blushes, powders, body care products and even herbal cosmetics.

These metals are associated with pigments, clay and talc; thus, highly colored products are likely to have higher levels of heavy metals. In general, heavy metals are considered a toxic component of sewage. They end up in sewage sludge, which is then frequently spread on our farm fields.


Over time they build up in the environment and have a multitude of potentially toxic effects on wildlife and humans.

There are several categories of products that should never go down the drain or be flushed. Home maintenance products, which are not soluble in water, include paint, paint strippers, varnish, cleaning agents, adhesives and air fresheners.

These products will form a separate layer on top of the sewage, will mess up public sewage treatment systems and ultimately end up in our backyard or float as a scum in our rivers and lakes.

Wherever, they end up, they are there forever and plant and animal life suffer as a result.

Other chemicals that should not go down the drain include garden chemicals, swimming pool chemicals, automobile fluids and medicines. Garden chemicals include fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and insect repellants.

Fertilizers promote algae growth and oxygen depletion in lakes. Pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and insect repellants are formulated to be toxic to animal and plant life. Swimming pool chemicals (algaecides and chlorine) are similarly toxic to aquatic plants and animals.

It is illegal to put automobile fluids (gasoline, oil, antifreeze, brake fluid), down the drain. Medicines, prescription or nonprescription, should also not be flushed.

In the final column on sewage, we will discuss how we might be able to reduce the toxic materials we waste in our sewage.


 (References to all factual information quoted provided on request and comments and questions are encouraged:

Douglas J. Weiss and Barb Mann are caretakers/directors of the nonprofit Balsam Moon Preserve in Pine River, a spiritual place of peace, sustainability and renewal.

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