A COMMERCIALLY-inspired obsession with the 'optical illusion' of whiter-than-white clothes has taken a heavy toll on human health and the environment, according to a new study of soap powders and detergents.
The study, Clean Clothes, Dirty Water, from the Women's Environmental Network, accuses big manufacturers such as Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble of environmentally irresponsible packaging, 'sexist and stereotyped' advertising and of producing 'some of the most incomplete, confusing and misleading environmental labelling to be found on the supermarket shelves'.
It calls for a shift in attitude towards clothes cleaning. People are 'overdosing' their washing machines - and thus the sewers - with detergent, washing clothes too often - which shortens their life - and using too many unnecessary ingredients with potentially harmful side-effects.
It says these include perfumes, colourants and optical brighteners, which do not make clothes cleaner but create a 'blue-white' optical illusion. These substances biodegrade poorly and are associated with allergic reactions and skin and eye irritation.
Among other substances which build up in water supplies as a result of detergent use are toxic heavy metals such as arsenic and cadmium, and sodium, a constituent of bleach which may play a part in the rise in male infertility.
The report also explicitly rejects manufacturers' claims that removing phosphates from detergents will reduce their cleaning power but make little difference to environmental quality. It says detergents account for between 20 and 60 per cent of the phospherous build-up in waterways and are thus a major cause of eutrophication, in which streams and lakes suffer blooms of algae.
Despite near-saturation of the market and the success of new concentrates, detergent consumption has increased by 40 per cent since 1985. The study says vast advertising expenditure has helped Lever Brothers and Procter & Gamble maintain a virtual stranglehold on the market.
Commercial detergents 'need not be used at all', it adds. Environmentally-friendly home-made alternatives can be made from grated soap and washing soda - the report provides recipes.
So-called 'green' detergents can produce similar results to commercial ones, but may require pre-treatment, such as soaking or brushing, for heavily soiled clothes.
No one was available to comment yesterday at Lever Brothers or Procter & Gamble.
Clean Clothes, Dirty Water, WEN, Aberdeen Studios, 22 Highbury Grove, London N5 2EA; pounds 5.Reuse content