Week of 9/27/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Is the chlorine bleach used for whitening clothes bad for the environment? And if so, what are some safe alternatives?

—Nancy Potter, via e-mail

More than 80 percent of American households use chlorine bleach to whiten their clothes and clean inside their homes, but most consumers don't realize that the use of this seemingly innocuous cleaning additive could be polluting their home as well as the great outdoors.

"The fumes of cleaners containing a high concentration of chlorine when breathed in can irritate the lungs and be particularly dangerous for people who suffer from heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema," says Patty Avey, editor of SmartLivingNews. "When the fumes are emitted in small, poorly ventilated rooms such as the bathroom, the risks are increased," she adds.

Another immediate risk of having chlorine bleach around the house is accidental ingestion by little ones—poison control centers across the country receive about 20,000 such calls each year. Also, combining chlorine bleach with ammonia and other acids can cause deadly fumes.

Meanwhile, though, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that there is no danger in using chlorine bleach around the house, claiming that the amount of chlorine is too low to warrant serious concern. But the agency does regulate the use of chlorine for industrial purposes, and confirms links between exposed workers and lung irritation.

Whether used at home or in the factory, chlorine is a big problem for the environment once it is discarded or rinsed away. It bonds with other chemicals in the wastewater stream to form carcinogenic "organochlorines" (such as dioxin) that contaminate drinking water supplies, among other risks.

Luckily, healthy and environmentally safe alternatives to chlorine bleach abound. Many of these can be made at home with household products you probably already have. Half a cup of hydrogen peroxide can work well as a bleach alternative when diluted with warm water prior to going in the wash load.

For those not so ambitious, commercial variations on such formulas, which give consumers the benefit of oxygen-based stabilizers that ensure even distribution within wash loads, are available from companies such as Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products and BioPac. Most of these products are available at natural food stores as well as online and at larger, well-stocked supermarkets.

But before spending a fortune on bleach alternatives, consumers should see if hard water might be causing their clothes to look gray and dingy from soap scum and mineral deposit build-up. Clues that you might have hard water include clean dishes with water spots on them, white and crusty sediment on fixtures, or a recurring bathtub ring. If you do have hard water, simply add enough baking soda to the laundry to make the wash water feel slippery to the touch and see if that doesn't whiten whites and brighten colors.

CONTACTS: SmartLivingNews, www.smartlivingnews.com; EPA Chlorine Fact Sheet, www.epa.gov/chemfact/f_chlori.txt; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; Earth Friendly Products, www.ecos.com; Bio Pac, www.bio-pac.com.


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that Exxon never paid the fines that were to help the local Alaskan fishing communities that were harmed by the 1989 Valdez oil spill?

—Marcy Damon, via e-mail

The $5 billion in civil charges levied against Exxon by a federal court in 1994 to cover ecological restoration for the Valdez oil spill—at the time, the largest punitive damage award in history—is still in legal limbo in appeals court 16 years later. But the company has spent around $3.5 billion on clean-up efforts, on compensation to affected local residents, and on settlements with Alaska and the federal government to underwrite environmental studies and conservation programs in and around Prince William Sound.

Critics of Exxon charge that the company has used the appeals system to delay payment of the disputed additional $5 billion. "Exxon threw up so many obstacles after the initial $5 billion judgment that the case generated more than 7,700 docket entries," reported journalist Andrew Gumbel in the UK-based Independent in March 2004 at the time of the 15th anniversary of the spill.

Some charge that Exxon may actually be profiting some $800 million per year from the delay, "because of the difference between the interest rate being charged by the courts and the much higher rate it enjoyed through its own internal financing systems," said Gumbel.

"This spill continues to haunt [us] to this day in the form of socioeconomic trauma from lingering damages to our environment and fisheries, physical trauma from injured health, and emotional trauma from Exxon's ridiculous court delays," says Riki Ott, a former Prince William Sound commercial fisherwoman who founded the Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility soon after the spill. "Even $5 billion won't bring justice, but it will go a long way toward bringing closure to this sorry event."

For its part, the company (now ExxonMobil) insists it has paid the price for the accident and should be allowed to forego the remaining assessed damages entirely. In 2001, the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals did just that, concluding that the charges were "excessive"—but this reversal was soon overturned itself on another appeal by environmental organizations. According to a 2004 press release, the company claims that the "punitive damages suggested
are not a debt that is owed" but instead represent "a windfall in excess of the amount the jury found necessary to compensate the plaintiffs for their losses."

Regardless of whether or not ExxonMobil ever pays the additional damages, it will continue to face the added costs of implementing safety measures—such as equipping all of its oil tankers with double hulls to prevent future accidents. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has worked with the company, and the industry as a whole, on coordinating and implementing expensive spill response plans to contain leaked oil and minimize ecological effects in all American waters.

CONTACTS: Alaska Forum for Environmental Responsibility, www.alaskaforum.org;EPA Oil Program, www.epa.gov/oilspill; ExxonMobil's Valdez Oil Spill Information, www.exxonmobil.com/Corporate/Newsroom/NewsReleases/Corp_NR_Valdez.asp.