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Is Your Shampoo Polluting the Water Supply?

Certain ingredients in shampoo, detergents and other cleaning agents may help form a suspected cancer-causing contaminant in water. The poorly understood water contaminant, called NDMA, is of ongoing concern to health officials.

NDMA and other nitrosamines can form during water disinfection with chloramine. Substances called quaternary amines, which are found in cosmetics and household cleaning agents, may play a role in the formation of nitrosamines.

Eurekalert reports:

"... laboratory research showed that when mixed with chloramine, some household cleaning products -- including shampoo, dishwashing detergent and laundry detergent -- formed NDMA ... quaternary amines are used in such large quantities that some still may persist and have a potentially harmful effect in the effluents from sewage treatment plants."

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Could your shampoo be contributing carcinogens to the water supply?

The last thing you need is one more contaminant in your water. But that is exactly what is happening within the mélange of complex chemical reactions that takes place at your local water processing plant. New research suggests that seemingly harmless consumer products, like your shampoo, are contributing to the formation of mysterious cancer-causing substances called nitrosamines.

You can add nitrosamines to the ever-expanding list of substances that magically make their way into the waters of the world, from birth control hormones to rocket fuel  cocaine.

The formation of nitrosamines during drinking water treatment is poorly understood, but there are some things scientists DO know, and there are steps YOU can take to reduce your water-contamination “footprint.”

What are Nitrosamines?

Nitrosamines are formed when nitrites combine with amines (often occurring in the form of proteins) under certain conditions such as an acidic environment or high temperatures. You may recall the issue of nitrites coming up in discussions about bacon and lunchmeats.

Nitrosamines are the reason you should avoid certain nitrite-containing meat products, like bacon and other cured meats, and avoid cooking meats at high temperatures.

There is an enormous amount of evidence that nitrosamines cause cancer in humans. In fact, nitrosamines are one of the most potent chemical carcinogens in tobacco products, and are generally regarded as the smoking gun linking the use of tobacco with cancer.

In addition to tobacco and cured meats, nitrosamines are also found in:

  • Beer
  • Nonfat dry milk
  • Rubber products and rubber manufacturing plants
  • Metal and chemical industries
  • Pesticides
  • Cosmetics, personal care products and detergents
  • Your own gastric juices (“endogenous nitrosation” occurs when bacteria in your mouth reduce the nitrate in foods to nitrite, and the nitrite reacts with amines in your stomach to form nitrosamines)

In addition to cancer, nitrosamines are associated with multiple organ toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, and biochemical or cellular changes.

Nitrosamines are so toxic, both Canada and the European Union have banned them from cosmetics, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In 1996, the FDA asked American cosmetic makers to voluntarily remove ingredients that could form nitrosamines. In spite of this suggestion, the EWG found that one in every 10 products contains ingredients that can combine with others to form these dangerous carcinogens.

How Nitrosamines Form During Water Treatment

The formation of nitrosamines, particularly one called N-Nitrosodimethylanime or NDMA, has been associated with drinking water that was converted from wastewater.

It appears the nitrosamines arise from chemical precursors called quaternary amines. Quaternary amines are significant components of consumer products—especially shampoos, cleaning agents and detergents, fabric softeners, antibacterial soaps, and mouthwashes—which make their way into wastewater in large volumes as a result of our excessive product consumption.

When water loaded with these quaternary amines hits wastewater plants, it is treated with chloramine (the disinfectant of choice in American water treatment plants), forming NDMA as one of the byproducts.

Chloramine is a simply a combination of chlorine and ammonia.

NMDA: Poster Child for Toxic Illness

NDMA is a potent hepatotoxin that causes fibrosis of the liver in rats and has actually been used to stimulate mice to grow cancer for experimental purposes.

NDMA is associated more with municipal wastewater effluents, so it is believed that consumer products are the largest contributor, rather than natural nitrogen sources. Although sewage treatment plants remove some of the quaternary amines that lead to NDMA, many make it through the treatment process due to the sheer volume of them in our wastewater.

According to the California Department of Public Health:

“Given the NDMA detections associated with drinking water sources and treatment, NDMA is a good candidate for future regulation (i.e., establishment of a drinking water standard, also known as a maximum contaminant level or MCL).”

NDMA is essentially colorless, odorless, and nearly tasteless, so you would never know it was in your water unless you were testing for it. Reverse osmosis filters have been demonstrated to remove only about 50 percent of NDMA.

The fact that NDMA is toxic in very minute concentrations, difficult to detect, slow to biodegrade, and travels through the soil with great ease, makes it of particular concern for public health.

Animals that ingest NDMA from food, water, or contaminated air develop serious health problems ranging from non-cancerous liver damage to liver and lung cancer. People poisoned with NDMA (unfortunately, there have been intentional poisonings) died from severe liver damage and internal bleeding.

According to the CDC’s Public Health Statement:

“Although there are no reports of NDMA causing cancer in humans, it is reasonable to expect that exposure to NDMA by eating, drinking, or breathing could cause cancer in humans. Mice that were fed NDMA during pregnancy had offspring that were born dead or died shortly after birth. However, it is not known whether NDMA could cause the death of human babies whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy.”

If you are interested in the toxicological profile of NDMA, the CDC has posted an FAQ here, although the information is dated July 1999 without reference to a more recent update.

Does Your Hair Really Require an Industrial Degreaser?

You simply can’t depend on wastewater treatment technology as a solution to this problem. The answer must begin with—and you’ve heard me say this hundreds of times—lifestyle changes.

The products you use every day in your home have a profound impact on the environment and ultimately your health, either directly or indirectly.

For example, your shampoo may not be as benign as you thought. The majority of commercial shampoos have several chemicals you don’t want on your body or in your water supply.

  • Sodium laurel sulfate (SLS)/sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) SLS (and its cousin SLES) is often contaminated, via the manufacturing process (ethoxylation), with 1,4-dioxane (see #3).

    Another problem with SLS is that it combines with TEA (triethanolamine, a detergent commonly used in shampoos) to produce a nitrosamine called NDELA, a recognized carcinogen.

    SLS is used in automobile shops as a degreasing agent... do you really want it in your hair?

  • Ethylene oxide (which is what the “E” in SLES stands for)
  • 1,4-Dioxane

    1,4-dioxane is a byproduct of ethylene oxide, which is believed to be carcinogenic to humans, toxic to your brain and central nervous system, kidneys and liver. It’s also a leading groundwater contaminant.

    Dioxane has been a known carcinogen since 1978. A 2008 study by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) found that many brands of shampoos, body washes and lotions contained 1,4-dioxane, including so-called “natural” and “organic” brands.
    Dioxane is an increasing threat to water supplies across the country and is of growing concern to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) due to the fact that it can’t be filtered out, and it doesn’t biodegrade.

  • MSG

    Did you know that MSG (monosodium glutamate) is as likely to be in your shampoo as in your chow mein? It might not be obvious since it masquerades under aliases like amino acids, yeast extract, nayad, glutamic acid or glutamates.

  • Propylene glycol

    Propylene glycol is another very common ingredient in personal care products.
    Despite the fact the material safety data sheet warns users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as it is a strong skin irritant and can also cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage, it’s more than likely a component of your shampoo.

  • Parabens

    Parabens have been shown to mimic the action of estrogen, which may encourage the growth of breast tumors.

  • Diethanolamine (DEA)

    DEA can react with other ingredients to form a potent carcinogen called NDEA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine), which is readily absorbed through the skin and has been linked with cancers of the stomach, esophagus, liver and bladder.

Saving the Planet, One Cleanser at a Time

I could go on.

But the point is, you need to read the labels and wise up to the fact that your choices can cause severe harm to both your and your family’s health, as well as the environment as a whole  in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. As far as nitrosamines are concerned, why wait until science catches up with common sense, because by then, the damage is done.

There are safer products available.

Our new shampoo and conditioner are completely free of all the harmful ingredients listed above as well as parabens and sulfates. 

My team and I have been working on an eco-friendly laundry detergent and cleaner for two years and it should be available by the end of this year. In the meantime, continue choosing greener alternatives, and your body will repay you with better health over the coming years.

+ Sources and References