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The toxicity of 39 laundry detergent components including surfactants, enzymes, builders, fabric brighteners, fillers, and coloring agents to the cladoceran Ceriodaphnia cf. dubia was determined. The difference between the most and the least toxic components was approximately 17,000-fold and 1,000,000-fold for the mg/L and mmol/L EC50 data, respectively. Two of the components had high toxicity (EC50 values <1 mg/L), 11 moderate toxicity (EC50 values between 1 and 10 mg/L), and the remaining 26 components had low toxicity (EC50 values >10 mg/L). Analysis revealed that mixtures of the components interacted antagonistically, additively, and synergistically. On a molarity basis the most toxic group of compounds was the surfactants followed by the brighteners. The most toxic individual components included sodium carboxymethyl cellulose, sodium silicate solution, four brighteners, sodium perborate tetrahydrate, and the surfactants. Many of the most toxic components, however, contributed very little to the toxicity of the detergents due to being present in the detergents at low concentrations. 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.

This paper was originally published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety Journal 44 (1999) Pages 196 - 206

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