By Oksana Lyachynska
Editor’s Note: This investigation was conducted by the Objective investigative reporting project in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. The program is financially supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action. The story can be freely republished with proper credits.
Ukraine’s closer integration with the European Union is expected to reap benefits in an important but often overlooked area: an improved environment, which in turn could help Ukrainians lead longer and healthier lives.
One way for Ukraine to improve its environment is to adopt tougher standards that reduce the use of phosphates, harsh chemicals that are used in laundry detergents, household cleaning products and agricultural chemicals.
Phosphates are potentially dangerous for human health in many ways. These contaminants also end up in the Dnipro River, stimulating growth of fish-killing algae that fouls the nation’s main source of drinking water.
The Objective investigative reporting project, a program funded by the Denmark Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote independent journalism in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, examined the levels of phosphates found in 15 popular laundry detergents sold in Ukraine.
The good news is that all 15 brands tested met Ukraine’s current national standard for the amount of phosphates, and all but five of them met the tougher European standards. The results are especially encouraging, since phosphate-rich detergents are cheap and powerful ways to clean clothes, making both consumers and producers happy.
“Phosphates are everywhere,” explained 75-year-old pensioner Valentyna Dromenko, while choosing a detergent in a supermarket. “If a detergent contains no phosphates, it will be obviously much more expensive.”
More expensive, that is, until the enormous environmental costs are counted.
The bad news, however, is that while laundry detergents get a mostly clean bill of health, phosphates are still appearing in wastewaters and ultimately the Dnipro River in excessively high levels, underscoring the need for Ukraine’s government to adopt a broader set of laws and regulations to reduce the presence of the harmful substances in the environment.
Check official results of laundry detergents tests here.
Journalists from the Objective investigative reporting program bought 15 brands from a supermarket in Kyiv and submitted them for laboratory analysis. Only five brands had excessive levels of phosphates, according to the tougher European standards set to go into effect in Ukraine in December, including detergents for laundering children’s clothes.
But all complied with current Ukrainian law, which allows a higher level of phosphates in laundry detergents than the stricter European standards. In Ukraine, detergents can contain up to 17 percent of phosphates, which is more than 30 times higher than the European norm.
“All samples meet current standards,” said Natalia Onufriyeva, head of the laboratory sector for detergents at Ukrmetrteststandart, a state enterprise which conducted the tests.
The European standard is much tougher – less than 0.5 grams of total phosphorus in the 100 grams of detergent recommended for a standard load of laundry.
That standard was adopted by the former Ukrainian government in 2013 during its preparations to sign a political and trade association agreement with the European Union. While the tougher standard is expected to go into force in December, some experts have their doubts about whether this resolution will be enough to get producers to comply.
Five brands out of 15 tested by Objective journalists didn’t make the cut. Those included Ushastiy Nian (9.2 percent of phosphorus), Sarma (7.8 percent), Alenka (7.7 percent), Pupsik (5.4 percent) and Maks (4.7 percent).
Among the detergents that passed the tests are: Tide Automat, Ariel Automat, Gala and Galinka produced by Procter & Gamble in Ukraine; Losk 9, Persil Expert and Rex 3-Active produced by Henkel Rus in Russia. Very little phosphorus compounds were also found in German import Frosch Ecological Citrus and locally produced Belye Parusa and Green & Clean.
More troublesome, three out of five brands of detergents with high levels of phosphates are designed to clean children’s clothes.
“We see advertisements, we are told that these laundry detergents are for kids’ clothes, while in fact they contain high concentrations of phosphates,” said Denys Pavlovskyi, coordinator of chemical safety projects at the ecological nongovernmental organization MAMA-86. “Ordinary detergents, not for kids, contain less.”
The only detergent labeled for washing kids’ clothes that did not contain phosphates, according to the tests results, appeared to be Galinka, which is produced by Procter & Gamble.
Liudmyla Bondarenko is head of the quality department at Greenland, the company that produces Alenka, a children’s clothes detergent that had levels of phosphates unacceptable under European standards. Bondarenko defended the safety of the product by saying that phosphate substitutes also have their disadvantages. Moreover, Alenka does not contain surfactants, other chemicals widely used in detergents that are even more dangerous for human health than phosphates, Bondarenko said.
“Balanced recipes, usage of natural components and also our time-tested product on the market for 15 years in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Russia, Kazakhstan and Lithuania give us a right to consider Alenka laundry detergent as the safest one at the moment,” Bondarenko said.
Ihor Kopytsia, the commercial director at Karapuz, a company that produces the Pupsik brand also found to have high levels of phosphates in the test sample, also said that the absence of surfactants makes its product safe. Besides, Kopytsia said, the company has a phosphate-free detergent called Karapuz that the Objective program did not check.
“Our company has been constantly working on reducing the content of phosphates and can switch to non-phosphates recipes any moment,” Kopytsia noted.
Vinnytsia-Pobutkhim, a company that produces detergents on the request and under the control of Russian company Nevskaya Cosmetika, did not reply to a request for comment. Its detergent for children’s clothes, Ushastiy Nian, was found to have a phosphorus level that would not meet the new standard as well as in their Sarma and Maks detergents.
Why phosphates are bad
To make the right detergent choice, especially for kids, ecologists suggest consumers consider not only phosphates but also surfactants and other factors.
Phosphates are dangerous by themselves, but especially so when combined with surfactants in detergents, said Pavlovskyi from MAMA-86, citing European studies.
Surfactants can accumulate in body organs and have been associated with high cholesterol, damaged immune systems, allergies, skin infections and ailments such as dermatitis and increased risk of infertility.
Phosphates reduce barriers in the skin and help surfactants get into the blood. They also could be a reason for allergies and dermatitis, may cause chronic diseases or aggravate existing ones.
But in some people, the phosphates may have no effect, according to Oleh Ruban, Kyiv’s chief medical officer.
Aside from the direct potential dangers to human health, the chemicals foul water supplies, spurring the growth of algae and killing off fish populations and, of course, posing a threat to human health again through bad drinking water.
“Phosphates get into waters and work as fertilizers, giving impetus to the growth of algae,” explains Victoria Yakovleva, an adviser to the chairman of Kyivvodokanal, a utility company that provides the central water supply in Kyiv. Algae consume oxygen in lakes and rivers, killing off fish.
Moreover, the pollution stimulates the growth of bacteria and pathogenic microflora, further deteriorating the quality of river water. Kyivvodokanal has put a lot of effort and public money into purifying this water to make it safe for drinking.
Before waste water from all over Kyiv gets back to the Dnipro, the utility company cleans it. This process takes place at Bortnytska aeration station, which was built in 1965, and is outdated in removing phosphates.
“The station now is in such condition that without full reconstruction it may just stop very soon,” Yakovleva said. “I don’t want to even talk and think about that. This will be a technological disaster. All water supplies in Kyiv will stop. Sewage won’t work.”
Nowadays, only two plants out of 18 at the station can clean phosphates from the waste water that flows into the Dnipro River. Meanwhile, the concentration of phosphates in the city’s waste waters has grown significantly in the last decade, so Kyiv is fighting a losing battle. For example, the level of phosphates in runoff waters in Kyiv in early June was more than 35 milligrams per liter, or more than four times that allowed under law. “Still, we cannot purify it until the end,” Yakovleva confesses.
Phosphates from laundry detergents are only part of the problem. These chemicals are also widely used in household cleaners, a huge industry. For example, phosphates in dishwashing detergents in Ukraine must be reduced to 0.3 gram of phosphorus per load starting in 2017.
And, more ominously, tons of phosphorus fertilizers are also put in soil every year without any control, experts say, as part of the agricultural industry. Some of these chemicals inevitably end up in the water also.
Many European countries started their war against phosphates two decades ago. Since then, they achieved significant results in getting closer to the goal of a complete ban of phosphates. It will take a strong government initiative to do the same in Ukraine, where life expectancy is several years below European democracies, especially for men. Success will also depend on what consumer do.
“In Ukraine, people don’t have a feeling of personal responsibility for the environment,” said Serhiy Fedorinchyk, head of the informational center at the Ukrainian ecological association Green World. “We believe that it is the authorities or business that should take care of ecology. A lot could be achieved if we change this approach.”
Oksana Lyachynska is a freelance journalist based in Kyiv.
Contact Objective editors at firstname.lastname@example.org.