Newborn Spring Lamb laying in hay.

Doing Laundry Au Naturel – Part 6a

Whiter than White

Mary had a little lamb, little lamb, little lamb. Mary had a little lamb whose fleece was white because she bathed him in optical brighteners, optical brightening agents (OBAs), fluorescent brightening agents (FBAs), fluorescent whitening agents (FWAs) and chlorine bleach.

In our quest for whiter whites we could be exposing ourselves to some elements that may not be good for the environment, our washing machines, Mary, or her little lamb.  There is a classification of chemicals which some manufacturers of laundry products add to their wares known as optical brighteners.  Years ago blue dye was used in laundry to cause garments to reflect more blue light giving the appearance of brightness.  Nowadays, optical brighteners are chemicals which are added to detergent to give the illusion of super-clean in a similar way.

Optical brighteners work by dying fabric so that it will absorb certain types of light which makes garments appear whiter and brighter.  Clothes aren’t any cleaner, but they appear that way to our eye.  While some people do react to the chemical residue of optical brighteners, and they can build up in your washing machine, the jury is still out about their hazardousness to the environment.  A 2008 report authored by Greenpeace entitled “An Overview of Textiles Processing and Related Environmental Concerns” concluded that “low or no toxicitity is associated with these substances”, but Greenpeace also referenced the BGVV (the Belgium Association for Gerontology and Geriatrics) which stated that there is a “a general lack of information on toxicity and a need for studies into dermal absorption and the release of these substances from clothes.”

What About Chlorine Bleach?

If you have ever inadvertently spilled chlorine bleach on your favourite pair of jeans, you have already learned that chlorine bleach does its job very well.  Aside from having the potential to ruin your favourite article of clothing, chlorine bleach also has other inherent problems.  Chlorine gas was used as an agent of chemical warfare in WW1.  It is a very caustic substance and harmful to the environment. Mixing chlorine bleach with other common household substances can result in the formation of dioxins and dangerous gases.  Some of these dioxins (chemical compounds) have been known to cause kidney damage, certain cancers and respiratory problems.  But the fact that chlorine bleach is an excellent germicide, as well as a whitener is undisputed.

If you are interested in learning about some washing machine-safe, natural alternatives to optical brighteners and chlorine bleach, check out part b of “Doing Laundry Au Natural – Part 6”.

As always, Gord’s Appliance is interested in hearing from you.  If you have pertinent information on the subject of optical brighteners, send us your comments.

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