Eco Home Living

Published on June 7th, 2019 | by Sarah Dephillips


The Invisible Waste: Chemical Toxicity

We often narrowly define waste as things we throw in the trash can. But as we explored in an earlier article, waste is really anything that nature can’t break down and reuse in the life cycles of other organisms. This could be something we don’t intentionally throw away, but rather lose – like golf balls. Or, it could be a less visible, more subversive form of waste. In this article we’ll explore the concept of chemical toxicity as waste – what it is, where to find it, and how to avoid it as much as possible.

What is chemical toxicity?

Originally, the word “toxin” referred to any poisonous compound made by a living plant or animal – think poison ivy, snake venom, etc. Organisms use toxins primarily to protect themselves from predators or to hunt prey. We’re not talking about these types of toxins because they don’t persist indefinitely as toxins in the environment after the organism dies. Rather, we’re talking about synthetic toxins, which are man-made.

People have been mixing substances to make other substances with chemical reactions for centuries (like soap). But two major game changers showed up around the time of the Industrial Revolution: petroleum and electrolysis.


We all know petroleum – hydrocarbons (oil) that are refined into various types of fuels. But what many people don’t realize is how many other ways petroleum is used in our daily lives. Not only are plastics made from petroleum, but countless personal care and cleaning items are made from petroleum. This includes stuff like chapstick, baby oil, soap, shampoo, sunscreen, and the list goes on. And while cosmetic-grade petroleum has to meet very high standards for the removal of cancer-causing chemicals found in crude oil, the Environmental Working Group still gives cosmetic petroleum a moderate hazard rating.

Another common use for petroleum is making agricultural products such as fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. We’ll discuss these more later, but it goes to show that we use petroleum for much more than powering our cars. So what’s the problem? Petroleum contains MANY highly toxic chemicals, including some known carcinogens like benzene. The Agency for Toxic Substance & Disease Registry, a US public health agency, gives an alarming writeup on the “large family of several hundred chemical compounds that originally come from crude oil.”

What about Electrolysis?

Electrolysis is a process, not a product. Electrolysis is a technique that uses electricity to separate elements that are naturally bound together. For example, electrolysis allows the separation of water (H20) into separate hydrogen and oxygen molecules. This isn’t inherently bad, and has opened up all kinds of doors to helpful scientific discovery. But like any technology, it has also created some unforeseen dangers.

Take brine for example – salt water. Salt is a common and natural substance made of sodium and chlorine molecules. Chemists figured out how to use electrolysis to break apart the sodium and chlorine, giving us chlorine gas. This element is rarely found in its free form in nature and it’s extremely unstable by itself.  It combines with other substances easily, making other compounds that aren’t so benign.  In his book The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken explains that

“When combined with hydrocarbons and other chemicals, chlorine produces a bewildering number of molecular compounds that are almost universally poisonous to invertebrates, plants, animals, and humans. Some of these toxins make X rays and gamma radiation seem benign by comparison. This combination of chlorine and hydrocarbons is known as the organochlorine family of compounds.” The Ecology of Commerce, pg. 40

He goes on to detail this toxic family of chemicals, including dioxins, DDT, chlordane, Heptaclor, CFCs, and others. Some have been banned, others are still in use. These compounds are extremely dangerous and can last hundreds or thousands of years in the soil, water, or tissues of living things. Organochlorines were widely used from the 1940s – 1980s to treat around the base of wooden structures for termites. Today, if you live in a home that received this treatment, the only way to remedy the still-toxic soil is to have it excavated and hauled away. As Hawken says, “Biologically speaking, these solvents, fungicides, pesticides, and refrigerants are waste from the very moment they are manufactured. They cannot be incorporated into the life cycle of any organism on earth.” The Ecology of Commerce, pg. 41

So between our discovery of oil and our ability to separate and recombine elements in unnatural ways, we’ve created an invisible but scary category of waste.

Where are these invisible wastes found, and how do I avoid them?

If you’re trying to reduce your personal waste footprint, this concept of chemicals as waste opens up a whole new and frustrating can of worms. And although it may not be possible to completely shelter yourself from chemical waste, there’s a lot you CAN do. Here are some common culprits of chemical waste and ways to cut them out of your life!

  • Culprit – Personal Care Products: Watch out for ingredients like triclosan, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, parabens, benzethonium chloride, petrolatum, toluene, and polyethylene. For a more complete list, download our Green Living Ideas Book. And remember, when you use them, they don’t just go “away.” They can be absorbed into your skin, or if you’re using them in the sink or shower, they wash down the drain and into the water system.
    • Make the cut: Switch to chemical-free products wherever possible. Thankfully companies are seeing and answering the market demand for reducing chemical waste. If switching all your products at once is too expensive or intimidating, do it in baby steps. One a week, one a month, or one every time you run out of a product is a great way to break it up!
  • Culprit – Cleaning Products: There is less regulation around chemicals in cleaning products than personal care products because people aren’t using them on their skin. Even if they’re not contacting your skin, many products end up in the air or water.
  • Culprit – Lawn and Garden Products: Most of the pesticides and herbicides on the shelves use harmful chemicals, including petrochemicals, to kill bugs and weeds. Likewise synthetic fertilizers are made from petroleum products. Even though fertilizers are meant to make things grow, they can have devastating effects when they wash into streams, rivers, and oceans. Fertilizers cause algae to grow out of control. The uncontrolled algae growth uses up all the oxygen in the water, causing fish and other marine life to die.
  • Culprit – Modern Agriculture: Yes, large-scale farms are using those chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers too. Agriculture is one of the most oil-hungry industries in the world, and petrochemicals are a big contribution.
    • Make the cut: What can you do about big ag? Buy organic wherever possible. Organic food isn’t just about you and your family not eating the pesticides and chemicals left on food, although that’s part of it. Buying organic is also about supporting a food system that isn’t putting those chemicals in the soil, water, and air around the farms where it’s grown. Reduce your chemical waste by supporting organic farms, even if it’s not a product you’re eating.

  • Culprit – Fossil Fuel Energy and Transportation: Ever think about running your air conditioner as making waste? If your electricity comes from fossil fuels, then the energy your home uses equates to petrochemicals or coal being burned. The same is true of our gasoline vehicles.

This isn’t by any means a comprehensive list, but it’s a great place for us to start thinking about chemicals as waste. By choosing to make lifestyle changes in these 5 categories, we can make a huge impact on our chemical waste usage. For other resources on zero waste living, see

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