Studies indicate that surfactants, have long been considered a threat to the environment, are actually benign in terms of their overall effect on water quality and fragile ecosystems.
Surfactants, short for surface active agents and defined as “compounds that lower the surface tension (or interfacial tension) between two liquids or between a liquid and a solid,” act as detergents, emulsifiers, dispersants, foaming agents, and wetting agents. In practice, most people know surfactants as soaps, shampoos, and detergents, and they use them to clean and remove grease and grime from clothing, dishes, and any number of other items.
Surfactants are able to remove dirt and oils because they are water soluble but can, at the same time, dissolve fats. This is because surfactant molecules have hydrophilic heads and a hydrophobic tails; their hydrophilic heads are polar and are attracted by the molecules of polar solvents such as water. Their hydrophobic tails are non-polar and are repelled by water molecules. So soap molecules function as a bridge between water molecules and fat molecules, enabling oils, suspended in solution, to be washed away in a stream of water.
Aqueous parts washers rely on surfactants to clean grease, grime, dirt, oil, and swarf from the parts they are designed to clean. The aqueous process was designed to replace the use of solvents, which can have numerous negative and long-term health consequences, with water-based chemicals. The result is an environmentally friendly cleaning process that does not pose a health risk to workers or give off poisonous fumes or other undesirable byproducts.
Surfactants have been maligned by environmentalists for decades as having too much of a negative impact on water and aquatic animal populations, and yet humans use millions of tons of surfactants annually. Now, as the results of more than 250 studies done over decades have been compiled, the conclusion researchers have reached is that, when used correctly in water that is filtered through proper water treatment facilities, surfactants are safe. This is because they degrade so rapidly once they are used.
This is good news for anyone who likes clean clothes, clean dishes, or clean hair, not to mention cleaned auto parts or machined pieces. If surfactants are safe to use, we can care for and properly maintain any number of things while being, at the same time, environmentally responsible. If only all man-made cleaning products were as benign as surfactants are!
By: Ryan Westphal