The environmental impact of toothpaste

There’s been some recent scares regarding highly toxic substances in some toothpastes imported from certain countries. But aside from these headliner issues, what else is in toothpaste that may be harmful to us or the environment?

Over 300 people in Panama died in early 2007 due to toothpaste tainted by substance called diethylene glycol. It’s a chemical used in anti-freeze. Ingestion causes kidney failure, paralysis and often death. In late May 2007, a retailer in New South Wales Australia noticed a box of toothpaste on his shelves also containing that chemical. These were not cases of some psycho introducing the chemical after production; it was an ingredient – and in the latter example, was listed as such.

The diethylene glycol issue is somewhat extreme, but it raises many questions about many everyday products we use that seem to be able to get around health and environmental regulations. Toothpaste and similar items are not a food and not a drug, therefore in many countries they escape close scrutiny.

I decided to check out my toothpaste; a well known brand, to see what was in it. Surprise, surprise – no ingredients listed aside from a mention of fluoride. Fluoride itself is a hotly debated topic in terms of environmental impact – it’s also a cumulative poison.

A visit to my toothpaste manufacturer’s web site didn’t reveal any further ingredient information; in fact, the only way I can get information is to call a special number – no email, no postal address to receive something back in writing. Hrm.

Where does the toothpaste go that we spit out? Down the drain of course, ultimately winding up in waterways. So, what else is in the stuff that could damage aquatic environments?

From various searches I found any/all of the following ingredients may be in my toothpaste; and probably quite a few others not mentioned in this list:

Sodium bicarbonate (baking soda)
Binding agents
Artificial flavoring
Artificial colors
Preservatives such as Methylparaben and Ethylparaben
Potassium nitrate
Lauryl sarcosinate
Polyethylene glycol
Polypropylene glycol
Sodium saccharin/aspartame

Brr.. not much good news in that list aside from the Baking soda and perhaps Pyrophosphate – although anything phosphate based isn’t a great thing to be introducing to our already phosphate ladened waterways as far as I know.

Triclosan is a registered pesticide, used  as an antibacterial and antifungal agent and can destroy fragile aquatic ecosystems.  Potassium nitrate is also an aquatic environmental nasty, parabens can disrupt the hormones in animals and so on and so on. The artificial flavors and sweeteners (more toxic chemicals) are there to cover up the taste of the other chemicals – it’s quite a cocktail.

One little blob of toothpaste added to a stream will not kill the local frog population, but the problem is millions of us use the stuff. We go through a tube of toothpaste each month in our family, so around 12 tubes a year. Divide the Australian population by 4 and multiply by 12 and that’s 60 million tubes. USA consumption based on our usage makes for 900 million tubes.

And what about the tubes themselves? I think it very safe to say that over a billion plastic toothpaste tubes head to landfill each year and most likely far more.

What are the alternatives?

Firstly, and I think any dentist will tell you this – flossing is very important; so perhaps flossing in conjunction with a more natural toothpaste would be a good approach to earth friendly dental hygeine.

I used to use a fluoride free herbal toothpaste which didn’t seem to do me any harm; but I can’t remember what the other ingredients were. There are a wide range of fluoride free toothpastes available; based on natural ingredients such as tea tree oil, peppermint with the addition of baking soda or salt. Some people recommend a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and baking soda.

Some toothpaste alternatives even come in a powder form in glass jars which are reusable and recyclable.

Good dental hygeine is very important; but so is preserving the environment that sustains us. Perhaps have a chat to your dentist about toothpaste alternatives first before deciding what to try. I do think it’s time we all started hitting the big toothpaste manufacturers with demands for environmentally friendly ingredients and greener packaging.