Soapy cars cause environmental woes

With the warm weather approaching, many Torontonians are going to begin cleaning up their cars.  But experts say chemicals that come from car washing can also have a negative affect on the environment.

The warning comes from municipal officials just as Mayor Rob Ford announced the 3rd annual Clean Toronto Together Campaign. It sees schools and workplaces volunteer to participate in a city wide clean up day on April 19.

Lawson Oates, the director of business operations management for Toronto Water says the car washing phenomenon happens every year at this time.

“The most beneficial way from an environmental standpoint to take this is to take your car to a commercial carwash facility to have is cleaned there,” Oates said, in a telephone interview.

He explained that commercial car wash facilities are connected to the city’s sanitary sewer system, which collects both the water and the soap.

“Then we can treat that water at our water treatment plants and manage those materials that are in there. If people do it on the side of the road or in their driveway the soap and water runs off in to the storm system that goes down to rivers and streams and Lake Ontario,” he said.

Even though some car wash liquid and detergents can break down in the environment, the problem occurs when there is too much going in to the system at once, says Barb Elliot, a professor of ecosystem management at Fleming College in Peterborough.

“When that happens, the natural processes can’t keep up with that sort of volume of incoming pollutants,” she said.

According to Elliot, this makes bacteria in waterways work extra hard to cope with things like soap and detergents, which in turn uses up more oxygen then usual, and that affects plants and fish.

Another problem that can occur comes from soaps containing phosphorus, says Oates.

“Algae thrive on phosphorus, and that leads to these algae blooms,” he said. “It actually turns the water green, because there’s so much algae … the fish and the ecosystem suffer and die, and it damages recreation use, and also can affect drinking water. In Lake Ontario, we have issues east of Toronto into the Durham Region on the waterfront there with algae blooms and so it’s important that everybody do their part.”

Oates suggests that if you want to wash your car at home, you should:

  • Park it on a patch of grass that will absorb the run-off,
  • Use environmentally friendly, water-based detergents that do not contain phosphates
  • Empty buckets used for washing, down a drain inside the home and not down a storm sewer.

About this article

By: Jamie Anderson
Posted: Apr 12 2013 4:46 pm
Filed under: News

1 Comment on "Soapy cars cause environmental woes"

  1. Another suggestion: If you chose to wash your vehicle in your driveway – don’t use soap or any other cleaning agent. Water alone works fine – I use a garden hose and a car washing mitt and have not used soap for over 25 years.

    In the City of Toronto, the Sewer-Use Bylaw does not permit the discharge of soapy water to a catchbasin as this polluted water flows directly to surface waters (Lake Ontario or a nearby stream). Technically, it is against the law to wash your car in your driveway using a detergent if the wash water runs off your property and enters a catchbasin on the road.

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