Monday, November 8, 2010

Henkel and Questions Arising from Their "History of Persil"

I was curious to see what detergent makers themselves have to say publicly about the surfactants they use in their formulations.  Of course, the "green" makers will point out they use renewable plant-based sources for their cleaning agents.  The advantage of course, is these sources can be produced by man by adding more agricultural land, presumably from existing non-agricultural land, wilderness land...not such a good idea, from where I stand.  They make little or no claim about these surfactants being safer for you or the environment.  Again call them and ask, "Can I mix your detergent into my goldfish bowl, will my goldfish survive?" 
To check what the companies had to say, I clicked the homepages of a few. 

Let me just copy for your perusal what I found on the Henkel Homepage.   I did not get permission from Henkel to copy their info, I don't know if I'm breaking any copyright laws or not.   Since Henkel puts it out into the public domain and I've acknowledged the ownership, I don't think so.  So, here it is.
 (By googling "Henkel", and clicking on their Persil" brand laundry detergent (best selling brand in Germany, according to the site), you should see the points listed below, under "history".  For the sake of brevity, I've not copied all of it, and condensed a few down to mostly the points that raises questions.)

From Henkel Homepage, Persil  "History"

  • 1959 - "Persil 59" Introduced.  Synthetic anionic surfactants, a foam intensifier and a fresh fragrance were the new ingredients of the best Persil ever
  • 1965 - Introduction of new drum washing machines necessitates a new formula to control foaming.  New ingredients included sodium phosphate, biodegradable surfactants, non-ionic surfactants
  • 1986 - Persil phosphate-free,  Progress for the Environment - as early as the 1950's Henkel was conducting experiments to research the biodegradability of surfactants.  In 1966 the research project "phosphate substitute" was launched.  Because surfactants which release the soil from the laundry, and phosphates, which soften the water pollute surface waters.  The researchers succeeded in developing surfactants with better and better biodegradability.  And for phosphates, they found a substitute substance: "Zeolite A" (Sasil) for which a patent was filed in 1973.
  • 1987 - Persil Liquid - The alternative to Powder - Once again, Henkel expanded its Persil range.  This time with a product - Persil liquid - which was to revolutionize an already existing niche market.   Its especially high surfactant content made the liquid laundry a very powerful stain remover, even at low temperatures of up to 60 degrees....(?)
  • 1999 - Persil Sensitive - For people with sensitive skin.  To cater specifically for people with sensitive skin and those who suffer allergies, Henkel joined forces with the German Allergy and AsthmaAssociation to develop a product that not only delivers the accustomed washing performance but is also highly skin compatible. 
  • 2004 - Persil Sensitive with Natural Soap - Henkel now offers Persil Sensitive with Natural Soap.  It delivers full washing performance, is highly skin compatible and also gives the laundry a mild   fragrance.  The fragrance was developed and successfully tested in collaboration with the German Allergy and Asthma Association.

Here are the questions I have for Henkel beginning from their entry from 1986:
  • 1.  Why did it take 20 years to introduce a phosphate-free laundry detergent?  Water pollution problems associated with too much phosphates in the world waterways began surfacing as early as the late 1950's and by 1986, most of the waterways were already on their way to recovering from phosphate-related problems, at least in the US.   Why so long?
  • 2.  Also from your 1986 entry, you write, "As early as the 1950's, Henkel was researching the biodegradability of surfactants"  Obviously you suspected some problems with surfactants very early, otherwise, why spend the money?   Besides "polluting surface waters"  what other problems did you see?  Were these concerns made public?  Well, others were doing it for you, perhaps you thought it not necessary.
  • 3.  Introduction of Persil Liquid and its "especially high surfactant content".   So, had Henkel solved the problem of surfactants to the degree that the surfactant used in this formulation was safe and could be increased without any additional damage to the environment or your consumers?  Again, could this liquid be added to the water with my goldfish and would my goldfish survive? 
  • 4.  Concerning your "Persil Sensitive" developed in 1999, why did you join forces with the German Allergy and Asthma Association?   Does Henkel recognize the condition of "sensitive skin" is associated with other health issues?  What specifically was changed in this formula that made it less of a irritant for people with sensitive skin?   Wasn't it mostly a "milder surfactant?
  • 5.  Five years later you came out with a "Persil Sensitive With Natural Soap".   Why, didn't your prior formulation work?    Since this is "natural soap", the surfactant must have changed from your earlier  "For Sensitive Skin" formulation.  Also, since natural soap will leave a grimy film, and has little or no ability to keep the dirt and grim suspended in the water from re-depositing on the clothes,you must have other ingredients to take care of these problems.   Do these ingredients include another surfactant? 

While Henkel wished to show how they have helped to improve their products, it mainly raises my suspicion that all big laundry detergent makers know the dangers of surfactants and that they have known about these problems since the 1950's and have only "tweaked" out minor changes, changes enough not to be held legally accountable to say the current surfactants are "biodegradable".  Not enough to to be better for our health to any significant degree, not enough to save aquatic species.  Don't you think it's about time that consumers at least ask, "How can a company continue to sell a household laundry cleaner for 60 years that they knew contained such a damaging ingredient? "   Don't these companies have no shame?

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