Q: What cleaning/body care products are safe for camping and the cottage?
A: Your mother probably taught you that the good things in life are all about quality, not quantity. Well, when you're up to your neck in 20 per cent of the world's fresh water and surrounded by seas on three sides, you can easily take that geographical bounty for granted and start treating your water like a giant open sewer.
Even if we're not pooping in the high seas like in Victoria, BC, we're still tossing all kinds of toxins into our water supply on a daily basis. We wash paint brushes, we pee out pharmaceuticals, including birth control pills, we rinse persistent chemicals out of our hair. City treatment plants break down only a fraction of those pollutants, but things get even more perilous when you're dealing directly with a lake without any help from Ashbridges Bay.
A growing problem facing lakes is blue-green algae - not the stuff you buy from the health food store, but the thick, stinky, slimy scum that spreads, well, like bacteria across the surface of a lake. It releases toxins as it dies off and is seriously dangerous to humans, pets and livestock.
Climate change and the lake-baking temperatures that come with it certainly aren't helping matters. We've also realized that dumping phosphates into the environment seriously fuels the toxic algae problem. But don't be misled by the cacophony of cleaning products claiming to be phosphate-free.
Since the summer of 2010, all household cleaners have gone phosphate-free. Federal regs mandate that they contain less than 0.5 per cent elemental phosphorus by weight.
But phosphate-free doesn't in any way ensure the other ingredients are going to biodegrade if you're washing up at a campsite or cottage. And even if a manufacturer claims its formula is biodegradable, that doesn't mean it's good for the environment.
Both phosphates and ammonia are biodegradable, but they both endanger aquatic life. That's why biodegradability claims are just one component of a greener cleaner and should only be trusted if backed by a third-party seal like Green Seal or EcoLogo. Brands like Nature Clean and Biovert pass those tests. DIY ingredients like baking soda and vinegar are in the clear, too.
Body care brands are less likely to get certified, but you can't go wrong with basics like Dr. Bronner's 18-in-1 Castile products.
If your family or friends happen to have a cottage, keep in mind that there's more you can do to keep lakes healthy and reduce the levels of phosphorus seeping into them. One: plant native vegetation along the shoreline to help prevent runoff and soil erosion. Two: make sure the septic system is running properly so it doesn't leak into groundwater and make its way into the lake. Three: don't put manure, compost or chemical fertilizers (all phosphorus-rich) on lawns (and don't let your pets poop near waterways).
And finally: avoid intensive factory-farmed animal products. Manure runoff and spills from hog, chicken, beef and dairy operations have been responsible for some major water body pollution in this country.
Campers, don't use any products anywhere near the lake. That means no lathering up in the water like a toxic Greek siren. Even a biodegradable product like Campsuds comes with clear instructions to keep it on dry land: "Soap up and wash at least 200 feet away from alpine lakes and streams."
Actually, Campsuds says to dig a hole 6 to 8 inches deep to get rid of your soapy wash and rinse water. That way, bacteria in the soil can break it down. Can't promise the same will happen with your Pantene or Palmolive.