Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Detergent in the Wilderness

About the post "Doing the Dishes," a reader comments, "Using detergent or bleach is not appropriate in wilderness areas."

I am grateful for this reader's willingness to speak up, because the issue of human intrusion into our wilderness environments is one of great concern, not only to environmentalists, but to all of us. Under what circumstances and to what degree should men and women be allowed to enter the wilderness? What conveyances should they be allowed to use? What equipment should they be permitted to carry? Should they be rescued by mechanical means if they become ill or injured? Should a man-made fire be allowed? What may be harvested for food? Do all human waste products need to be carried out? These are important questions about which there are much discussion and debate. Underlying these queries are the definition of wilderness, the responsibilities of people, and our approach to preservation of the natural environment.

The definition of wilderness to which I subscribe is, "Wilderness exists where large areas are characterized by the dominance of natural processes, there is a full complement of plant and animal communities characteristic of the region, and there are no human constraints on nature. Man is a visitor who does not remain." Inherent in this definition is that humans are allowed to visit the wilderness, but do not remain as permanent inhabitants. Furthermore, I believe that to the greatest extent possible, they should leave it in as good condition as it was prior to their visitations.

Does this mean that they can in no way alter the wilderness? I think it means that they should not knowingly detrimentally alter it. Prescribed fires are used by expert foresters and fire-fighters to prevent devastating fires that would do more damage than those accidentally set by man. Waters are diverted to allow preservation of plants and animals that would otherwise perish by drought. Trails are cut through wilderness areas to keep men and women on paths so that they do not crush vegetation and delicate earth structures underfoot. In the long run, are these manipulations proper or wise, or should we just let nature take its course? I do not know for sure, but I know that humans are so inextricably entwined with the planet that it seems counterproductive to sit by passively and just let things happen. Man is part of nature. When there are choices to be made, each should be done taking into account history, current scientific knowledge, and what we know about behavior in the absence of an action or intervention.

So, what about detergent and bleach in the wilderness? The comment was made that they have no place. I agree that it is not appropriate or necessary to degrade the environment to provide adequate water disinfection for the purposes of human health and safety. No artificial or natural chemical should be used in a situation where its use or disposal will harm the environment. That means that one should try to get by with methods that do not involve increasing pollution as a byproduct. This might be done with biodegradable products or non-additive based methods. If people can prevent the initiation or spread of disease by methods that are entirely "natural," that is well and good.

However, from my perspective, it is not reasonable to state that under no circumstances should one bring detergent or bleach into a wilderness setting. If the purpose is to prevent infectious diseases that would be debilitating to humans, and the method chosen does not damage the wilderness, then the means may justify the ends. Damaged and dead humans are difficult to justify. This puts a great deal of responsibility on the user, who must keep concentrations of products to a minimum, dispose of them properly and in a non-injurious fashion, and consider them as a means of last resort or ultimate practicality.

One can prioritize the act of keeping the wilderness pristine above any consideration of comfort or safety for humans. But that is based on a certain point of view. I believe that there is a reasonable middle ground. If someone disposes of dishwashing water where it will alter the landscape or have an irrevocable ecologic effect, that is wrong. However, to say that detergent and chlorine have no place in the wilderness under any circumstance seems as extreme as saying that one can never walk in the woods because of the death of insects and microorganisms under foot. I don't throw my dishwater in the lake, but I wouldn't hesitate to escalate from boiled water and biodegradable soap to use detergent and bleach (and to dispose of them properly) if everyone in camp was getting sick. The people and maintaining their health are important, too. Having recently returned from a trek where infectious diarrhea laid low a number of participants and nearly forced evacuations, it is easy for me to have this conviction.

I will continue to report the science and observations of others, and let my readers decide how best to value the information and advice. It's a good thing to contemplate how every action has effects that may not be apparent, but are directly related to how we approach the wilderness environment. Your comments are welcome.

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photo by Paul Auerbach
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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.