Disputes over the toxicity of fluorescent whitening agents in washing detergents lead to lawsuits in China

By Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

Fluorescent whitening agents that are added to washing detergents to brighten clothes are at the centre of two lawsuits in China. 

Guangzhou-based detergent manufacturer, Bluemoon, uses distyryl biphenyl derivatives as optical brighteners in its cleaning products. According to the China Cleaning Industry Association, distyryl biphenyl fluorescent whiteners have not been found to harm human health or the environment. But on 20 June, Wang Hai - an independent consumer watchdog - sued Bluemoon, claiming that they add toxic fluorescent whiteners into their detergents illegally.

Now, Bluemoon has countered Wang’s claims with a libel lawsuit against him. They are suing him for Yuan3 million (?284,000) to cover the cost of their advertising campaign to control the damage that his claims have made. Bluemoon’s case will be heard in Guangzhou’s Baiyun District Court on 15 August, while Wang said his lawsuit is waiting for registration by the Beijing courts.


In his lawsuit, Wang has cited the Category of Risky Factors to Occupational Diseases adopted by the State Administration of Work Safety (SAWS) in China, which classifies fluorescent whitening agents as toxic chemicals. ’The fluorescent whitener they cited is an industrial standard which should abide by the national rules made by SAWS,’ Wang tells Chemistry World. He adds that the industrial standard itself is flawed because it is drafted by industrial companies that include fluorescent whitening agent producers. ’In addition, because of its toxicity, Bluemoon should label the existence of fluorescent whitening agents in its products to remind consumers, but it has never done so,’ he says.

Wang states that detergents are used to clean clothes not whitening them, and using fluorescent whitening agents is therefore not necessary and could destroy the clothing fabric.

Shen Yongjia, a chemistry professor at the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai who studies fluorescent whiteners says that the SAWS category cannot be used to prove the fluorescent whitening agent in detergents is poisonous. ’When you see it is defined as a chemical toxicant in the SAWS list together with alcohol, kerosene and diesel, there is nothing to worry about,’ Shen tells Chemistry World.

’So far there have not been enough long-term research projects on the toxicity of fluorescent whitening agents,’ says Wang. ’In addition, consumer chemical producers should respect the consumers’ right to know what is in the products,’ he adds.