December 12, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 49

The case against Joy soap

For decades, Joy dish soap was a “three-for” for commercial fishermen: They could use it to wash their dishes, scrub their fish holds and make a diesel spill quickly disappear.

But Joy is a killer that does more harm than good, said Rachel Lord, coordinator of the Alaska Clean Harbors program. Detergents and soaps hurt the environment by limiting the ability of acquatic animals to breathe, she said. “It’s really bad.”

Products that contain ammonia, bleach, chlorinated solvents, petroleum distillates or lye are toxic to marine life, she said.

Squirting Joy on diesel spilled on the water only causes the oil to bond with the soap and sink to the bottom, contaminating the ocean floor with a compound that releases oil into the water for years. “If there’s diesel on the water, it’s going to evaporate eventually. (Sending it to the bottom) makes it impossible to get out of the water.”

Plus, if the U.S. Coast Guard catches a fisherman trying to disperse a spill with Joy, the fines are heavier than if a boat owner shows he tried to prevent the spill, reported it, and used legal methods trying to clean it up, Lord said.

Instead of a bucket of sudsy Joy on fish holds, fishermen should use natural cleaning agents like baking soda, lemon juice and more elbow grease. Suds look good, but don’t actually do any cleaning, she said.

Other acceptable substitutes for all-purpose cleaners are liquid castile soap and Borax in different ratios. Vinegar also works as a grease cutter.

When using store-bought cleaners, follow the instructions, using as little as possible. Using more bleach doesn’t disinfect more than the correct amount, she said, adding that bleach is “very toxic” to marine life.

Boat owners may think their small amounts of contaminants won’t affect the marine environment, but should consider the larger picture, Lord said. “If you’ve got a couple hundred boats in your fleet, and then during a fishery, as many visiting boats, the impacts add up. The death by a thousand cuts is what we’re trying to prevent.”

To get tips on alternative boat cleaners, go to