The “Dirt” on Phosphates

Many people are unaware of the hazards of using phosphate-containing detergents and dishwashing detergent.  Phosphates are used in detergents (chemically-based soaps) as “builders” to make them clean better.   Builders are especially helpful for use in hard water.  Phosphates are used to help minimize soap scum and aid in removing dirt from clothes.  Sound good so far, right?

Wrong.  The downside to phosphates is that they end up in our streams, lakes and oceans and contribute to the eutrophication of the water.  One pound of phosphates can grow 700 pounds of algae!  From Wikipedia:

Eutrophication is an increase in chemical nutrients — compounds containing nitrogen or phosphorus — in an ecosystem, and may occur on land or in water. However, the term is often used to mean the resultant increase in the ecosystem’s primary productivity (excessive plant growth and decay), and further effects including lack of oxygen and severe reductions in water quality, fish, and other animal populations.

Basically,  the phosphates allow algae to grow better and faster than normal, because phosphorous (from which they derive phosphates) is an important plant nutrient.  In large quantities though, it’s too much of a good thing.  When the algae grow too much, it disrupts normal ecosystem function.  The algae uses up all the oxygen in the water, which the fish, shellfish and other plants need to survive.  The water then becomes cloudy and useless for swimming and even makes filtering for consumption difficult.  Some species of algae produce neurotoxins that may harm wildlife.

Another name for this problem is called Algal Bloom.  This is when the algae multiplies at a massive rate and takes over the body of water.  There are several algal bloom areas-one example is at Lake Taihu in China.  Greenpeace China took 25 samples of water from the lake.  Of the 25 samples, 20 were too polluted with toxins to be used to water plants or for use in factories.  Here is a photo* of Lake Taihu:



Now that I’ve explained why phosphates are bad, let’s discuss what we can do to prevent algal bloom.  Canadian law has dictated that laundry detergents and other cleaning supplies, by 2010, must contain no more than 0.5% phosphorus.  Right now, detergents are permitted to contain up to 2.2% phosphates.  This is a good move, but I think it can be better-why not stop using phosphates completely?  There are many brands of cleaners that are free of phosphates.

Be aware, if you’re trying to cut phosphates out of your cleaning regimen, that “phosphate free” and “100% phosphate free” are two different things.  Any item that is labelled “phosphate free” can still contain phosphate.  So go for products that are labelled “100% phosphate free”, if possible.  Another tip is that liquid detergents NEVER contained phosphates, because phosphates aren’t soluble or stable enough to be used in liquid detergents.  Also, be aware that if you are buying a powdered detergent for your washing machine or dishwasher, it will contain phosphates unless it is indicated on the packaging that it is free of phosphates.

Some people feel that detergents that that contain no phosphates won’t work as well as their old products.  I know that President’s Choice makes a phosphate-free dishwashing detergent that supposedly works great.  I know that adding Washing Soda to your laundry detergent does the same “builder” job as phosphates, without the harm to the environment.  You can purchase washing soda from WalMart (in the laundry aisle), or the Great Canadian Superstore.  I’m sure you can find it elsewhere, but that’s where I’ve seen it.   It is really inexpensive, under $6 for a big box that will last a long time.  I also use washing soda in my all-natural all purpose spray cleaner.  You can find details in the page “Cleaning Products We Use”.

*photo from here

**note: phosphates from cleaning products are a small part of algal bloom problems.  Agricultural run-off from fertilizer is the largest contributor (mostly for corn crops) but I feel that every little bit helps.  Let’s do our part!


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