When phosphates from household detergents infiltrate water bodies, algae and aquatic plants grow excessively. When these plants die, bacteria decompose them, absorbing oxygen from the water. As a result, water bodies become depleted of oxygen, and the fish that depend on it for survival die in mass amounts. Know which high phosphate detergents to use to prevent further destruction of freshwater ecosystems.
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By 1959, researchers discovered that nearly all laundry detergents sold in the U.S. contained 30 to 50 percent phosphates. Ten years later, they estimated that 20,000 lbs. of phosphorus was infiltrating Lake Erie every single day, rendering whitefish, walleye and blue pike fish populations either dead or in decline. As a result, the public decided that to save Lake Erie, and others like it, the government would need to ban or reduce phosphate levels in popular detergents. In 1971, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New York, Michigan and Indiana enacted legislature preventing detergents from containing more than 8.7 percent phosphorus. However, many states have not implemented limitations on the amount of phosphorus allowed in detergents, doing nothing to prevent the harmful consequences of phosphates on the environment.
Automatic Dishwasher Detergent
Although several states banned high-phosphate laundry detergents, there is still little regulation of phosphates in automatic dishwasher detergents. These detergents rely on tripolyphosphate to soften hard water regardless of high phosphorus levels. Automatic dishwasher detergents typically include phosphorus amounts equal to 6 to 8 percent of their weight. As more people begin to rely on automatic dishwashers, phosphate threatens aquatic ecosystems in greater amounts. As much as 8 to 34 percent of the phosphorus present in municipal wastewater comes from automatic dishwashers, indicating that the problem has gone largely unaddressed.
Instead of using detergents containing high amounts of phosphorus, consumers have access to several environmentally-friendly alternatives. Brands such as Method and Seventh Generation promise to deliver positive results without harmful chemicals, including phosphates. Alternatively, Cascade and Tide both offer phosphate-free formulas for people unwilling to switch brand names or wash dishes by hand since those detergents contain minimal phosphate levels.