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Phosphorus bans in soap are small help to pollution problem

Phosphorus pollution in Lake Erie is a big problem, and there could be a little solution: changing the dishwater detergent people use.

Lake Erie has a long history of phosphorus pollution. Photo by Kaycee Hallett

Detergents commonly contain phosphorus, a chemical that helps to bind dirt and remove it. Phosphorus is particularly good at binding iron, a major component of soil.

“Analyze soil and it’s mainly all iron. And phosphorus will bind the iron. So if you want to get soil out of clothing get a detergent with phosphorus and it will take it right out,” said Michael McKay, a professor of biology at Bowling Green State University.

The problem is excess phosphorus is extremely harmful to bodies of water. It causes algae blooms in lakes. Some of the most prominent cases of phosphorus pollution in Ohio are Grand Lake St. Marys near Columbus, and more recently, Lake Erie.

“It’s the algae that makes it difficult to put your hand in the water and look down and see your hand,” said McKay.

These algae blooms wreak havoc on the habitat of the waters where it grows. Too much algae in the water can lead to oxygen depletion, an affect known as hypoxia. Most fish can’t survive in water with too little oxygen and have to move to a different area of the lake, which throws off the ecosystem.

Phosphorus comes from various sources, including agriculture, wastewater treatment plants, and urban runoff.

Phosphorus in laundry detergent is banned all across the United States. Photo by Kaycee Hallett

Starting in the 1970s, phosphorus was banned in laundry detergent following a huge algae outbreak in the 1960s in lakes and rivers across the United States. In the 1950s laundry detergent contained almost 10 percent phosphorus and by the end of the 1960s it was up to nearly 15 percent phosphorus.

Lake Erie in particular had huge amounts of algae outbreaks. This created a dead zone in Lake Erie in the 1960s. Algae became so prominent in the lake that it would wash up on shores and carpet the sand green. Many fish populations in the lake drastically declined.

All 50 states of the United States now have bans on phosphorus in laundry detergent. States have begun to ban phosphorus in dishwasher detergent as well.

“When that was done back in the early 70’s, dishwashers weren’t in every kitchen like they are now,” said Peter Richards, the Senior Research Scientist at the National Center for Water Quality Research located at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio.

The laws banning phosphorus in dishwasher detergent vary state by state. “There are some states, for example, Wisconsin, that have banned phosphorus in their detergents and as a result have seen significant decreases in the phosphorus levels in their water,” said Aaron Kornbluth, who has been working on the Hypoxia Program along with the Environmental Protection Agency for the past two years.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency and a local environmental group called the Lake Erie Waterkeepers, there are currently 17 states that have banned phosphorus in dishwasher detergent, the most recent being New York.

View States with Phosphate Bans in Dishwasher Detergent in a larger map

These state bans take several years to go fully into place. For New York, phosphorus isn’t expected to be out of soap until 2013.

There is no national law making phosphorus in dishwasher soap illegal. According to the EPA, each state should know what is best for it as far as a solution for phosphorus pollution is concerned.

In the meantime the government and environmental groups are trying to find a solution to help save Lake Erie. According to Bihn, of the Lake Erie Waterkeepers, the best way to get rid of phosphorus pollution from the lake is to stop the sources. Laws that ban phosphorus in detergent help, but don’t solve the problem altogether.

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