Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Toxic Tuesday: Phosphates

Get to know the ingredients in your household cleaners.
By Stacy Peltier

What is it?
A phosphate is a compound containing the element phosphorous, along with various salts and other minerals. It’s important to note straightaway that they are naturally-occurring and contribute many benefits to life and its various ecosystems. For example, phosphates make up the main minerals in our bones and teeth, play a key role in how the human body metabolizes, and are vital to photosynthesis in plants. In fact, there’s even a phosphorous nutrient cycle! But as with anything, too much can be a bad thing.

Why is it used in household cleaners?
Phosphates perform three critical functions in many household cleaners. First, the presence of phosphates can control the alkalinity of a cleaner by keeping its acidity level stable. Next, their presence softens water by "holding" or removing metal ions, which allows other components in the cleaning solution to work more effectively. Finally, phosphates trap and hold any dirts and oils found on surfaces - once they are suspended in the cleaning solution instead of attached to, say, a tabletop, the particles can be easily rinsed away. They are used most often in laundry and dishwasher detergents, although some states have successfully placed laws restricting the permissible amount.

How can it be toxic?
One word: eutrophication. And that's a pretty big word, so let's break it down. In ancient Greece, 'eu' means "well", 'trope' means "nourish," and '-ication' is roughly "the process of." So how can the instigation of a well-nourished environment be bad? Well, disposed phosphates work their way into the aquatic environment via sewage systems and overstimulate the growth of algae and other aquatic plants. This not only depletes normal oxygen levels but matures the lake ecosystem at an alarming rate... fish eventually die off and are replaced with scavenging critters. Although some may argue this is a natural process, what human pollution has done in tens of years would normally take our planet thousands of years to achieve.

So, what can I do about it?
Phosphate-free detergents (for both clothes and dishes) are finally starting to retain the helpful cleaning characteristics of phosphates without the harmful environmental side-effects. Before you make a purchase, check the label for zeolites, polycarboxylic acid, surfactants, or sodium carbonate  - any of these are greener alternatives to this potentially toxic ingredient. Many new detergents actually advertise the fact that they are "Phosphate-Free!" on the outer packaging of the product. Want to go big? Check out state legislation laws on these cleaners. Although many consumer detergents already have major restrictions in place, there is currently little to no laws addressing the use of phosphates in fertilizers and industrial-use detergents.


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