Lakes Article: Officials
push to ban phosphorus in detergents
Mineral blamed for algae blooms in lakes
March 17, 2009
officials want to almost completely ban phosphorus in dishwashing detergents and
restrict the mineral nutrient in lawn fertilizer to improve quality in stressed
New York lakes and rivers.
Phosphorus has been singled out for promoting
algae and bacteria blooms in water bodies nationwide and a growing number of states
or counties have been enacting restrictions.
The southern portion of Cayuga
Lake is listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's impaired water bodies
list because of excessive phosphorus and turbidity, or silt.
In New York,
Gov. David Paterson submitted a bill to the state Legislature late last week that
would bar the sale of automatic dishwashing soap containing more than a minimal
amount of phosphorus. A similar ban was placed on the sale of phosphate-rich laundry
soap three decades ago, a move credited with greatly improving water quality at
The proposal, yet to be taken up by state lawmakers, also would
discourage the sale of lawn fertilizer containing more than a trace amount of
"This bill's part of an effort we started a long time ago
to reduce the loading of phosphates into our waters. They're very destructive
of water quality, very big factors in algae growth," state Environmental
Commissioner Pete Grannis said Friday.
Grannis said he expected lawmakers
to take up the bill after the budget is resolved. If it passes, the new law would
be effective Jan. 1, 2010.
Fertilizers and dishwashing detergents without
phosphorus should be readily available, he said, and the bill should have little
impact on the public. "This is a very pro-consumer approach to problem-solving
as far as water quality is concerned," Grannis said.
An overload of
phosphorus is the leading cause of water quality impairment in New York's lakes
and rivers, said James Tierney, the Department of Environmental Conservation's
assistant commissioner for water resources. More than 60 water bodies in the state
are impaired by the nutrient.
Under the proposal, stores in New York could
not sell automatic dishwasher detergent with phosphorus content greater than 0.5
percent. At present, dishwasher soap often contains 4 percent to 6 percent phosphorus
"That's a lot of phosphorus," Tierney said. "It's
unnecessary. There are alternative products out there. They work just fine."
which is mined from rock deposits and made into phosphates, has been added to
cleaners for decades to improve the performance of other compounds that remove
dirt and also overcome "hard" water by interacting with other minerals.
change in the law would not apply to cleaning products used on commercial food-processing
and dairy equipment.
"It's an easy way of controlling more phosphorus,
because everybody uses it and it all ends up in the water or sewer system. I think
it's a good step, and it's probably a step that will make a difference,"
said Joseph Makarewicz, distinguished professor of biology at the State University
College at Brockport.
Stephen Lewandowski, program director for the Lake
Ontario Coastal Initiative, said the bill's provisions were "a no-brainer."
has been a long-term concern of mine, especially the automatic dishwasher detergent.
I think it's long overdue and a great idea," he said.
While Lake Ontario
itself is not considered impaired by phosphorus, many of its bays and estuaries
are, he said.
The fertilizer portion of the law applies to home and office
lawns, golf courses and parks - but not to farms.
The law would prohibit
the application of fertilizer containing more than two-thirds of 1 percent phosphorus
on lawns, with two exceptions. It could be used on grass that testing had shown
to be deficient in phosphorus and it could be applied to newly planted lawns.
promotes root growth. But Tierney, Lewandowski and others said most soils in this
region have adequate naturally occurring phosphorus and there is no need to add
more each spring.
"The proportions have been off," Lewandowski
said. "It's sad that we have to legislate the proportions of nutrients in
fertilizers, but we do."
Runoff of rainwater into streams and lakes
is the primary source of phosphorus that harms water quality, Tierney said. Both
lawn fertilizer and dishwasher soap that drains into leaking septic tanks can
Retailers would be allowed to sell fertilizer containing phosphorus,
but it would have to be separated from other fertilizers that were phosphorus-free.
The store also would have to post a sign warning that phosphorus harms water quality,
laying out the conditions under which it was lawful to use phosphorus-bearing
Grannis said there would be no enforcement of the law as it
pertained to consumers, and retailers would not be required to quiz fertilizer
buyers about their purchase. Instead, it's hoped that consumers will make an educated
decision to avoid phosphorus-laden fertilizers.
"The marketplace will
make the decision. Stores will not stock products that are not high-sale products,"
Grannis said. "They can have a great looking lawn and they don't need to
use the phosphorus fertilizer."