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Officials push to ban phosphorus in detergents
Mineral blamed for algae blooms in lakes and rivers
Ithaca Journal
Steve Orr
March 17, 2009

State 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 time.

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 phosphorus.

"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 by weight.

"That's a lot of phosphorus," Tierney said. "It's unnecessary. There are alternative products out there. They work just fine."

Phosphorus, 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.

The 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."

"This 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.

Phosphorus 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 contribute.

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 fertilizer.

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."


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