The majority of our dishwashing detergents contain a chemical called phosphorus. Phosphorus is a naturally occurring chemical that’s an important nutrient for plants, but in abundance can accelerate the eutrophication – excessive plant growth and decay that causes a lack of oxygen and severe degradation of water and habitat quality.
Phosphates were added to dishwashing detergents, after WWII, because of its water softening and stain removing properties. By the late 1960’s scientists realized the acceleration of eutrophication was killing plant and animal life as well as making our drinking water taste sour.
By 1971 Chicago’s Mayor, Richard J. Daley, signed an ordinance that banned the use of dishwashing detergents containing phosphorus. Unfortunately this ban was and still is rarely enforced. Today most major labels contain a phosphorus level ranging from 3.3% – 8.7% and only a handful of phosphate-free dishwashing detergents are available in major supermarkets.
The few companies that have gone phosphate-free now use enzymes as an alternative and in March 2005, Consumer Reports gave some high ratings to some phosphate-free brands: Seventh Generation, Ecover Natural and Trader Joe’s. In my own experience I’ve found that these products have not worked well for me but I can personally recommend Ecos Wave Machine Dishwash in combination with their Wave Jet rinse aid to prevent the “cloudy” glassware.
Some may argue that the phosphates will be filtered out at water treatment facilities but the truth is: The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District that treats human and industrial waste in Cook County is not required to filter out phosphates. Chicago’s treated sewage flows into the Mississippi, joining agricultural fertilizers along the way, both contributing to a “dead zone” at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.
It’s estimated that banning this chemical in dishwashing detergents would keep 700 tons of phosphorus out of the environment each year, enough to possibly create 350,000 tons of algae. The good news is that the state has plans to step up and outlaw all but trace amounts of phosphates in household detergents as of July 2010, forty years after Chicago’s ordinance took effect.
So pull ahead of the pack and go buy your phosphate-free dishwashing detergent, and next time your going for a swim in beautiful Lake Michigan you’ll know that your dish detergent has not contributed to all that muck.
Click here for the full Chicago Tribune article.