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Issues > Phosphorus Pollution > Background
In June 2004, public health officials in Dane County, Wisconsin,
issued a warning to lake swimmers: Avoid Blue-Green Algae. A heat
wave and phosphorus nutrient pollution caused enormous blooms of
the algae, a form of cyanobacteria, which can produce neurotoxins
(affecting the nervous system) and hepatotoxins (affecting the liver).
In 2002, a Dane County teen died from ingesting these algae-produced
toxins while swimming in an area lake.(1)
Killing blue-green algae does not diminish its impact on public
health, as the dead cells still contain toxins. The only solution
is to prevent the algal blooms, and the way to achieve this is to
reduce phosphorus pollution in the watershed.
Public health is only one of several threats posed by phosphorus
pollution. The same toxins that killed the Wisconsin teen in 2002
can damage aquatic ecosystems, fisheries, water quality, and economic
values. Phosphorus pollution accelerates a process called eutrophication,
which is essentially the process of a lake’s biological death
due to depleted bioavailable oxygen. Algal blooms caused by excess
phosohorus impact fisheries because the blooms favor the survival
of less desirable fish over more desirable commercial and recreation
species. They impact water quality by affecting the odor and taste
of drinking water. On the economic side, excessive algal growth
due to phosphorus pollution increases water treatment costs, degrades
fishing and boating activities, and impacts tourism and property
There are many examples of lakes, including Lake Erie, Lake Geneva
(in Switzerland), and Lake Endine (in Italy), where eutrophication
was reversed by implementing measures to reduce phosphorus pollution.
These cases show that a phosphorus reduction of 70-90 percent is
required to significantly reverse eutrophication and improve lake
health.(3) In Minnesota, phosphorus in
detergent accounts for about 19 percent of the total amount of phosphorus
entering municipal wastewater treatment systems each year.(4)
While this is a significant source of pollution, other sources of
phosphorus inputs must be targeted, including fertilizer (agricultural
and lawn), animal wastes, yard clippings, soil erosion, and detergents/cleaning
agents.(5) This policy issues package
targets phosphates in lawn fertilizer and household detergents/cleaning
agents. The agricultural sources of phosphorus (agricultural fertilizer,
animal waste, soil loss, manure spreading, and lagoon leakage) are
covered in SERC’s Nutrient Management policy issues package.
The first official government action taken to reduce phosphorus
pollution was the formation of the federal “Joint Industry-Government
Task Force on Eutrophication” in 1967, followed by a call
from Congress to end use of phosphorus in detergent by 1972. In
1994, the laundry detergent industry entered into a voluntary agreement
with states to remove phosphates from their products because the
costs of producing different detergents for states with phosphate
bans were too high.(6) As of 1999, 27
states and the District of Columbia had passed laws prohibiting
the manufacture and use of laundry detergents containing phosphorus.(7)
However, phosphate content limits in automatic dishwashing detergents
(ADDs) and other household cleaning agents containing phosphorus
remain unchanged in most states.(8) Only
states participating in the Chesapeake Bay Agreement (CBA)(9)
have passed laws banning such cleaning agents. The bill featured
in this package, based on a Minnesota bill introduced in 2003, would
prohibit the manufacture and use of any cleaning product containing
more than 0.5 percent phosphorus (an amount that could be incidental
to production), with only limited exemptions allowed.
Several cities and counties have instituted a ban on phosphorus
fertilizer use on commercial and private property, including Dane
County, Wisconsin, and local government entities in and around the
Twin Cities area of Minnesota. Minnesota recently extended the Twin
Cities ban statewide. The “Phosphate Fertilizer Act”
bill text featured in this package is based on this Minnesota law.
(1) Williams, Beth and Ron Seely. “Avoid blue-green algae,
people told.” Wisconsin State Journal.
10 June 2004.
(2) Jeer, Sanjay, et al. “Nonpoint Source Pollution: A Handbook
for Local Government, No. 476.” Washington, D.C.: American
Planning Association, December 1997, p. 31.
(3) Glennie, E.B. et al. “Phosphates and Alternative Detergent
Builders – Final Report, Report No. UC 4011.” European
Union Environment Directorate, 31 May 2002, p.121. Europa. 26 January
(4) Prepared by Barr Engineering Company for Minnesota Pollution
Control Agency. “Detailed Assessment of Phosphorus Sources
in Minnesota Watersheds.” February 2004. 26 January 2005 <http://www.pca.state.mn.us/hot/legislature/reports/phosphorus-report.html>.
(5) Improvements in sewage treatment also reduce phosphorus loads
into the environment. However, implementing such improvements alone
is not enough to reduce phosphorus loads 70-90 percent.
(6) Glennie, E.B., et al., p. 75.
(7) Litke, David W. “Review of Phosphorus Control Measures
in the United States and their Effects on Water Quality, Report
99-4007.” Denver, Colorado: U.S. Geological Survey, National
Water Quality-Assessment Program, 1999. 26 January 2005 <http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/nutrients/pubs/wri99-4007/>.
(8) ADDs gained an exemption from phosphate bans because of the
unique way dishwashers work. Unlike washing machines with their
single wash cycle, a dishwasher can have up to five separate wash
cycles, yet we only load detergent once. To clean effectively, that
detergent has to repeatedly soften new batches of water throughout
these many cycles. Armed with this information, ADD manufacturers
successfully resisted attempts to phase out the phosphates in their
products. While that may have been justified in the early 1970s
when the problem with phosphates was first addressed, advances since
then have allowed responsible manufacturers to create high performance
ADDs that work without using phosphates in their formulas. Alternative
water softeners, such as sodium carbonate and citric acid, are effective
products with life-cycles that have much less of an impact on the
environment and human health than phosphates.
(9) In 1987, the U.S. EPA listed Chesapeake Bay as impaired body
of water under the Clean Water Act. The “impaired water,”
or 303(d), list is organized by river basin and is published every
two years. It includes bodies of water that are not able meet their
designated uses because of pollution. States with rivers that run
to the Bay were ordered to take measures to reduce toxic air, sediment,
and nutrient (phosphorus and nitrogen) pollution. Those states –
Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, plus the District of Columbia
– responded by entering into the Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
As part of the original agreement, those entities agreed to reduce
nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrient) pollution 40% by 2000. The Chesapeake
2000 Agreement calls for reducing nutrient and sediment pollution
enough by 2010 to remove the Bay and its tidal rivers from the 303(d)
|This package was last updated on January 27, 2005.