Americans are exposed to phosphates in many forms each day. They are found in paints, polishes and coatings, pharmaceuticals, hygiene products, flame-retardants and even in some common foods, such as ham and shrimp. In addition, they are found in many dishwashing and laundry detergents, as well as other various cleaning applications.
Phosphates are chemical compounds containing phosphorus – a common and naturally occurring mineral. Phosphorous is used in a wide variety of manufacturing processes including those that produce household matches, fertilizers, water softeners, some types of steel and even baking powders and fine china.
Phosphates Used in Cleaning
Although there are many types of phosphates, some are primarily used in cleaning. These include:
- Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP)
- Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP)
- Trisodium Phosphates (TSP)
Dishwashing detergents commonly contain the most common type of phosphates, known as sodium tripolyphosphate or STPP. This type helps soften hard water, dissolve grease and oil and prevent the build-up of residue in automatic dishwashers that causes water spots and an oily film to remain on dishes after the cleaning cycle completes.
Phosphates were also once commonly found in laundry detergents, until many states banned their usage in the 1990s. This ban and others that are currently being discussed are necessary to prevent water quality issues and environmental effects, such as explosive algae growth and the subsequent fish kills that result from insufficient oxygen.
Many of these same states have now banned the use of phosphates in dishwasher detergents, as well. At this time, Europe is also considering a ban on the use of phosphates in both laundry and dishwashing detergents.
Even though phosphates can deliver certain cleaning benefits, especially in industrial applications, they are now known to be a possible cause of health issues for the people who use them. Some housekeeping employees who used cleaning products containing phosphates have noted skin problems, such as rashes, along with dizziness, breathing difficulties and other complaints.
Avoiding Phosphates in the Home
As the problems with phosphate usage becomes more widely known, many families are taking voluntary steps to do away with phosphate usage in their homes. This process can be as easy as reading the labels to determine what products still contain phosphates, and which do not. Pay particular attention to all types of detergents, especially in states that have not yet banned the sale of products that contain phosphates.
Specialty cleaning products, such as those designed to remove soap scum, hard water spots and lime scale should also be approached with caution. Many of these products use phosphates because they soften water and help dissolve the residue left by the mineral content of the hard water.
An Effective Substitute for Phosphate Laden Cleaners in the Home
Vinegar is an efficient and very inexpensive substitute for the phosphate-laden chemicals that are marketed for this purpose. Common household vinegar safely removes the scale from clogged coffeepots and showerheads and dissolves soap scum and hard water deposits from faucets, tile and porcelain surfaces. Regular cleaning and soaking with vinegar is even effective for notoriously difficult cleaning tasks, such as toilet bowels and shower doors.
Choosing to remove phosphates from your home will make your home a healthier place for your family, and make the earth a healthier place for all living creatures.