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Phosphate Ban Gains Steam in Canada

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Phosphates, toxic substances used in a great number of household products, are causing untold environmental damage.  The Canadian federal government is considering banning phosphates in a wide variety of household and industrial products.  Environment Canada plans to hire experts to analyze the socioeconomic and environmental impacts of proposed new restrictions on phosphates and the government has set aside nearly $68,000 for the study.  Consultants will examine possible control scenarios, including a total ban on phosphorus in detergents and cleaning products and will issue a report by next May.  Manitoba and Quebec have announced plans to limit phosphate concentrations in dishwasher detergents to 0.5 per cent by 2010 and have called on Ottawa to do the same.

“When someone puts soap in their dishwasher in Edmonton, that makes its way into Lake Winnipeg,” Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Christine Melnick said Monday.  “We really need the sort of inter-jurisdictional co-operation that a national strategy would bring about.”  Ms. Melnick welcomed news of the federal study, saying federal Environment Minister John Baird, who was unavailable to comment Monday, has been non-committal on the issue.

Phosphates, which are concentrated phosphoric acids, lead to algae growth in water and have been blamed for choking lakes and rivers in several provinces.  As a matter-of-fact, when the Great Lakes were threatened in the 1970s, the federal government limited the phosphate concentration in laundry detergents to 2.2 per cent.  Also, several states in the U.S. have already passed laws to restrict phosphates in dishwasher detergents by 2010 and the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association—a lobby group representing 86% of detergent manufacturers—has agreed to implement the restrictions in Canada.

The Sierra Club of Canada and other environmental groups have pushed for the elimination of phosphates in many products; dishwasher detergent phosphates account for only one percent of the phosphorus in Canadian waterways.  Groups such as the Manitoba Eco Network argue farm fertilizers pose more of a problem and should be tightly controlled.  Manitoba may extend its phosphate restrictions to other household products such as lawn fertilizer after holding public consultations, Ms. Melnick said.  The federal restrictions could be much broader than those of Manitoba and Quebec. The consultants’ study will look not only at home products, but also at commercial, institutional, and industrial settings, according to the call for proposals.

Phosphates enter waterways from human and animal waste, phosphorus rich bedrock, laundry, cleaning, industrial effluents, and fertilizer run-off and become detrimental when they over-fertilize aquatic plants and cause stepped up eutrophication.  Eutrophication is the natural aging process of a body of water and results from the increase of nutrients within the water which, in turn, creates plant growth.  Plants die more quickly than they can decompose and dead plant matter builds up and together with sediment entering the water, fills in the bed, making it shallower. Normally this process takes thousands of years.  Cultural eutrophication is the unnatural speeding up of this process because of man’s addition of phosphates, nitrogen, and sediment to the water causing bodies of water to age at much faster rates than geological forces can create new ones, killing many fish and aquatic organisms.

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