Va. to Start Ban on Phosphates in 2010

By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dishwasher detergent may make your stemware sparkle, but the phosphates contained in most brands are among the most damaging pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay.

Now, Virginia is poised to ban phosphates from all home dishwasher detergents, a move environmental groups say will reduce one of the major contaminants dumped in the bay each year.

"The reduction of phosphates is one of the key efforts in trying to clean up the Chesapeake Bay," said Del. John A. Cosgrove (R-Chesapeake), a co-sponsor of the legislation, which the General Assembly approved this year. "Every time we put in new and better technology that further reduces [nutrient pollution], we take a step closer to that goal."

Virginia joins Maryland and several other states that have agreed to delay the ban until 2010 at the request of detergent companies. The delay is necessary so companies can develop alternatives to phosphates, which improve the cleaning ability of dish soaps, said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association.

"We called for the phaseout of phosphates in auto dish detergents for the home by July 2010 to give the marketplace at large time to reformulate their products," he said.

But that argument doesn't hold water for Kristen Skowronski, 14, an eighth-grader from Herndon who helped bring the problem of phosphates to the attention of state lawmakers this year. A shy girl with braces and long auburn hair, Skowronski crinkled her nose at the suggestion that phosphates are needed to clean dishes.

"My family uses the phosphate-free kind," she said, referring to the more ecologically friendly varieties of dish soap available in some stores. "Our dishes are just as clean."

Kristen's advocacy grew out of a science project she completed on phosphates at Rachel Carson Middle School, named for one of the country's most famous environmentalists. The issue so captivated her that she collected signatures from her classmates and neighbors to push for a phosphate ban and created a Web site,

The teen sent the result of her work to her local delegate, Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), one of several lawmakers who introduced phosphate-ban bills in the legislature this year.

Nutrients such as phosphorus, Skowronski found in her research, encourage the growth of algae, which is harmful in large quantities because it clouds the water and sucks out the oxygen that underwater plants and animals need to survive.

The result, ecologists say, is large areas where few creatures can live. A 2003 study by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found that a dead zone of hundreds of square miles appears in the bay every summer, spurred by a rush of spring rains that washes nutrients into waterways.

Bay cleanup groups say the ban is a small step and is designed more to help sewage treatment plants meet new effluent standards beginning in 2011.

However, the ban "whittles away at part of the problem, and that's why we're in support of the legislation," said Chuck Epes, a spokesman for the foundation.

Phosphorus is one of the three main pollutants in the bay, the others being nitrogen and sediment. A nationwide ban on phosphates in laundry detergent went into effect in the late 1980s.

Kristen, who worked as a Senate page during this year's legislative session, watched that chamber follow the House of Delegates in unanimously passing the ban. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) signed the bill last month.

Under the new rules, phosphorus will be eliminated from home dishwasher detergents except for a trace level of a half-percent or less. Soap for large commercial dishwashers will be excluded from the regulations because the high temperatures and fast speeds of the cycles make it less likely that an alternative will be available, industry officials said.

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