Canadian companies will be effectively banned from using phosphates in dishwasher detergent, laundry soap and household cleaners under new federal regulations designed to reduce the detrimental overfertilization of Canadian waterways.
But some environmentalists are frustrated because the regulations, recently made public, won't apply to commercial or industrial sources of phosphates, which they say are major contributors to a problem that has led to an overabundance of toxic algae.
The new rules would, for the first time, impose a limit on phosphates in dishwasher detergents and household cleaners of 0.05 per cent of the product's weight, an amount considered to be negligible.
Until now, the phosphate content in automatic dishwasher detergent has ranged from about 3.7 to 8.7 per cent, according to Shannon Coombs, president of the Canadian Consumer Specialty Products Association, which represents companies that make many of the products that would be affected by the new regulations.
Current government rules restrict phosphate concentration to 2.2 per cent of the weight of laundry detergents. Under the new rules, laundry soap would also have to adhere to the 0.05-per-cent limit for phosphates.
"It's long overdue," said Mark Mattson, president of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an environmental advocacy group.
"It could be incredibly significant to certain lakes, particularly those that don't have a lot of dilution and don't have a lot of drainage."
Phosphates are used in detergents and cleaners to suspend dirt particles, soften water and reduce spotting, but can lead to overfertilization when released into waterways.
That fertilization has resulted in a critical abundance of harmful algae, which release toxins that can damage plants and wildlife. An excess of phosphates can also remove oxygen from the water, potentially killing plants, fish and other creatures.
Many companies have been making efforts to reduce phosphorus, commonly referred to on product labels as phosphates, to extremely low levels in the past few years. Last fall, Manitoba became the first province to introduce legislation to reduce phosphates in detergents and soaps, and Quebec's government pledged to follow suit. Earlier this year, Loblaw Cos. Ltd. unveiled its own line of phosphate-free dishwasher detergent at the same time Wal-Mart Canada launched its own line of phosphate-free cleaning products.
Independent tests have found that phosphate-free cleaning products are as effective asthose with phosphates, according to Loblaw.
Environment Canada said that detergents and household cleaners were responsible for about 11 per cent of the phosphorus in municipal wastewater in Canada in 1996. But, also according to the department, a much higher proportion of Canadian households use dishwashers now than did in 1996, so that number could now be much higher, although many companies lowered the phosphate concentration in cleaners and laundry detergents during the same period.
The move to limit phosphates in consumer products is an important step for the environment, but the fact industry will be exempt is cause for concern, according to the Sierra Club of Canada.
"[I'm]a little disappointed," said Celeste Côté, the group's national water campaigner.
But Ms. Coombs said the exemption is necessary. That's because the cleaning equipment used by organizations such as restaurants, hospitals and schools is much different than those used in Canadian homes, and rely on phosphates to function properly.
"At this time, we don't have any alternatives that would deliver the type of sanitation that is required for hospitals and restaurants," she said.
Ms. Coombs added that most of the phosphates in waterways originate from agricultural runoff and human sewage.
Many companies have been committed to reducing phosphates in their products for years, and they support the government's move to further restrict allowable levels in many consumer products, Ms. Coombs said.
The proposed regulations, which are currently under public consultation, will take effect July 1, 2010.