Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As a result of public concern and impending legislation, Lever Brothers and Sears, Roebuck & Company introduced a phosphate-free detergent as a step toward curtailing water pollution. The two companies were soon followed by other manufacturers of soaps and detergents.

Summary of Event

Natural changes to the environment usually occur on a scale far exceeding the human life span. The ecology of lakes and rivers, for example, alters slowly over time in a process called eutrophication, as decaying plant and animal matter collects in the water and settles to the bottom; there, the enriched concentrations of nutrients alter the growth and existence of the species that inhabit that microenvironment. With eutrophication and increased buildup of sediment, lakes slowly become marshes, and marshes slowly become extensions of the land mass. If left undisturbed, these transformations can take thousands of years. Humans, however, have disturbed the equilibrium and greatly accelerated the eutrophication process in many places. Pollution;United States Phosphates Detergents [kw]Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent (Oct., 1970) [kw]Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent, Pollution Fears Prompt (Oct., 1970)[Invention of Phosphate Free Detergent, Pollution Fears Prompt] [kw]Phosphate-Free Detergent, Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of (Oct., 1970)[Phosphate Free Detergent, Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of] [kw]Detergent, Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free (Oct., 1970) Pollution;United States Phosphates Detergents [g]North America;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] [g]United States;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] [c]Environmental issues;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] [c]Inventions;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] [c]Manufacturing and industry;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] [c]Chemistry;Oct., 1970: Pollution Fears Prompt Invention of Phosphate-Free Detergent[10920] Reuss, Henry S.

By the 1950’s, many lakes and streams in the United States were badly polluted. Water became transformed by suspended solids, enhanced plant and animal growth, increased sedimentation buildup, and poisonous toxins. These transformations posed a serious threat to the use and enjoyment of natural waterways.

The process of decomposition, which consumes oxygen, further depleted the oxygen supply available for fish and other life-forms. They too died and contributed further to the decaying process and to the toxins produced by decay. As a result of the process, much water became unfit for drinking or recreational uses; in extreme cases, navigation on some waterways became difficult or impossible.

The sources of accelerated eutrophication are many and varied. Anything that supplies nutrients to water can contribute to the process. The nutrients needed to sustain plant and animal growth in water, which include carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and trace metals, are the same nutrients required by any living organism. Photosynthesis converts carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates for plants; nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen into ammonia, forming useful components of life; trace metals are obtained from the soil along the water’s edge as it is washed into the water through erosion.

Humans disrupted these processes and added to lakes and rivers industrial wastes, agricultural runoff (fertilizer and animal waste), and municipal waste (especially sewage). Experts on eutrophication generally agreed that control of the phosphorus-containing compounds found in those waste products would be the most effective way to curtail rapid eutrophication of lakes and streams. Nitrogen and carbon enrichment were also factors in pollution acceleration, but since they occurred naturally, they would be harder to control. Phosphorus occurred naturally only in regions with phosphorus-bearing rocks and minerals. Sources of phosphorus as a result of human activities include agricultural runoff from fertilizers, industrial waste from heavy industry and food processors, and municipal waste from human excrement and other sewage sources. Cleaning products constitute the bulk of phosphorous pollutants. During the time when eutrophication was observed as a significant environmental problem, laundry detergents, dishwashing liquids, cleansers, scouring powders, presoaking compounds, and industrial cleansers all contained phosphorus compounds.

Soap has been used throughout history. Animal or vegetable fats and oils treated with lye (sodium hydroxide) form a water-soluble fatty acid salt that is hydrophobic (water-repelling, but oil- and grease-attracting) at one end and hydrophilic (water-attracting) at the other. The hydrophobic part of soap combines with dirt and grease, while the hydrophilic end rinses into the wash water. Dirt and grease are removed from clothes and discarded with the wash water.

Soaps have the disadvantage, however, that they react with metal impurities found naturally in many water sources to form solid residues. Calcium and magnesium compounds in what is called “hard water” combine with soap to form a residue that adheres to clothes and leaves a dull, gray film. In addition, hard water requires the use of extra amounts of soap, since soap that has combined with calcium and magnesium is not available for cleansing. To replace soap as a cleansing agent, a class of synthetic compound, called surface-active agents, or surfactants, was developed. Like soap, surfactants have both hydrophobic and hydrophilic components and are capable of removing dirt and grease from clothes and other surfaces. Although available in the 1930’s, cleansers containing surfactants were not used extensively until after World War II.

To enhance the cleansing power of surfactants, other components were added, each with its separate function. Among these components were fillers to provide extra bulk, bleach, corrosion inhibitors, whitening agents, colorants, fragrance, enzymes, fabric-softening agents, and substances called builders to enhance the surfactants’ ability to remove dirt and soil. It was found that phosphorus increased the effectiveness of those builders, which is how phosphorus compounds found their way into laundry products.

Builders in general and phosphorus compounds in particular enhanced the cleansing ability of a product by combining with calcium and magnesium salts present in hard water to form soluble substances that did not interfere with the washing procedure. They also adjusted the alkalinity of the wash water to an appropriate level for optimum cleaning (if alkalinity is too low, cleaning is less effective; if it is too high, there is potential for damage to fabrics and for skin irritation to those using the product). Builders also helped prevent the redeposition of the dirt or grease once it had been removed by the surfactant. Phosphate compounds were most frequently added to detergent products as the salt sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).

In the years following World War II, detergent use increased steadily. By 1968, detergent sales comprised more than 80 percent of the laundry market in the United States, with soaps making up the remainder of sales. The phosphate content of detergents generally ran between 30 and 50 percent. Of the phosphorus present in municipal sewage in 1970, it was estimated that 50 to 70 percent came from detergents, the remainder from human waste and other sources. Clearly, reducing or eliminating detergent phosphorus could be predicted to have a significant effect on the eutrophication of lakes and streams.

As the effects of lake and stream eutrophication increased, various environmental public-interest groups began to express their concern. In 1969, a joint international commission from the United States and Canada identified phosphates as a major source of pollution and recommended their removal from laundry products. Advanced stages of eutrophication in the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, both of which lie on the border between the United States and Canada, were of particular concern. Later that year, the National Resources Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Henry S. Reuss (D-WI), held hearings during which representatives of the Soap and Detergent Association defended their use of phosphates in cleaning products.


Detergent manufacturers opposed the public attitude in favor of phosphate bans and legislation regulating their products. The three largest manufacturers, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive, and Lever Brothers, as well as various smaller manufacturers, argued that proper treatment at sewage disposal facilities would eliminate the environmental hazard and obviate the need to curtail use of phosphates in detergents. They argued that no substitute for phosphates could be as effective a cleansing agent. At the same time, however, the industry began to search for a suitable phosphate substitute in laundry formulations.

The first manufacturer to achieve a suitable phosphate-free detergent was Sears, Roebuck & Company Sears, Roebuck & Company , which announced in the summer of 1970 that it would market a phosphate-free laundry detergent. The product, to be manufactured by De Soto, Inc., of Des Plaines, Illinois, replaced phosphate builders with a mixture of sodium carbonate (washing soda), sodium silicate, and other components; various technical problems prevented the release of the product until October, 1970. By that time, Lever Brothers, one of the largest detergent manufacturers, had become the first to market a phosphate-free product. Other companies soon introduced their own product lines, among them Culligan Corporation (Culligan Soap), Days-Ease House Products (Addit), North American Chemical Company (Ecolo-G), Stanson Detergents (Nature), and Darrell Industries (Spring Clean).

The New York Times reported that Suffolk County in New York was the first government in the United States to ban the sale of phosphate-containing detergents with the exception of those found in shampoo and toothpaste. Other city and state agencies soon took similar action, either limiting the maximum permissible amount of phosphate in a laundry product or requiring the complete removal of phosphate from such products. It was suggested, and in some areas required, that warning labels indicating possible environmental danger be placed on detergent boxes. By 1988, more than 28 percent of the city and state governments in the United States had banned the use of phosphate materials in laundry detergent formulation, and most states eventually initiated bans on phosphate-containing home laundry products. Phosphate additives remained legally present in dishwashing liquids and in laundry products for industrial and institutional use. Home laundry products containing phosphates were generally banned in most locations. Pollution;United States Phosphates Detergents

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ainsworth, Susan J. “Product Report: Soaps and Detergents.” Chemical and Engineering News 72 (January 24, 1994): 34-60. Summary of the status of the soap and detergent industry in the United States, covering aspects of current and proposed future development and the current state of phosphates and nonphosphate additives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Dead Lakes Another Washday Miracle: Your Buying Power and Government Action Can Help End Pollution from Detergents.” Consumer Reports 35 (September, 1970): 528-531. Written for general readers, this article describes the effects of eutrophication on lakes and streams, the role of phosphorus in this process, and the steps used to eliminate phosphates from detergents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Griffith, Edward J., Alfred Beeton, Jean M. Spencer, and Dee T. Mitchell. Environmental Phosphorus Handbook. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1973. A complete review of phosphorus, its natural distribution, chemical activity, biological activity, economic role, and environmental impact.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, H. R. Detergents and Pollution: Problems and Technological Solutions. Park Ridge, N.J.: Noyes Data, 1972. Provides a brief but comprehensive summary of the phosphate problem and the search for phosphate substitutes. Above all, describes various detergent manufacturing companies through their patent literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porcella, Donald B., and A. Bruce Bishop. Comprehensive Management of Phosphorus Water Pollution. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ann Arbor Science, 1975. Covers all aspects of phosphorus pollution, including pollution from detergents, and the rate at which pollution progresses. Includes an extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rukeyser, William S. “Fact and Foam in the Row over Phosphates.” Fortune 85 (January 19, 1972): 70-73. Describes the effects of phosphates on lakes and streams, as well as the detergent manufacturers’ assessment of the effect of removing phosphates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">The Soap and Detergent Association. http://www .cleaning101.org. Web site for the Washington, D.C.-based association for the industrial, household, and institutional cleaning products industry. Also provides consumer information for all ages.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. The New Environmental Health. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2003. A comprehensive guide to the relationship between environment and human health. Available at http://www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/ead/.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wang, Lawrence K., et al., eds. Handbook of Industrial and Hazardous Wastes Treatment. 2d ed. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004. A waste-treatment industry “handbook” that also covers the proper handling and treatment of soaps and detergents. At more than thirteen hundred pages, a comprehensive resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zajic, James E. Water Pollution: Disposal and Reuse. Vol. 1. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1971. Summarizes the various aspects of water pollution, the types of pollutants, and the problems of containing and removing pollutants. Also discusses various biological and chemical methods of commercial water treatment.

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