IN the shadow of oil spills, fluorocarbons, and toxic waste, the phosphate-in-detergent issue is small. But small concerns can make a big difference. If you live in a state that doesn't already ban phosphates in laundry detergent, ``you can help to make an immediate difference in water quality by not buying phosphate-based detergent,'' says John Kabler, Chesapeake Bay Area director for Clean Water Action in Baltimore.
Eleven states have banned laundry detergents with over 0.5 percent phosphate - most making exceptions for industrial, agricultural, and hospital use. (Machine dishwasher detergents also contain phosphates.)
No federal action has been taken on a phosphate ban, because each situation is different, says Richard Sedlak, research director of the Soap and Detergent Association: ``The extent to which phosphates are a problem is very localized.'' Detergent phosphate accounts for only 3 percent of all phosphorous emissions overall in the United States, he says, but in some highly populated areas detergent phosphorous is a much more significant percentage.
The first bans on phosphate detergent occurred in the Great Lakes region in the 1970s, when Lake Erie, in particular, was choked with pollution. Other states followed suit, the most recent being Pennsylvania in July.
Detergents have never had a positive image environmentally. One of the first widely noted ecological crises in this country was the foaming streams, rivers, and lakes of the 1950s and early '60s. The soap industry had to reformulate detergents to remove nonbiodegradable chemicals.
Today, ``all [laundry detergent] products that are marketed are biodegradable,'' says Mr. Sedlak.
Phosphates became an issue in the '60s. When phosphate, a plant nutrient, enters a body of water, algae feed on it. Too much phosphate causes algae to grow too fast. When the algae die, two problems are created: Dead algae cloud the water, blocking sunlight. As the algae decompose they use up oxygen, sometimes killing fish.
Mr. Kabler, a veteran of the ``phosphate wars,'' says that this process, called accelerated eutrophication, is a problem in many parts of the country. Phosphate from laundry detergent is just one contributor, he says.
But why have phosphate in detergent at all?
Consumer demand, says Sedlak. Phosphate is a ``marvelous performer,'' softening water and making detergent clean better and more cheaply.
In the '70s, nonphosphate detergents were a flop. Frustrated consumers used more detergent, washed loads twice, or - most alarming to manufacturers - switched to other brands, says Sedlak. Today's powdered nonphosphate detergents (liquid detergents have never had phosphates) are much better, but still are not up to par, he says. Detergents with phosphate yield better performance per dollar spent, he says, which is another reason consumers still rate phosphates high.
But in July 1987, Consumer Reports magazine found that, after testing eight detergents, ``a brand's phosphate version was usually only a little better than its nonphosphate version [sold in states where phosphates are banned]. ... In a couple of instances, the nonphosphate version redeposited a little more grime on the rest of the laundry than the phosphate version did.''
Gregory Good, a consultant at Klein & Co., a private consulting company in Fairfield, NJ, says consumers are not that concerned about the link between detergent and environment. ``Is it [the decision to buy] really environmental - which one works better? Or is it the double coupon? I would say it's the latter,'' says Mr. Good.
``Nobody knew when phosphates were taken out of their detergents,'' says Charles Fox, legislative director of Friends of the Earth, an environmental watchdog organization. ``The average consumer isn't going to know any difference.'' He shares the view of many environmentalists that keeping phosphate in detergents is unnecessary and shortsighted.
``It's a tremendous, politically charged issue involving the chemical industry, detergent industry, and, in some cases, the unions,'' he says. His organization supports a nationwide ban.
Jesse Lynn, development director of laundry detergent for Lever Brothers (Wisk, Surf, All), says manufacturers keep phosphate in powder detergents because it ``aids manufacturing and cleaning, and is cost effective.'' The position of the detergent industry is that sewage treatment is the most effective way to deal with phosphate, says Dr. Lynn.
Phosphate bans have had a remarkable effect in cleaning up he Chesapeake Bay, say environmentalists. The effect of bans has been ``greater than environmentalists ever thought it would be, both in terms of economics and water quality,'' says Clean Water Action's Kabler. Savings to Maryland sewage-treatment plants exceeds $4.4 million per year in chemicals and cartage for phosphate treatment, he says.