They’re hidden in the stuff you use to clean dirty laundry, and in the suds that scrub your food crusts away.
Those invisible phosphates travel down the drain, and into Canada’s lakes and streams.
Then they become dangerous.
Phosphates encourage growth of blue-green algae and weeds, which changes the balance of oxygen and other gases in aquatic ecosystems. Without the normal amount of oxygen, fish and other water animals go belly up. It also makes water unsafe—and unpleasant—for humans to swim in.
A new federal strategy aims to wash Canadians’ hands of this source of pollution. Or some of it, at least.
Environment Minister John Baird recently announced a plan to clean up Canadian laundry and dish detergents. By 2010, phosphates found in household laundry and dishwashing detergents would be limited to 0.5 per cent instead of the current 2.2 per cent.
A phosphate-led increase of algae in water has restricted the “ability to enjoy many summer holiday locations” across Canada, Baird said at a Feb. 15 news conference.
Phosphate contamination plagued water bodies in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta last year. In Quebec alone, more than 50 lakes were closed because of blue-green algal blooms.
Baird said the federal plan will work in tandem with other government initiatives. “Along with our plans to ban the dumping of raw sewage and improve sewage treatment across Canada, today’s action should have a positive effect on the environment.”
The announcement closely followed calls in Washington for urban and rural phosphate reduction by the International Joint Commission. The IJC is an organization founded to prevent and resolve conflicts regarding boundary waters between Canada and the United States.
Scientists in the environmental community welcome the Canadian government’s announcement. But they think it may not be the best way to wash away phosphate contamination.
Bruce Reid is director of Water Science and Engineering for the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RVCA) – an Eastern Ontario organization representing a region troubled by phosphate contamination.
Reid says the RVCA collects water samples from 50 sites along the Rideau River and its streams throughout the year. He says phosphate levels at most sites “regularly exceed provincial water quality standards.”
This means that phosphate-promoted algal blooms are gumming up water in both the rural Rideau Valley and the city of Ottawa.
But Reid said the government’s limit on phosphates in detergents may not do the trick. He said in rural areas, contamination can also result from phosphate-rich agricultural run-off or pollution from septic systems.
Limiting phosphates in detergent might reduce only one of many contributors to phosphate pollution, and some manufacturers may simply replace phosphates with other similar agents.
Phosphates in urban areas are generally filtered through water treatment plants, added Reid. That means phosphates in detergents won’t necessarily be returned to waterways. It makes the causal relationship between phosphates in detergents and phosphates ending up in lakes difficult to calculate.
Environment Canada did not include any supporting research along with its announcement of the detergent limits.
Reid said without seeing the numbers, he could not comment on whether it would make a significant impact on the phosphate pollution.
“We have no way of knowing how effective this government action will be,” he said.
Nevertheless, Reid is pleased about the announcement.
“Anything done to reduce the phosphate loadings in our waterways is a good thing.”
Miriam Diamond, an environmental scientist at the University of Toronto, welcomes the announcement too.
“I think its overdue,“ she said. But, she echoed Reid’s concern that phosphate contamination is diverse. She said detergent limits could be beneficial, but “it depends which lake and it depends where.”
Diamond says municipalities should take the lead in combating phosphates. She wants to see more federal money for infrastructure renewal, so each community could make its own choice on preventing phosphate pollution.
Diamond says she is disturbed by the current situation in which cities are fighting individually for infrastructure renewal funds.
“There’s been a lot of dueling going on between [Finance Minister] Flaherty and the communities,” she said.
“Competing for the breadcrumbs to renew infrastructure is simply inadequate.”Capital News Online