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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Consumers say no to phosphates

In the absence of government regulations, some Liberty Lake residents are changing their consumer habits in hopes of improving the health of the Spokane River.

A year ago, Beth Cocchiarella started bypassing super-cleaning giants like Electrasol in favor of the lesser known Seventh Generation, a phosphate-free automatic dishwasher detergent.

“We just have to make the connection in people’s minds between the river we love and the things we can do,” Cocchiarella said.

Washing a load of dishes with phosphate detergents can add up to six grams of phosphorus to community wastewater. Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District officials estimate dishwashers account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the phosphorus entering the district’s sewage treatment plant.

Detergent industry representatives say phosphorus softens water and improves cleaning. But researchers are finding that the compound that makes cheesy foods magically disappear is becoming the scourge of the Spokane River.

Phosphates come from a variety of natural and man-made sources and, when discharged into the river, fertilize algae.

Ongoing river studies determined an overabundance of algae is depleting oxygen and threatening fish and aquatic life in the Spokane River and in Long Lake, a downstream reservoir that’s also known as Lake Spokane.

The Washington State Department of Ecology is expected to enact some of the strictest phosphorus regulations in the nation for sewage treatment plants and industries that discharge into the Spokane River.

Liberty Lake Sewer and Water District is building an $11 million treatment plant that will need costly upgrades relying on emerging technology to further reduce phosphorus levels. The district could save some of that money if residents used nonphosphate detergents.

The district held hearings recently to gauge support for banning phosphate dishwasher detergents, and will discuss the matter again Wednesday. One meeting attracted representatives from the Soap and Detergent Association, a Washington D.C.-based trade association, and Proctor & Gamble Co.

Although a ban would be largely symbolic (unless backed by a city ordinance), it could rally community support.

Thirty years ago the district asked citizens not to use laundry detergents containing phosphorus to help the water quality in the lake, and the community embraced the request.

Midwestern and East Coast cities passed laws banning phosphate in laundry soaps. The ban spread, and today’s laundry detergents are phosphate-free.

Liberty Lake resident Tom Brattebo thinks people should change their own behavior instead of relying on technology to solve problems.

“It just seems like if we quit putting it (phosphorus) in, they wouldn’t have to find a way to take it all out,” Brattebo said.

Brattebo, a retiree who volunteers through AmeriCorps, started lobbying local stores to stock alternative detergents.

“I’m disappointed that the local stores tell me that all the decisions are made back at corporate. Nobody seems to really want to be on the proactive end,” said Brattebo.

Instead of shopping in Liberty Lake, he now drives into Spokane Valley to buy Seventh Generation from Fred Meyer.

Locals say today’s phosphate-free formulas work just fine, in spite of industry warnings that they underperform and prematurely wear out dishwashers.

“I think it’s just the typical marketing ploys. I don’t notice any spots or crud on our dishes,” said Kerry Masters, who used alternative detergents in the same dishwasher for more than 20 years.

Karen Toreson tried alternative soaps and was pleasantly surprised: “I have to tell you, I’m really happy with the results.”

During a phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office, Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Soap and Detergent Association, said today’s dishwasher detergents have one-third less phosphorous than they did in the 1980s, because new enzymes were developed.

Proctor & Gamble officials have said that the company lost $300 million on a test of phosphate-free products in Arizona and Europe during the 1990s.

If customers support phosphate-free dishwasher detergents, Griesing expects that industry leaders will invest in developing alternative products.

“Our members are not going to walk away from a market,” he said. “It’s America, and that’s how things get done.”