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E-M:/ Detergent Phosphorus and the Soap Police......


In response to your Enviro-Mich posting I will be glad to share a little information with you.

The administrative rules promulgated under the cleaning agents and detergent phosphorus act restricted HOUSEHOLD laundry detergents to no more than 0.5 % total Phosphorus by weight (half of one percent total P) This restriction does NOT apply to products sold for use in COMMERCIAL laundries (such as those used by restaurants, hotels, uniform supply companies, etc. etc.).  Detergents for commercial laundries may contain up to 7.8% total Phosphorus by weight.  Other cleaning agents (such as surface cleaners like TSP, dishwasher soaps, etc.) may contain either 7.8% P or 8.7% P depending on their intended uses. 

Across the United States, a little over half of the states have enacted some form of detergent P restrictions.  I think that either 26 or 28 of the fifty states limit household laundry detergent P to a half of a percent or less.  Most of the states with limits are either coastal states or states with important freshwater resources.  

There is also some movement to extend the phosphorus limitations to dishwashing detergents.  In the early 70's when the laundry detergent restriction were enacted, automatic dishwashers were pretty rare items in most households and they were not considered a significant environmental source of phosphorus.  Now that almost every home has one and they are common fixture in almost all new construction, it may be time to revisit this issue.  Influent loads of total phosphorus to wastewater treatment plants have increased with increasing use of automatic dishwashers.

With the advent of the national "big box" chain stores we are seeing more of a problem with high P household laundry detergents coming into Michigan.  Very often the big discount stores will buy large lots of unsold or surplus products from other locations in the nation and ship them to Michigan stores.  Sometimes this results in a load of high Phosphorus detergent being sold for household use in Michigan.  Dennis Swanson of our staff routinely visits retail outlets around the state checking for these products.  There is generally a "die cut" indented code on the box that starts with either "0" or "P" (indicating zero phosphorus--i.e. less than a half of a percent or higher Phosphorus levels).  We also randomly check products labeled "0" to be sure that they are meeting the 0.5% limit.  One recent lot of high P laundry detergent that we found was labeled in English and Spanish and had come in from an Arizona wholesaler.

In recent years we have busted a number of retail outlets for selling the higher P detergents illegally in Michigan.  These include PACE Membership warehouse ($75,000 penalty + $1,500 costs); Consolidated Stores d.b.a Big Lots ($80,000 penalty + $5,000 costs); The Kroger Company ($50,000 penalty + $1,500 costs); and Spartan Stores ($25,000 penalty, $25,000 Supplemental Environmental Project, and $2,000 costs).  It is well documented that the detergent phosphorus "ban" was the most significant action taken by Great Lakes States to slow the rate of cultural eutrophication of the Great Lakes and connecting waters.  It is probably the primary single reason that Lake Erie recovered from being a "dead" lake to a now being a productive, sustainable ecosystem.  We vigorously enforce this law and take aggressive action against violators (although we have been the subject of a  good deal of kidding for being "The Soap Police").  More detail on each of the aforementioned cases can be found on the Surface Water Quality Division - Enforcement Section web pages on the MDEQ web site.

Hope this information helps.


Thomas K. Rohrer, Chief
Enforcement Unit
Michigan Department of Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 30273
Lansing,  MI  48909-7773
(517) 335-4101
(517) 373-2040 - fax

e-mail = rohrert@state.mi.us

"Protecting and enhancing the quality of Michigan's surface waters"

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Enviro-Mich message from "Carol Griffin"<griffinc@gvsu.edu>

     I thought the Great Lakes states banned P in detergents in the 1970s.  
     1.  Was that just for household detergents?
     2.  Did the ban then become nationwide?
     C. Griffin
     218 Padnos
     Grand Valley State Univ.
     Allendale, MI   49401

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