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Do detergents contain a good food for algae?
from Stephanie in Ann Arbor, MI, Age 9

Most of the popular brands of detergents in stores contain chemicals called phosphates. Phosphates are an organic substance (also used in fertilizers) that algae can eat to grow quickly and reproduce rapidly in a process that can lead to the eutrophication of a body of water.

Detergents are often confused with regular soap, but they are actually quite different. They are not natural products and should always be carefully used. Many of them contain very powerful chemicals, bleaches, and enzymes that can be dangerous for you as well as the environment. Detergent residues can even last up to ten times longer than soap in rivers and lakes before being broken down by bacteria! All kinds of detergents destroy the external mucus layers that protect fish from bacteria and parasites. They also lower the water's surface tension, making pesticides and other chemicals more easily absorbed by the fish.

You can ask your shop manager where you can find the available environmentally safe detergents (they should be both bio-degradable and phosphate-free).

Related references:
TEACH: Water pollution in the Great Lakes
TEACH: Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs)
Pennsylvania DNR: Act 31 -- The Phosphate Detergent Act

Thank you for your question!


Answered on August 3, 2001

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