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Ciba Found Symp. 1977 Sep 13-15;(57):253-68.

The use of phosphate in detergents and possible replacements for phosphate.


About 5% of the total phosphate mined worldwide is used in detergents. The chemical form in which phosphate is used in detergents is predominantly pentasodium triphosphate (PSTP). The most significant feature for the use of PSTP in detergents is its ability to form soluble and strong complexes with calcium and magnesium ions. This provides a strong synergism with regard to detergency when PSTP is used in combination with synthetic surfactants. Other important features of PSTP are its ability to disperse dirt in the washing solution, its weak alkalinity, its crystalline form when dry (which enables production of crisp powders) and, last but not least, its toxicological acceptability. The development of PSTP for use in detergents has a history of over 25 years. In certain areas of highly developed countries where effluents from major centres of population can reach stagnant surface waters a rapid increase of eutrophication of these surface waters is observed. Phosphates are being recognized as one of the essential nutrients contributing to the eutrophication and detergents are one of the many sources of phosphate discharged to the environment. This is now causing demands for reduction in or even banning of the use of phosphates in detergents. Major reserach projects and some practical approaches to meeting these demands are described. The potential environmental impact of removing phosphate from detergents remains, however, doubtful, as it has been demonstrated in Sweden that phosphate removal by sewage treatment is the most effective measure to control phosphate discharges. This makes the case of phosphates in detergents an example of how science and technology can become entangled with politics.

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