A large number of household detergents and cleaning agents contain components called phosphates, which have been known to cause environmental hazards. The most controversial uses involve dish-washing and laundry detergents, and some states have imposed restrictions or bans on their use.
Phosphates began to replace soap for household purposes after World Way II, due to availability of resources and a growing problem of poor cleaning performance due to hard water.
Phosphates carry into waste systems and are hard to break down by ordinary wastewater processing systems. As they carry into streams, lakes and rivers, they increase algae growth and subsequently decrease the oxygen that is needed for healthy aquatic life, and contribute to the pollution of water bodies.
In the 1960's and early 1970's, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario were found to be heavily polluted with phosphates from detergents, and consumer agencies began calling for their ban. The detergent industry continues to use phosphates in their products on a large scale, but individual states can regulate their use in commercial products.
Phosphates are helpful in softening hard water and also aid in suspending dirt. In very high concentrations, they also are effective in reducing lead dust in places like windowsills.
After highly publicized campaigns against the use of phosphates in household detergents, as well as in outdoor cleaning jobs, some manufacturers offer phosphate-free alternatives for consumer cleaning. Many can be found in natural food stores.