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Slow and Steady Won this Clean Water Race

guest posting by Jonathan A. Scott, for Clean Water Action

Will Industry's New Phosphate "Ban" Usher in a New Era of Pollution Prevention?

New Blog BadgeIn 2010, should any company be allowed to produce a consumer product that is expressly designed to pollute?

Since the 1940s, the largest corporate purveyors of laundry detergents (and more recently automatic dishwasher detergents) have done just that by including phosphates as an integral part of their products. When used as directed, those products and that phosphate pollution go straight where intended: into appliances, down the drain and into our water.

The problem of phosphate pollution was already so bad in the early 1970s when Clean Water Action was getting its start that phosphates captured an entire chapter in organizational founder Dave Zwick's bestselling expose, Water Wasteland. The chapter was titled, Pollution for Sale: Detergents.

That is one reason why the news that the American Cleaning Council (a manufacturer's trade group representing most detergent companies, formerly known as the Soap and Detergent Association) will announce a voluntary ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergents effective July 1, 2010 is such a big deal.

More than four decades have passed since early Clean Water Action leaders and others first called for phosphates to be removed from laundry and dishwashing detergents. The fact that it took so long is a testament to the political power and insider lobbying prowess of the "big three" companies which dominated the industry for much of that time (Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers), fighting tooth and nail against phosphate bans at every level. That's a depressing thought.

But it is also a testament to the staying power and persistence of grassroots environmental organizing by Clean Water Action and others. This victory, even coming four decades later than hoped, shows promising new synergies evolving between environmental activism, newer companies and their leaders embracing a new environmental business ethic, and an increasingly enlightened consumer public willing to demand and purchase environmentally safer alternatives.

In the 1970 or 1980's it would have been unthinkable for almost any manufacturer of cleaning products for the consumer market to go on the record saying what Seventh Generation's Martin Wolf (aka Scienceman) has to offer in his company's June 29 news release on the ban: "If a negative environmental impact can be lessened or avoided, both industry and consumers have a responsibility to do so," said Martin Wolf, a leading authority on the environmental impact of household cleaning products. "This is a landmark moment, and as a company that's worked for years to make this desperately needed change a reality, we're celebrating a well-earned victory in the effort to build a healthier, cleaner world."

A mandatory federal ban passed decades ago would have done much to improve water quality over the years, but this new voluntary ban is still good news at a time when good news about the nation's water is all too scarce. For one thing, the ban means that more attention can now be paid to some of the bigger remaining problems, starting with phosphates and other nutrient pollution from industrial-intensive agriculture, over-fertilization of lawns and gardens, and outdated water systems that flush the pollution from farms and communities into our waterways.

The concept itself - the idea of going "upstream" to eliminate pollutants at the source, in this case, the phosphates in dishwasher detergents - is a commonsense approach whose time has surely come. In the face of today's most intractable water problems, "upstream" solutions that keep pollution out of the water in the first place, rather than waiting to act until after the contamination has already occurred may offer the most promising path forward.

Our situation today may be a bit more complicated and challenging than it was in the 1960s and 1970s, but the fundamental truth revealed in this exchange during a 1969 Congressional hearing on phosphates, as documented in Water Wasteland, endures. Here, U.S. Rep. Henry Reuss (D-WI) grills Assistant Secretary of the Interior Carl Klein on the issue:

Mr. Reuss: [Is it not a fact that] by and large the phosphate which shows up at sewage disposal plants comes from two main sources - household detergents and human waste?

Mr. Klein: Yes, sir.

Mr. Reuss: And household detergents are made by three major manufacturers?

Mr. Klein: That is correct.

Mr. Reuss: And human wastes are made by a couple hundred million manufacturers; is that correct?

Mr. Klein: Yes, sir.

Mr. Reuss: Well, doesn't it occur to you that it is easier to do something about three than about a couple hundred million?

In fact, competition from companies offering greener alternatives to the biggest players' phosphate laden products was an important factor in the eventual phosphate ban victory. But even though there are now many more than just the "three major manufacturers" the focus for solutions - whether regulatory, legislative or voluntary - can and should remain on the much smaller number of corporate manufacturing players on the "upstream" end of the spectrum.

Pollution from phosphates, an essential nutrient in minute quantities, can easily overwhelm waterways, causing algae blooms that decay and leave the water without oxygen and unable to sustain life. Clean Water Action has supported phosphate detergent bans starting before Congressional debates and hearings which led to the 1972 Clean Water Act. Clean Water Action played key roles in bans later adopted around the Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.

As additional states passed mandatory bans and facing mounting pressure from environmental groups and consumers, the industry finally relented by phasing phosphates out of laundry detergents in the 1990's, while continuing to insist that the polluting ingredient remained essential for automatic dishwashing. Meanwhile emerging industry leaders, including Seventh Generation and others, advanced phosphate-free formulas and joined environmentalists in pressing for further action by states and other manufacturers. States that previously banned or improved regulation of phosphates in dishwasher detergent include Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont and Washington.

Detergent Industry's Voluntary Phosphate Ban: Good News For Water, But A Long Time Coming

Clean Water Action Statement on Phosphate Detergents and Water

Washington, DC - On July 1, 2010 a voluntary ban on phosphates in dishwasher detergents will be implemented by many members of the American Cleaning Council (formerly the Soap and Detergent Association), a manufacturer's trade group representing most detergent companies.

"Industry's announcement on phosphates in dishwasher detergents is welcome news, indeed, if somewhat overdue," said Jonathan Scott, a spokesman for Clean Water Action, founded in the early 1970's to fight for clean, safe water. "Even small amounts of phosphates can wreak havoc when they get into our water," Scott says, "so it's the last thing you want as an ingredient in detergents, which are specifically designed to end up in the water by way of household appliances and drain pipes."

"Good news is all too scarce these days, when it comes to our water. Between the BP Gulf oil disaster, and a host of other problems, it is clear that the nation's commitment to clean and safe water has faltered.

Published On: 
06/28/2010 - 08:51
Contact Name: 
Jon Scott, Acting Media Director, jscott@cleanwater.org, 202-330-2379

Hands Across the Sand: Say No To Oil Drilling And Yes To A Clean Energy Economy

Hands across the sand June 2010 banner

It's clear from the disaster in the Gulf that oil is risky, dirty, and dangerous.

Join Clean Water Action members and supporters in Florida on Saturday, June 26th for a national day of action to help clean up America's energy and to call on President Obama to move us off oil.

Find a Hand Across the Sand event in Florida, New Jersey, or in other parts of the U.S. or around the world.

For local organizing or attendance information in Florida, please contact Kathy Aterno.

Promote upstream solutions and restore America's commitment to clean and safe water.

Building the New Energy Economy

President Obama was right to emphasize the job creation potential and economic stakes for America's leadership on global warming solutions in his State of the Union address this week.

Strategic use of federal stimulus monies is one of the best ways to jump-start the nation's transition to a clean energy economy. Planned investments in high speed rail, new energy efficiency technologies, clean energy start-ups and entrepreneurs can deliver the right combination of near term and longer range benefits.

By re-asserting the imperative for U.S. action and leadership on global warming, the President signaled the urgency and importance of Senate action to complete work on comprehensive energy and global warming legislation begun by the House.

Published On: 
02/03/2010 - 10:57
Contact Name: 
Roger Smith, 860-232-6232

Statement in Support of Funding the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act

Act Now To Fund Jobs That Save Lives

Diesel truck with black smokeLegislation to create jobs is moving forward in Congress, and environmental health advocates have a great opportunity to significantly increase the funding to reduce diesel emissions. The request for $1 billion would potentially save or generate 19,000 jobs and increase economic output by over $3 billion.

It is a great opportunity to protect public health, curb greenhouse gases and otherwise protect the environment while putting Americans to work and boosting the economy. Please contact your House representative and two Senators to urge them to support $1 billion in the jobs package to reduce diesel emissions today. 

January 11, 2010

The Honorable Harry Reid
Senate Majority Leader
522 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Majority Leader Reid:

We are writing as a broad-based group of environmental, health and industry organizations to urge you to include $1 billion for the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2005 ("DERA") in the anticipated jobs package.

Published On: 
01/11/2010 - 10:57

Chesapeake Currents Summer 2009

PDF icon Chesapeake Currents Summer 2009

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How Safe is Your Bath Tub?

Summer 2009, Volume 37, No. 2

Baby in tubChildren's bubble baths should be clean, safe and fun. But No More Toxic Tub, a report published in March 2009 by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics in partnership with Clean Water Action and other organizations, found contaminants and other hazardous ingredients in numerous popular shampoos, soaps and body care products marketed to babies and children. The report lists 38 products that were shown to be contaminated with the carcinogenic chemicals formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane or both, although neither contaminant appears on product labels.

Chesapeake Currents|Online: Archive

Chesapeake Currents|online, Summer 2009

In this issue of Chesapeake Currents|Online:

Keep Virginia Uranium Mining Ban

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