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The Dangers of Triphosphates in Detergents: STP vs. TSP

By September 12, 2011Blog, Member News

As we strive to become green in our society much of the focus has been on reducing energy consumption to reduce CO2 and other emissions which pollute our air and amplify global warming. However, it is also important that we take a close look inside our homes and businesses to see how we can green our immediate environment, and also to protect ourselves from dangerous chemicals that unknowingly exist in the products that we use every day.

One assumption that too many people make is that products that they can buy in the store are safe. This is an erroneous assumption, and it starts with our laundry detergents, degreasers, and other cleaners. One of these compounds that is often cited as dangerous and yet found in many of our household cleaners are triphsophates. However, there are a few things to understand about detergents and this substance.

What is STP and TSP?
There are actually two detergent additives which are very similar in name: sodium triphosphate and trisodium phosphate. Sodium triphosphate (STP) is used in many commercial products, particularly in detergents and degreasers, and as a food preservative. This chemical is not known to cause soil or air pollution. However, it can cause some ecological problems in waterways in that it can deplete oxygen and allow some less desirable water species to over produce. Also, it may be harmful to people in certain amounts.

The other similarly named detergent additive is trisodium phosphate (TSP). Trisodium phosphate has also been used in degreasers, cleansers and food additives. Sometimes called simply sodium phosphate, this substance used to be used extensively throughout the developed world. Today, it is not usually used in soaps or cleansers that are designed for home use. However, it is still sometimes used in commercial items. Similar to STP, TSP is particularly dangerous for waterways and water based life.

Are Phosphates Dangerous?
Phosphates as a whole, including STP and TSP, are very damaging to natural waterways and even ground water. It is considered unsafe to flush even gray water containing phosphates into septic or sewer systems. In higher concentrations phosphates are also dangerous to people. It can cause chemical burns upon contact with the skin, burning of the nasal passages and lungs if inhaled, and burning to the eyes, stomach, mouth or other mucous membranes of the human body. Additionally, studies have found that when phosphates are mixed with other compounds they can become even more dangerous.

What Products Contain Trisodium Phosphate?

Trisodium phosphates used to be used in every day cleaners, but now are found mostly in commercial grade products. Items with TSP include commercial grade cleaners and degreasers, as well as both oil based and latex paint, and in soldering flux. It is rare that you will encounter these chemicals directly in your home use products, at least not in things such as soaps that regularly come into contact with your family’s skin.

How Can I Keep My Family Safe from Trisodium Phosphates?
More than half of the United States have made it illegal to use all but the most minute amounts of phosphates of any kind in consumer grade products. However, many commercial products still contain it. There are basically three ways to keep yourself and your family safe, in your home and in the workplace. First, be educated. Try to learn what chemicals are in the products that you use. Second, go green. Strive to choose cleaning products, and other items, that are environmentally friendly and made of natural ingredients. Third, be cautious. Whenever working with an unknown substance always protect yourself with simple precautions. Wear long sleeves, long pants and gloves whenever working with paint, industrial cleaners, cements or anything else questionable. Wear a particle mask or respirator. Also, change your clothing and shower after doing any type of work with industrial grade products.

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