# Comparing Levels of Phosphates in Dishwasher Detergents

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1 Lesson Plan Grades 9-12 Note: The Student Resource Page and Student Worksheets can be found at the end of this lesson plan. Essential Questions > How can phosphate levels in water be measured? > How much phosphate is in water discharged during a typical of dishwasher cycle, using low phosphate versus regular dishwasher detergent? > Why is phosphate a pollutant? Objectives > Determine levels of phosphate in water discharged during a typical dishwashing cycle, using low phosphate and regular dishwasher detergent. > Compare phosphate levels in dishwasher water discharge with recommended EPA levels. > Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of low-phosphate detergent. > Calculate the water quality index for a given concentration of phosphate. Teacher Notes Not all detergents are created equal. Low or non-phosphate detergents are available in many supermarkets. Some states have banned phosphate in dishwasher detergents. In this activity, students review labels of different dishwasher detergents to determine whether they are high phosphate or a low or non-phosphate alternative. They will then add measured amounts of the detergent to samples of water. They use a simple test kit to compare the phosphate levels of the different types of detergent. The water quality index is a single number that allows easy comparison of data from different sites. This information is more readily understood by the public and so provides a useful measure to communicate about water quality to a wider audience. Students will use the phosphate level data to calculate the water quality index. (See Tables in Student Worksheets for additional information and example data.) The aim of the activity is to show that the phosphate levels depend on the type of detergent used. In the activity, students will estimate the phosphorus concentration in water discharged from a typical dishwashing cycle. They will compare their results with the EPA s recommended limit for phosphate levels in water bodies. The limits are: For lakes and reservoirs, streams and rivers = 0.1 milligrams per liter For streams that discharge into lakes and reservoirs = 0.05 milligrams per liter Therefore, students will conclude that there are environmental benefits to low phosphate detergent. 1

2 Tips > Some states now require all dishwasher detergents to be low in phosphate. If this is the case in your state, you can add a measured amount trisodium phosphate to the detergent. Called TSP, this is commonly available from hardware stores. If you add TSP use 1 gram of TSP per 10 grams of low phosphate detergent. Alternatively you can order regular dishwashing detergent or a detergent that contains phosphate (e.g., Alconox brand) online. > The amount of phosphate in a typical detergent is detectable by inexpensive aquarium test kits, which are accurate to ±1-2 ppm. However, typical levels of phosphate in a detergent solution are likely well above the range measurable by aquarium test kits. Therefore students will need to dilute their solution to measure phosphate levels. > Most kits will include enough tests for one class and cost in the range \$10 to \$20. A typical kit will measure phosphate from 0 to 20 ppm. More expensive kits measuring bigger ranges of phosphate will reduce the dilutions needed to reach the measurable range. > Since detergent can be an irritant, the students should use gloves, safety goggles and lab coats while conducting their experiments. > Print off the student worksheets to use in the class. To calculate levels of phosphorus: 1. Assume the dishwasher uses 5.2 gallons per cycle (see References and Resources: Energy Star dishwasher criteria) = 20 liters. 2. Assume one measure of regular dishwasher detergent contains 5.0 percent phosphate and that one measure = 20 grams. 3. Therefore each measure of detergent contains 20 x 5.0% = 1.0 grams of phosphate. 4. Therefore the level of phosphate = 1.0 grams per 20 liters = 0.05 grams per liter. This is the level of phosphate in a typical dishwasher load. Most test kits measure levels as mg per liter (mg/l). To convert from grams per liter, simply multiply by Therefore 0.05 grams per liter = 50 mg/l. 5. To convert to parts per million. This conversion will be necessary if your test kit measures ppm. 6. For water, 1 ppm = approximately 1 mg/l. Since 0.05 grams = 50 mg, the concentration = 50 ppm (note that this the same as mg/l). Engage 1. Review some of the water Fun Facts (see Teacher Background). 2. Introduce students to key concepts (see Teacher Background) to explain why we should care about what goes into our water. 3. Have students read the NPR article (See References and Resources). Have the students discuss the pros and cons of low phosphate detergent. 4. Show the students lakes and rivers that have undergone eutrophication. 5. Review the EPA recommended levels of phosphate in lakes and rivers and have the students consider if the levels in water discharged from dishwashers is different from the recommended level. 6. Ask students to discuss why aquarists need to measure phosphorus. 7. Follow-up: discuss with students other sources of phosphate pollution besides dishwasher discharge. 2

3 Explain (Sample Answers to Analysis Questions) NOTE: Answers to some of the questions will depend on which brands of detergent and test kit you use. 1. Low phosphate detergent may take one or zero dilution steps to reach levels below 1 ppm. (Levels much below this should be undetectable with the kit.) 2. The actual level is unlikely to be zero. The kit would be unable to detect very low levels of phosphate due to the limited sensitivity of the testing method. 3. If the high phosphate detergent contains 5% phosphate, it would take at least two or three steps to reach undetectable levels. Since each dilution is 10 times you can estimate how many dilution steps it would take if you know the initial phosphate concentration. 4. Since the solution with low phosphate is already at low concentration, fewer dilutions would be needed to make it undetectable. 5. In the low phosphate solution, the phosphate level may already be less than 0.1 ppm. In the high phosphate solution the initial level was much higher than the EPA recommended level. (Example: if the phosphate level is 50 ppm, it is 500 times the recommended level). 6. The EPA level is much lower than water discharged from a dishwasher because phosphate is a limiting nutrient in aquatic ecosystems. 7. Even small amounts of excess phosphate cause algal blooms (eutrophication). The rapid plant growth limits oxygen and kills off fish. 8. An aquarium test kit would likely not be sensitive enough for field applications since EPA scientists want to measure levels as low as 0.1 ppm. Different types of testing have different limitations. 9. The benefit of using low phosphate dishwasher detergent is that discharge is less likely to cause pollution and consequent eutrophication. Lower phosphate levels are easier for sewage plants to manage, reducing the cost of wastewater treatment. The disadvantage of low phosphate dishwasher detergent is that it may not clean dishes as well. However, dishwasher detergents are expected to improve in this regard. 10. Since the simulated dishwasher sample would most likely have a value above 0.4 mg/l (in the Water Quality Index table) the water quality index value would be lower (less than 65.14). 11. If the Water Quality Index falls below 50 it would change from Medium to Bad. References and Resources Are You Are Using A Phosphate Based Detergent? NPR: Dishes Still Dirty? Blame Phosphate-Free Detergent Energy Star dishwasher criteria Understanding Units of Measurement Water Quality Index 3

5 Student Resource Page (Continued) 10. Use the kit to measure the phosphate level in this first dilution. Record your results in the table provided in the row marked Dilution Step Measure out 100 milliliters of the solution from the first dilution (not the original solution!). Again measure and record the phosphate level. 12. Repeat Step 11 with progressively more dilute solutions until you can no longer detect any phosphate in the solution. This procedure is called a serial dilution. 13. Repeat all the above with the high phosphate solution. B. Calculating Water Quality Index 1. Use the Phosphate Quality Chart to find the Q value for your sample of phosphate at Dilution Step 0. (Equivalent to water discharged from a dishwasher.) 2. Substitute the data from step 1 into the row in the Water Quality Table for Total Phosphate (Q-value column). 3. Recalculate the Overall Water Quality Index, based on your data (assume other values of other water quality indicators remain the same). 4. Use the Water Quality Index Ranges table to characterize the simulated dishwasher sample. Analysis 1. Considering the low phosphate detergent, how many dilution steps did it take before you could no longer detect phosphate in the solution? (That is, for the measured phosphate level to reach zero.) 2. Do you think the phosphate level was actually zero? Explain. 3. Considering the high phosphate detergent, how many dilution steps did it take before you could no longer detect phosphate in the solution? 4. Explain why it took a different number of dilution steps for the phosphate to be undetectable in the low versus high phosphate detergent. 5. Consider that the EPA recommended level for phosphorus in lakes and reservoirs is 0.1 milligrams per liter (= 0.1 ppm). Consider also that the first solution you used is a typical amount of detergent used in a dishwasher. How much higher was the phosphate level in your first solution compared to the EPA recommended level? 6. Consider the kinds of the minerals and nutrients used by plants. Explain why the EPA recommended level is different from the level in water discharged from a dishwasher. 7. Describe the effects on aquatic organisms when water with high levels of phosphate is discharged into lakes and rivers. 8. When EPA scientists test water in lakes and rivers for phosphates, do you think the type of test kit you used would be suitable? Explain. 9. What are the benefits and drawbacks of using low phosphate dishwasher detergent? 10. How did the Water Quality Index change when you substituted the phosphate data from your simulated dishwasher sample? 11. Did the quality of water change from Medium (see Table in Worksheet)? If so, how?

6 Phosphate levels: Low phosphate detergent Student Worksheet Dilution step Amount of detergent* (grams) Amount of water added (liters) Calculated phosphate level* Measured phosphate level (mg/l or ppm)** * Calculate this from the amount of water added in your dilution step. ** Enter the value obtained used the phosphate test kit. Phosphate levels: High phosphate detergent Dilution step Amount of detergent* (grams) Amount of water added (liters) Calculated phosphate level* Measured phosphate level (mg/l or ppm)** * Calculate this from the amount of water added in your dilution step. ** Enter the value obtained used the phosphate test kit.

7 Phosphate Quality Chart Student Worksheet Chart from

8 Water Quality Table Student Worksheet Test Results for: Raw Data (Column A) Q-value (Column B) Weighting Factor (Column C) 1. Dissolved Oxygen 60% sat TOTAL (Column D) 2. Fecal Coliform 20 colonies 100 ml (est) 3. ph 8 units BOD 6 mg/l Temperature 0; C Total Phosphate.4 mg/l Nitrates.8 mg/l Turbidity 3/feet (100/cm) Total Solids 709 mg/l Overall Water Quality Index (est) Table from Water Quality Index Ranges Excellent Good Medium Bad 0-25 Very Bad Data from

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