Phosphates are a form of phosphorus that has historically been one of the main ingredients in detergents, in which they serve to improve the detergent’s cleaning efficiency, otherwise known as serving as a “builder.” Their strong cleaning performance, however, has been overshadowed by their harmful effects on rivers, lakes, streams, and other sources of water. High levels of phosphates in these fresh water bodies can be the result of contamination from municipal and domestic wastewater containing phosphates.
Yes, phosphates are an important plant nutrient. However, exceedingly high levels of phosphates can destroy the health of the body of water by allowing algae in the water to grow faster, causing eutrophication. The excess algae may use up all the oxygen in the water, leaving none for other marine life, resulting in their deaths.
Phosphate, phosphorus oxide, is the primary component of much fertilizer, and it is a vital component of all life. Phosphate rock is a mined commodity, and 95% is used to make the acids that ultimately become fertilizer and animal feed supplements. Modern agriculture cannot exist without phosphates. While the issues with detergents and oversupply of nutrients mentioned in wellesleygreen’s answer are not trivial, in terms of volume those uses are tiny compared to the uses in agriculture. Those agricultural uses, in turn, do contribute significantly to eutrophication. The trade off is, fertilizer to make enough crops grow, vs the pollution problems that also come along with them.
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