Sunday, May 20, 2012

Phosphorus, detergent, and Canada's Experimental Lakes
I'm angry at the people who decided that phosphate was growing algae. I'm not sure that I believe that.  –Sue Wright, Texas
Sue Wright, quoted above, was upset because in 2010, sixteen American states banned the sale of dishwashing detergent containing high levels of phosphorus, an aquatic pollutant that sometimes causes eutrophication (algal blooms). Unfortunately, phosphorus is a rather effective component of detergent, so phosphorus-free dishwashing detergents did not immediately perform quite as well as their predecessors. This led some consumers (like our pal Sue) to complain to detergent manufacturers, state governments, consumer protection agencies, and the media.

What I like most about Sue’s complaint is that her anger was directed toward “the people who decided that phosphate was growing algae” rather than the policymakers who drafted and enacted the legislation. Her implied logic is exquisite – a factual claim has resulted in legislation that negatively affects some aspect of my life, therefore I don’t believe this factual claim and furthermore am angry at those who made it!

So, who specifically should Sue have directed her anger toward? Which jackass scientist “decided that phosphate was growing algae”?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that many independent studies (involving various research groups) have demonstrated that phosphorus pollution, under some conditions, will stimulate algal growth and lead to eutrophication (see Schindler 2006 for a review). Here, I will focus on just one of these studies, perhaps the most influential.

My real motivation for discussing this particular paper is the recent announcement that the Canadian Government is discontinuing its operation of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a collection of 58 pristine lakes that for over 40 years have been set aside for long-term ecosystem monitoring and ecosystem-scale experiments (more on the ELA later).

Green sludge

In the 1960s and 70s, many North American rivers and lakes, especially the Great Lakes, were experiencing rapid declines in water quality (see here and here). Industrial and municipal effluents were stimulating the growth of algae and other aquatic plants (termed ‘eutrophication’) leading to unsightly mats of green sludge, oxygen depletion, massive die-offs of fish and other aquatic life, and problems with the taste and odour of municipal drinking water.

The August 1969 issue of Time Magazine describes the then deteriorating state of Lake Erie:
Each day, Detroit, Cleveland and 120 other municipalities fill Erie with 1.5 billion gallons of inadequately treated wastes, including nitrates and phosphates. These chemicals act as fertilizer for growths of algae that suck oxygen from the lower depths and rise to the surface as odoriferous green scum. Commercial and game fish … have nearly vanished ... Weeds proliferate, turning water frontage into swamp. In short, Lake Erie is in danger of dying by suffocation.
The public, industry, and all levels of government agreed that something had to be done to curb the declining state of North American waterways. However, there was disagreement over the most effective course of regulatory action because at the time, scientists and policymakers were still debating which nutrients were responsible for eutrophication. Was algal growth primarily limited by carbon, nitrogen, or phosphorus?

Schindler 1974

Experiments are the best way to establish causation, but are not always feasible. For example, the best way to test the anthropogenic climate change hypothesis would be to release copious quantities of greenhouse gas into the atmospheres of a random sample of earth-like planets, leave another randomly-chosen bunch of planets untouched, and then compare change in climate across the two groups of planets. Clearly this is not feasible, and clearly we can’t experimentally pollute a bunch of lakes just for the sake of science. Right? Wrong. Well, wrong to the second assertion at least.

The aforementioned Experimental Lakes Area is (was) a wonderful place where scientists could manipulate whole lakes to test hypotheses on the scale of entire ecosystems. In the late 1960s and early 70s, David Schindler – a Canadian limnologist who at the time was director of the ELA – oversaw a number of whole-lake experiments designed to determine which nutrient (out of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus) was primarily responsible for eutrophication.

In an initial experiment, Schindler et al. added copious amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus to Lake 227 which naturally had an extremely low concentration of dissolved carbon. If algal growth was primarily limited by carbon (and not nitrogen or phosphorus), then the N + P treatment should not stimulate the growth of algae. However, this was not the case. Within weeks of the treatment, Schindler et al. observed that Lake 227 “was transformed into a teeming, green soup” with algal concentrations up to two orders of magnitude higher than nearby untreated lakes. Clearly, low levels of carbon had not been limiting the growth of algae.

In a second experiment, Schindler et al. divided another lake, Lake 226, into two equal halves using a large vinyl curtain that was sealed into the sediment and surrounding bedrock. The team added an equivalent amount of carbon and nitrogen to both halves of the lake, but added phosphorus to only one side. This manipulation resulted in what James Elser at Arizona State University has called “the single most powerful image in the history of limnology”.

Figure 1. Lake 226 following fertilization with carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus (below divider) versus carbon and nitrogen only (above divider).

Just a few months after the nutrient additions began, the side of the lake receiving C + N + P was completely covered by a bloom of blue-green algae whereas algae levels on the C + N side were essentially unchanged from when the nutrient additions began. It was abundantly clear that phosphorus had been limiting the growth of algae in Lake 226.

In a final experiment, Schindler et al. manipulated a third lake, Lake 304, to test whether, and how quickly, a lake could recover from phosphorus-induced eutrophication. The team measured the concentration of algae in Lake 304 at approximately monthly intervals over the course of five years, between 1969 and 1973. For three of those years, 1971–1973, the lake received additions of carbon and nitrogen, and for two years, 1971–1972, also received phosphorus. The experiment therefore mimicked what might happen if governments took steps to limit the amount of phosphorus entering a polluted water body. The general finding was that summertime algal concentrations increased dramatically in 1971 and 1972 when the lake was being fertilized with C + N + P, but returned to near baseline levels in 1973 after phosphorus fertilization was discontinued.

Figure 2. Chlorophyll a concentrations (a proxy for algal growth) in Lake 304 from 19691973. Boxplots are based on data extracted from Figure 2 of Schindler 1974 and only include samples from mid-summer; between June and September.

This result again demonstrated that algal growth was limited by phosphorus, and furthermore showed that reducing the amount of phosphorus entering a polluted lake could lead to rapid recovery.

This series of experiments led by Schindler was instrumental in convincing scientists, governments, and the public that phosphorus played a significant role in eutrophication and should therefore be regulated. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the Canadian government and many American states enacted legislation banning or limiting the use of phosphorus in laundry detergents and other cleaning products.

The Experimental Lakes Area

Schindler’s work on eutrophication represents just a small fraction of the world-class research conducted at the Experimental Lakes Area. Over the past 40 years, research carried out at the ELA has led to 676 peer-reviewed publications including 8 papers in the journal Nature and 15 in Science (the most prestigious scientific journals). In addition, 116 graduate theses and 158 technical reports have been based on research at the ELA.

Much of the research carried out at the ELA has been highly relevant to public policy. Scientists with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and researchers from universities across Canada and the world have used the ELA to determine how aquatic ecosystems are impacted by things like synthetic hormones from birth control pills, acid rain, aquaculture, common forms of habitat destruction such as the removal of aquatic vegetation, hydroelectric reservoirs, eutrophication, and the accumulation of heavy metals and organic toxicants. A news article in the journal Science refers to the ELA as “Ecology’s supercollider” and James Elser of Arizona State University suggests that “it’s hard to overstate the impact [the ELA] has had”.

Tragically, the Canadian government feels that $600,000 per year (the ELA’s estimated operating budget) is too high a price to pay for world-class environmental science. In case it isn’t clear, I emphatically disagree.


Schindler, D. (1974). Eutrophication and Recovery in Experimental Lakes: Implications for Lake Management Science, 184 (4139), 897-899 DOI: 10.1126/science.184.4139.897


  1. I'm saving this article for later use when I'll need some support in arguing about environmental issues. The picture is priceless. Oddly enough, yesterday I bought a book about aquatic plant environments and although I just browsed it so far, looking at the pictures, the issue of this sort of pollution popped up pretty often as a decidedly detrimental factor for reducing biodiversity and damaging the often very small localities.

    I apologize for some grammar nazism and language nitpickery beforehand, especially being first-time commenter - I'm an editor and it just hurts my eyes. The element in question is phosphorus. Only -us at the end. There is phosphorous acid and stuff but it's phosphorus in the washing powders and it's phosphorus which makes algae grow like mad.
    And now I'm going back to hide under a big stone.

  2. Yikes, that’s embarrassing. I noticed that it was often spelled ‘phosphorus’, but I guess I assumed it was a British vs. American thing. Thanks for pointing that out!

    Yes, it does seem to be an incredibly prevalent problem. I certainly don’t have to travel far to find waterways completely choked with algae, and a report for the United Nations suggests the problem is much worse in developing countries. This reminds me of pictures from National Geographic of a massive algal bloom in China, similar to the one that nearly derailed a sailing regatta during the Beijing Olympics. Apparently these blooms occur rather frequently are caused by eutrophication as well as seaweed aquaculture operations off the coast. Very depressing...

  3. What I find interesting is the regulatory focus on the nitrogen cycle. There is significantly more regulation regarding nitrification and a growing trend towards denitrification as well. Anyone who studies the nitrogen cycle for more than a minute or two should understand that we are spending billions globally to just move nitrogen around.
    Phosphorus on the other hand, using Schindler’s data, is clearly the culprit in regards to eutrophication; however it isn’t nearly as regulated. The nitrogen regulation of point sources has done little more than create ever increasing costs and energy consumption. Nitrification is likely a worthwhile endeavor, but I believe the proverbial jury is still out on denitrification. Just look at the lakes in this article, you’ll find that clearly nitrogen is not the problem. While ammonia/ammonium is toxic to many aquatic species in our waterways, nitrites and nitrates do not seem to be nearly as problematic.
    On a bit of a side note, nitrification and denitrification require extremely high amounts of energy for aeration and recirculation of the flow. If the regulatory agencies had any level of real concern about “carbon footprints” they would focus more on phosphorus which can be precipitated out with metal salts, and refrain from such stringent regulations towards nitrogen compounds.

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