PHOSPHATES IN RIVERS

Summary
Phosphorus plays a major role in fundamental processes that are essential to the
life of animals and plants e.g. for cell respiration and as a component of DNA.
The living tissues of all animals and plants contain significant amounts of
phosphates, as well as other sorts of phosphorus compounds.
The main source of phosphorus in nature is the slow weathering of rocks and
soils. Plants takeup phosphates through their roots and incorporate them into
their cells and tissues. !hen plants are eaten, the phosphorus they contain
passes to animals. "#creta from animals, together with dead animals and plants,
returns phosphorus to the soil via micro$ial decomposition. %n sta$le
environments, the total &uantity of phosphorus therefore stays &uite constant as
it cycles round the ecosystem.
!ithin the last '(( years large amounts of artificial phosphate chemicals have
$een produced which ultimately pass into the environment. A$out )(* of the
artificial phosphates produced are applied to agricultural land as fertiliser to
promote high yields of crops. The remaining production of phosphate chemicals
is used for a variety of purposes, including detergent manufacture, animal feeds
and industrial processes. The comparatively low and sta$le levels of phosphorus
cycling through river ecosystems have increased as a result of human activities.
"nhanced inputs of phosphates from human sources +together with other
nutrients such as nitrates, may stimulate plant growth in rivers, and in some
cases -$looms. of algae. This process is known as -eutrophication.. !hen the
resulting $looms of algae and weed die, the process of decomposition strips
o#ygen from the river water.
Sewage is one important route $y which phosphates may enter rivers. The
principal sources of phosphates in sewage are human faeces and urine, food
wastes +together around /0* of phosphates in sewage,, detergents and
industrial effluent that is discharged to sewer.
Sewage treatment works perform an important function in controlling the amount
of phosphorus in the treated effluent that is discharged to rivers. 1onventional
sewage treatment processes typically remove '02(* of the phosphorus
compounds present in raw sewage, depending on the precise treatment methods
used.
3urther steps may $e needed where the receiving river is at risk from high
nutrient inputs. 4ver '5( major works in "ngland and !ales have, or are in the
process of, installing nutrient reduction e&uipment as part of the National
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"nvironmental Programme agreed with the "nvironment Agency and the industry
regulator 43!AT.
There are encouraging signs that policies to reduce the pro$lem of eutrophication
are starting to have an effect. The 9: government has recognised that an
integrated strategy is re&uired to $ring a$out longterm improvements in the
nutrient status of rivers. %n addition to the removal of nutrients at sewage
treatment works, this will focus on reducing inputs at source and $etter
agricultural waste management.
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What are phosphates?
Phosphorus is a common natural element, $ut $ecause it is highly reactive, it is
never found in its free state. %n nature, phosphorus atoms always com$ine with
other elements to form chemical compounds. .Phosphates. are a group of such
compounds in which phosphorus is com$ined with o#ygen. A range of other
elements, such as hydrogen and calcium may also $e present within phosphate
compounds.
%n nature, phosphate compounds are found in soils and minerals such as
phosphate -rock. +primarily calcium phosphate, and they also occur dissolved in
river water and seawater. The living tissues of all animals and plants also contain
significant amounts of phosphates, as well as other sorts of phosphorus
compounds.
The biological importance of phosphorus
The element phosphorus plays a major role in fundamental processes that are
essential to the life of animals and plants7
All $iochemical processes, including respiration and photosynthesis, involve
the transfer of significant &uantities of energy. All organisms use a family of
energyrich, phosphatecontaining molecules as a means of capturing,
releasing and transferring the energy re&uired $y their cells. The most
important of these molecules, -ATP., acts as the energy -currency. of living
cells.
Phosphates are essential $uilding $locks in the structure of DNA and 6NA,
the molecules that contain the genetic code for all organisms
Phosphorus is an important constituent of cell mem$ranes and nerve fi$res
Phosphorus is an essential element in many nutrients such as certain
vitamins, fats, oils, and sugars
1alcium phosphate is a major constituent of $ones and teeth in animals
Phosphorus, in its various forms, therefore has great importance in the
meta$olism of living things and all organisms have a nutritional re&uirement for
the element +appro#imately ' g per day for man,. Phosphorus, typically supplied
in the form of phosphate, is one of the three major nutrients re&uired $y food
crops and other plants +along with nitrogen and potassium,.
The natural ccle of phosphorus
The main source of phosphorus in nature is the slow weathering of rocks and
soils. Plants takeup phosphorus +mainly in the form of phosphate, through their
roots and incorporate this into their cells and tissues. !hen plants are eaten, the
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phosphorus they contain passes to animals. "#creta from animals, together with
dead animals and plants, returns phosphorus to the soil via micro$ial
decomposition. %n sta$le environments, the total &uantity of phosphorus therefore
stays &uite constant as it cycles round the ecosystem.
Artificial pro!uction of phosphates
!ithin the last '(( years however the natural phosphorus cycle has $een $roken
in industrialised societies, as large amounts of artificial phosphate chemicals
have $een produced which ultimately pass into the environment. These
chemicals are made $y processing natural deposits of phosphate rock ; around
'2( million tonnes of rock are processed each year worldwide.
A$out )(* of the artificial phosphates produced are applied to agricultural land
as fertiliser to promote high yields of crops.
Phosphates are essential nutrients for animal growth and milk production and are
therefore added to many animal feeds in intensive agricultural systems. +this
represents around one half of the nonfertiliser use of phosphates,
The remaining production of phosphate chemicals is used for a variety of
purposes7
Phosphate compounds are widely used in laundry and dishwasher detergents
to improve washing efficiency and avoid deposits. Phosphate$ased laundry
detergents contain 8(80* -polyphosphates..
3oodgrade phosphates are also used in many dairy, meat, and $akery
products and in soft drinks, as well as in pharmaceuticals.
There are a num$er of industrial uses for phosphates, including metal surface
treatments, corrosion inhi$itors, flame retardants , scale inhi$itors in $oilers
and as precursors for a wide range of chemical speciality products.
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"ses of phosphate chemicals
Phosphorus inputs to ri#ers
During the last 0( years the comparatively low and sta$le levels of phosphorus
cycling through river ecosystems have $een increased as a result of human
activities. Artificial inputs of phosphorus to rivers fall into two categories7
‘Diffuse’ sources: nota$ly where phosphate fertilisers applied to agricultural land
or phosphates present in wastes from farm animals are leached into rivers $y
rain water.
‘Point sources’7 where industrial or sewage effluents are discharged into rivers at
specific locations.
The actual inputs of phosphorus to rivers vary considera$ly from place to place,
$ut the piechart $elow gives an estimate of the relative contri$utions of
phosphate from different sources, averaged across the "97
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Agricultural
fertilisers +)(*,
%ndustrial
applications +5*,
3ood and animal feed
supplements +0*,
Detergents +'8*,
Inputs of phosphorus to ri#ers $ E" a#erage
+Source <orse et al +'==5,7 The "conomic and environmental impact of phosphorus removal from
wastewater in the "uropean 1ommunity ; %mperial 1ollege of Science, Technology and <edicine,
The ecological impact of high phosphate le#els in ri#ers
All plants and animals living in rivers need a nutritional source of phosphorus. %n
unpolluted waters, levels of phosphorus are generally &uite low and this is a
factor which controls the growth of algae and other a&uatic plants at the $ase of
the food chain. "nhanced inputs of phosphates from human sources +together
with other nutrients such as nitrates, may stimulate plant growth in rivers
however, producing -$looms. of algae sufficient to discolour the water, or
sometimes covering the whole surface of the water with a $lanket of weed.
This effect is known as eutrophication +from the >reek eutrophos meaning. well
nourished., and is recognised as a significant environmental pro$lem facing
some rivers in industrialised countries. The degree of eutrophication e#perienced
will depend on the nature of the river ; most pro$lems are found in slowflowing
rivers or where the river water is impounded in dams or flows into lakes ; and on
the level of other nutrients present nota$ly nitrates.
"utrophication results in significant environmental impacts in rivers. <ost
importantly, when the resulting $looms of algae and weed die, they greatly
increase the amount of organic matter which is availa$le to $e decomposed $y
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Natural
$ackground +=*,
3ertiliser runoff
+'?*,
%ndustry +/*,
@ivestock
+52*,
Detergents
+'(*,
Auman waste +82*,
microorganisms. This process of decomposition strips o#ygen from the river
water, often to the e#tent that many animals such as fish are killed. Blankets of
weed on the surface may also inhi$it the growth of o#ygengenerating plants
$elow the surface.
Accompanying the reduction in river o#ygen levels, there is also likely to $e a
significant loss in wildlife diversity as the larger a&uatic plants, upon which many
insects and inverte$rates depend, are replaced $y microscopic algae that are
more favoured $y high nutrient conditions. @arger animals such as fish and $irds,
which depend on insects and inverte$rates for food, also then suffer in a knock
on effect.
Phosphate stan!ar!s for ri#ers
The "nvironment Agency has esta$lished interim standards, which specify the
accepta$le level of phosphorus in different types of rivers in "ngland and !ales
+see ta$le $elow,. These standards are not intended to $e mandatory, $ut rather
to guide the introduction of improvement plans for local stretches of river.
6iver type
%nterim Standard for
ma#imum phosphorus
concentration
mgPClitre
4ligotrophic +eg fastflowing upland stream, with low $ackground P, (.(8
<esotrophic +moderate level of natural $ackground P, (.(?
<esoeutrophic +slightly elevated level of natural $ackground P, (.'
"utrophic +eg slowflowing, mature river, with high $ackground P, (.8
The "nvironment Agency also uses the level of (.'mgPCl as a general indicator
of river nutrient content.
Ho% se%age treatment %or&s control phosphate le#els in ri#ers
Sewage is an important route $y which phosphates may enter rivers. The
phosphate content of sewage comes primarily from material that is flushed down
drains and toilets in homes and $usiness premises, or from drains in the streets
and roads. The principal sources of phosphates in sewage are7
Domestic activities7 Because phosphorus occurs naturally in all foods, it is
also present in all human wastes which are flushed down
toilets +around 'gCpersonCday,. %n some locations
phosphates are also added to drinking water to reduce
the pro$lem of lead dissolving into the water supply from
pipes in older houses. %t is estimated that human wastes
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contri$ute around 20,((( tonnes of phosphorus to
sewage annually in the 9:.
Detergent products such as laundry washing powders
and dishwasher powders often contain significant
amounts of phosphates which are flushed away with the
waste water. %t is estimated that these products
contri$ute roughly one &uarter of the amount of
phosphorus to sewage as human wastes.
%ndustrial wastes7 At certain locations $usinesses may discharge process
wastes containing phosphate chemicals into the
sewerage system. 1learly the amounts involved will vary
considera$ly depending on the local presence of relevant
$usinesses.
Releases of phosphorus from sewage treatment works
Sewage treatment works perform an important function in controlling the amount
of phosphorus in the treated effluent that is discharged to rivers. 1onventional
sewage treatment processes typically remove '02(* of the phosphorus
compounds present in raw sewage, depending on the precise treatment methods
used.
Phosphorus reduction programmes
Although conventional treatment processes will remove a significant proportion of
the phosphorus from sewage effluent $efore it is discharged, it has $een
recognised that further steps may $e needed where the receiving river is at risk
from eutrophication. 3or e#ample, the "9 9r$an !aste !ater Directive +9!!D,
re&uires that mem$er states designate -"utrophication Sensitive Areas. to identify
river catchments that are at risk from eutrophication. Sewage treatment works
serving towns or groups of villages e#ceeding '(,((( Dperson e&uivalentsE
located in these areas must reduce the concentration of phosphorus in their
effluent $y either )(* $efore it is discharged, or to less than '8mgPCl +,. The "9
Aa$itats Directive also re&uires control of nutrients in discharges affecting waters
of high conservation value and the 8((( "9 !ater 3ramework Directive will
further re&uire a case$ycase approach.
A num$er of chemical and $iological process have $een developed which are
effective in achieving the level of phosphorus removal re&uired $y legislation.
4ver '5( major works in "ngland and !ales have, or are in the process of,
installing such nutrient reduction e&uipment as part of the National "nvironmental
Programme agreed with the "nvironment Agency and the industry regulator
43!AT.
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Remaining challenges
There are encouraging signs that policies to reduce the pro$lem of eutrophication
are starting to have an effect. 3or e#ample the length of rivers e#ceeding the
government.s guideline indicator for phosphorus +(.'mgPCl, declined from ?2* to
00* $etween '==( and 8(((. Some of the reduction in river phosphorus
concentrations witnessed in recent years has $een due to the su$stantial
investment in installing nutrient reduction plant at selected sewage treatment
works. This programme will $e completed $y 8((0 and will undou$tedly deliver
further $enefits.
Nevertheless, the causes of eutrophication are varied and comple# and there are
limits to what can $e achieved $y removing nutrients at sewage treatment works.
3or e#ample, investment at sewage treatment works cannot deal with the diffuse
inputs of phosphorus to rivers which come from agricultural sources, or with
discharges made direct to rivers from industrial processes. A further limiting
factor is that although sewage treatment reduces phosphorus in the effluent
discharged to rivers, this can only $e achieved $y transferring phosphorus to the
sludge produced $y the works. 3urther effluent treatment therefore results in the
production of more sludge, the disposal of which +for e#ample $y spreading on
agricultural land or incineration, raises other environmental issues.
The 9: government has recognised that an integrated strategy is re&uired to
$ring a$out longterm improvements in the nutrient status of rivers. %n addition to
the removal of nutrients at sewage treatment works, this will focus on7
- comparing the effects from detergents on the environment and on ur$an
waste water treatment with and without phosphates
reducing the use of mined phosphate rock in agricultural fertilisers
$etter use of agricultural wastes
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