A chemical element, phosphorus is present in the nature in the form of phosphate. This chemical element supplies the plants with nearly 25 percent of their entire nutrients that are required for their growth as well as development. This natural element finds use in several products and is an indispensable component of all types of fertilizers.

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Precisely speaking, phosphate is a type of sedimentary rock that may have taken shape millions of years back owing to build-up of organic substances on the floor of oceans. Most of phosphate reserves are in North America, Africa, the Middle East, Kazakhstan and Oceania. However, the largest deposits of this chemical element are found in Morocco, which incidentally is among the top countries where phosphate extraction is undertaken.

Phosphorus is obtained by processing phosphate rocks. In fact, phosphorus is among the three main ingredients that are used in the production of fertilizers - the other two plant nutrients are potassium and nitrogen. Phosphorus can also be used to prepare phosphoric acid that finds use in almost everything ranging from food and cosmetics to electronics and animal feed. Some companies even use their phosphate reserves to supply made-to-order fertilizers to meet the precise requirements of the soil, climate, and crops of any particular place. In turn, this results in higher crop yield, eventually helping to feed a large number of people substantially.

When we speak of phosphorus, we actually denote any one of an assortment of chemical compounds containing phosphorus - a mineral that occurs naturally bonded with oxygen. In fact, the term phosphorus is used in organic as well as inorganic chemistry. In the case of inorganic chemistry, a phosphate ion binds with one phosphorus atom and three to four oxygen atoms, thereby forming the base for several different salts. On the other hand, in organic chemistry, phosphate is actually an ester, wherein the hydrogen in the carboxyl group of the chemical compound is substituted with a hydrocarbon group.

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Phosphorus is present in several items that we use daily, such as processed cheese, baking ingredients and dish detergents. In addition, phosphorus is also the medicine form of this chemical element and you can take it orally in the form of a dietary supplement when you don't get adequate supplies of it through the foods you consume. In fact, specific ailments and disease may be responsible for depriving you from getting adequate supplies of phosphorus.

Usually, the molecules of phosphate are found in amalgamation with other elements, for instance sodium, calcium, aluminium and potassium.

It is worth mentioning here that phosphorus is a naturally occurring chemical element which is present in almost all living things, while synthetic phosphorus has a wide range of applications, which include baking and cleaning products. In addition, synthetic phosphorus is widely used in the production of fertilizers.

Types of phosphates

Phosphates can be categorized into three main groups - orthophosphates, polyphosphates and pyrophosphates. Then again, tripolyphosphates are a sub-group of polyphosphates. Each of these categories of phosphate denotes the number of phosphate units bound together in one molecule of this chemical element.

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Of all the three groups of phosphates, orthophosphates are the simplest form of the chemical element. Sometimes orthophosphates are also referred to as monophosphoric acids. This form of phosphate contains three hydrogen atoms that are linked to oxygen atoms in the structure of phosphate. Most commonly, orthophosphates are used in detergents.


This form of phosphate is also referred to as diphosphates and sometimes they are deemed as a type of polyphosphate. Originally, pyrophosphates were formed by heating the phosphate compounds that produce a phosphate form which has excellent solubility. This form of phosphates is usually used in the form of food additives. However, they are also present in household cleaners.


This form of phosphate is basically a compound wherein two or more phosphate units are linked with common oxygen atoms. One type of polyphosphates, known as tripolyphosphates, comprises three tetrahedral PO4 phosphate units that are bounded together and share the common oxygen centres. Like the other categories of this chemical element, this form of phosphates is also generally used in household cleaners.

Phosphates found in cleaning products

Phosphates are of various different types and nearly all of these are present in household cleaning products. The different types of phosphates that are found in cleaning products include sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP), tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP), Trisodium phosphates (TSP), sodium potassium pyrophosphate and Tetra-sodium and potassium pyrophosphates.

Sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP): This type of phosphate is generally used in detergents that are used in automatic dish washing machines and for laundry purpose.

Tetrapotassium pyrophosphate (TKPP): This form of phosphate is usually used in products meant for special uses, for instance in liquid detergents and cleaning products that have multiple industrial uses and in silver cleaners. This chemical compound is also referred to as potassium pyrophosphate, tetrapotassium salt, diphosphoric acid and tetrapotassium pyrophosphate.

Trisodium phosphates (TSP), sodium potassium pyrophosphate, tetra-sodium and potassium pyrophosphate: These types of phosphates are usually meant for use in heavy duty cleaning products.

Phosphates are often used in laundry detergents and automatic dish detergents and they are effective in removing grease, oil and soil. In addition, these phosphates also help in avoiding film build-up and spotting in automatic dish detergents. Since phosphates are capable of cutting through mineral build-up and soap scum, they are occasionally used for products meant for cleaning tiles and porcelain. Moreover, they are also used in specialty cleaners, for instance those meant for cleaning concrete.

Aside from its use in cleaning products, phosphates also have several other applications. You may also find phosphates in water-based paints as well as coatings. They may also be present in processed foods, pharmaceutical products, metal polishes, personal care products and flame retardants and many more. For instance sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP) is used in retaining the moisture as well as flavor of ham and shrimp.

Health and environmental concerns

While phosphates naturally occur in specific foods, sometimes they are also added to processed foods. When phosphates are included in processed foods they can cause grave health issues, when this chemical compound is consumed in large amounts. What is worrying is that it has been found that consuming foods which include phosphate additives may be responsible for development of lung cancer. Similarly, elevated amounts of phosphate in processed foods may also have adverse effects on the functioning of cardiovascular and renal systems.

Even using cleaning products containing phosphates may cause various health problems. According to the housekeeping staff in medical establishments in New York has reported that when they began using cleaning products that were phosphate-free they noticed a reduction in various symptoms like dizziness, scratchy throats and even rashes.

When large amounts of water flow into city water supplies in the environment, it augments growth of algae, thereby reducing the availability of oxygen for plants and fish in rivers, lakes and streams.


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