Sodium phosphates are a group of salts derived from the mineral phosphorus. One of these salts — trisodium phosphate or TSP — is typically used as a powerful cleaning agent, as a food additive or for medical purposes, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
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Trisodium phosphate is generally considered safe. However, there are a number of reasons why you may want to avoid TSP — both for your personal health and for the environment.
Trisodium Phosphate as a Food Additive
"Trisodium phosphate is used to prolong shelf-life, and in some cases, to improve the texture of food or enhance the flavor. It's in a lot of processed foods, baked goods and cheeses," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You From Label to Table.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) lists trisodium phosphate as an approved additive. Though TSP is also used in cleaning products, it is not used in the same way when added to food. But just because the FDA has approved trisodium phosphate, doesn't mean TSP-containing foods are good for you to eat.
"TSP is supposedly safe for consumption. However, that might depend on the kinds of foods you eat and how much you are eating. If fast food comprises most of your diet, then maybe you're getting more of this additive than you would expect," Taub-Dix says.
Too much trisodium phosphate could lead to a number of serious health concerns. While phosphorus is an important nutritional mineral, an analysis published in November 2015 in the Annual Review of Nutrition explains that too much phosphorus can potentially negatively affect bones, kidneys and heart health. People with chronic kidney disease are particularly vulnerable: The analysis found that high phosphorus levels have been linked to an increased risk of kidney disease mortality.
If you are concerned about your phosphate intake, consult with your doctor about the appropriate amount of dietary phosphorus for your health.
Read more: Harmful Effects of Preservatives in Foods
TSP in Cleaners and Other Household Products
As mentioned, trisodium phosphate has a number of uses. Until recently, it could be commonly found in household products from dishwasher detergents to garden fertilizers.
Here's why that's bad: Phosphorus runoff is one of the leading causes of water pollution, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Because of this, 17 states, including New York, banned phosphorous ingredients in dishwasher detergents and fertilizers back in 2010.
If you're concerned about phosphate pollution, read the list of ingredients in your household products and avoid products with "phosphate" in the ingredients list.
Though trisodium phosphate can have a number of negative effects on your health and the environment, it can be used beneficially in certain medications. Sodium phosphate can be used as a laxative or electrolyte replenisher, according to the NCBI.
Trisodium Phosphate Poisoning
As mentioned, trisodium phosphate is a powerful cleaning agent. Though it has been banned in some products, it can still be found in hundreds to thousands of construction agents, flooring strippers, brick cleaners, cements and even in toilet bowl cleaners, according to U.S. National Library of Medicine.
If TSP products are ingested or the fumes are inhaled, it can cause serious symptoms like coughing, bloody stools and even vision loss and collapse in worse scenarios, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Other include difficulty breathing, skin irritation, burning in the nose, eyes, lips or tongue.
If TSP gets into a person's eyes, flush with water for at least 15 minutes. Note that the U.S. National Library of Medicine strongly advises that if someone has ingested a hazardous amount of TSP, they should NOT throw up, as it may cause further damage. Instead, a person should drink water or milk right away, unless they have trouble swallowing. In some cases, a person may need emergency medical treatment.
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Trisodium Phosphate Poisoning"
- Food and Drug Administration: "Food Additive Status List"
- Annual Review of Nutrition: "Dietary Phosphorus Intake and the Kidney"
- New York State Department of Environmental Conservation: "Lawn Fertilizer (NYS Nutrient Runoff Law)"
- National Center for Biotechnology Information: "Trisodium Phosphate"