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Mysterious White Powder Shows Up In American Kitchens

Cascade, Electrasol, Colgate-Palmolive. We’re talking dishwasher detergent, white film, and frustration this week. Perhaps you noticed things changed last summer – your dishes started coming out of the dishwasher looking worse than when you put them in – but you weren’t sure why. All over the country, consumers replaced dishwashers, yelled at their water utility companies, and started using vinegar by the gallon to clean away the crusty film. And here, all along, it was just our dishwasher detergent – our new phosphate-free dishwasher detergent.

Phosphates act like a fertilizer. Once they enter the water cycle, they cause extreme algae and aquatic weed growth in lakes, rivers, and streams – to the point where the algae depletes the oxygen in the water needed for healthy fish and aquatic life. While septic systems and municipal water treatment facilities remove the majority of this substance, a small amount still makes it into the environment, and that’s just enough to turn our lakes green, kill the fish, and shut down our beaches.

As of June 2010, 16 states had banned the sale of high-phosphate-containing cleaners. Some areas had made this move as early as 2007, but that only caused residents to drive across state lines or turn to the internet to purchase contraband dishwasher detergent. Now, with the increasing attention and so many states disallowing their products, most of the large detergent manufacturers have changed their formulations, rather than offer different formulas for different states.

The problem is these new formulas simply don’t work as well as the old phosphate-containing detergents. Even one load of dishes through this new detergent can leave a white film so thick it can be scraped off. Phosphates were historically used in dishwashers because they remove hard water stains and grease – the whole purpose of using a dishwasher! Unfortunately, there is currently no satisfactory replacement for phosphate. If you live in an area with soft water, you may not notice the same problems as most of the country because science has been more successful in finding environmentally friendly grease-cutters than water-softening agents. For those of us with hard water, well, we’re left scratching our heads… or our scum-encrusted dishes as it were.

What can we do? Well, many folks report adding vinegar to every load of dishes. Others purchase dishwasher detergent additives with high levels of citric acid. The most satisfying solution is to invest in soft water so that your dishwasher detergent – and all of your other cleaners for that matter – can work better. A whole-house water softener removes the dissolved calcium, magnesium, and manganese before these compounds can get to your dishes and stick. Not only will the detergent work better, you will need to use less of it!