Major dishwashing liquids just experienced a major makeover, and not everyone is happy about it. The New York Times reports that people are up in arms over the reformulation of major dishwashing detergents in which phosphates, a crucial ingredient, were removed. Phosphates are considered quite dangerous for the environment and have been reduced to a fraction of their former levels in popular detergents like Cascade. And consumers are rebelling against it.

A law that went into effect in July bans phosphates from dishwasher detergents in 17 states. Phosphates go down the drain and into bodies of freshwater. Once they get into the water system, they are consumed in a feeding frenzy by algae. The green slime expands to choke streams and lakes, effectively killing everything in sight. Excessive algae blooms squeeze the oxygen out of the water and can block sunshine needed by the rest of the aquatic community.

So why do we use them? Phosphates are what keep our dishes and glasses spotless out of the dishwasher, as they suspend particles so they do not stick to dishes. Further, they soften water to allow for more suds action. Their content in detergent was once as high as 8.7 percent — now it is as low as .5 percent.

And consumers have noticed. Thena Reynolds is a 55-year-old homemaker from Van Zandt County, Texas. Reynolds complains that she has to do a quick wash of her dishes before she puts them in the dishwasher. As she told the New York Times, “Low-phosphate dish detergents are a waste of my money. If I’m using more water and detergent, is that saving anything? There has to be a happy medium somewhere.”

And Reynolds is not alone in her displeasure with the latest detergents. Americans are protesting products which are said to leave film on dishes or not clean them at all. Further, purveyors of janitorial cleaning products also note that consumers are avoiding the more eco-friendly brands. Generally, the perception is that green cleaning products don’t clean as well.

Nonetheless, according to the New York Times, hospitals say that reports of rashes, burns, dizziness and scratchy throats are down among housekeeping staffs. Further, injuries from cleaning products are non-existent at places like the New York City Health and Hospitals Corp. The number of lost days from product sickness was zero last year, down from 54 in 2004. The safer products are credited with this drop in injuries.

The cleaning industry has responded to complaints by reformulating some of their low-phosphate products. Others point out that Americans’ conception of cleanliness needs to change. Using ingredients such as vinegar, baking soda and other cleaners can work just as well, even if they don’t provide the squeaky clean effectiveness of phosphates. Companies such as Seventh Generation offer an eco-friendly alternative.

Ultimately, consumers will respond according to their comfort levels. Elise Jones is a mother of two and mom blogger. While she doesn’t like the white film on her glasses from low phosphate detergents, she is willing to put up with it. As she told the New York Times, “we all worry about our water supply.”

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Thumbnail photo: Associated Press

Eco-friendly dishwashing detergents fall short with consumers
Reduction of dangerous phosphates in cleaners has some protesting lack of cleaning prowess.