Dishes not getting clean? It may not be your dishwasher's fault

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SALT LAKE CITY -- If your dishwasher is driving you crazy, you're not alone. Lots of people in Utah are suddenly claiming their dishes just don't seem to be getting clean.

Kaysville resident Karen Riding first noticed the problem about a month ago.

"As we'd wash our dishes, when they were done we'd take them out and there was white film," she says, "just kind of scuzzy, all over it."

As we'd wash our dishes, when they were done we'd take them out and there was white film -- just kind of scuzzy all over it.

–Karen Riding

The soap industry denies there's a problem, but it also recently changed its formulas to eliminate phosphate as part of a nationwide plan to protect the environment. The industry claims the new soaps do a good job of cleaning, but lots of consumers disagree.

Riding thought her dishwasher was broken. Dishes that were supposedly clean came out of the dishwasher covered with crud.

"Everything was coming out white," she says, "yucky, filmy white."

She called dishwasher repairman Steve Warren of Eagle Appliance Repair. His company and several others report being barraged with similar complaints.

"It's put many of my customers in tears," Warren says. "I've seen them in tears."

Warren concluded Riding's problem was not the dishwasher. It was the phosphate-free soap she recently started using.

What's wrong with... phosphate?
Phosphates are said to promote plant and algae growth, which then die and increase the bacteria count in water bodies. As bacteria feast on the dead plants and algae, they reduce the amount of oxygen available in the water for other wildlife. Some experts have estimated that dishwasher detergent accounts for 10-12 percent of the phosphorus in wastewater.

Stores with a green marketing strategy, like Whole Foods, have been selling the soap for years. Now the whole industry is on board.

Walt Baker, director of Utah's Division of Water Quality, said his department did not push for the change. However, in 2008 the Utah Legislature approved a ban on dishwashing detergents that have more than one-half of 1 percent phosphate. Baker said it was to keep the chemical nutrient out of waterways.

"It induces growth, and we'll get algae problems, algae blooms, and that sucks the oxygen out of the water," Baker explains. "The consequences are in the aquatic environment: fish need oxygen."

Baker said phosphates and nitrogen are blamed for enormous "dead zones" that have appeared in places like the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. Those so-called chemical nutrients generally come from soap and fertilizers, either in sewage effluent or agricultural runoff.

According to Baker, a sewage treatment plant in Summit County was upgraded in recent years to filter out the chemical nutrients. That change had a dramatic impact on water quality in East Canyon Creek at Jeremy Ranch. Pictures taken before the upgrade show a creek loaded with algae; photos taken later show none.

There have been reports recently of Utahns going out of state to buy dishwashing soap that contains phosphate, but that's not a long-term solution. The same soap is being phased in around the country.

Utah is one of 17 states that banned phosphate soaps in the last four years. The soap industry persuaded lawmakers in all the states to delay implementation until July 1 of this year. That allowed time for reformulating the dishwashing products. The new phosphate-free soaps began moving into the marketplace earlier this year.

[![](]( of before (left) and after phosphate treatment of East Canyon Creek at Jeremy Ranch in Park City
That would appear to explain the less-than-perfect results consumers are reporting from their kitchens, but industry spokesman Brian Sansoni, of the American Cleaning Institute, said, "Overall, we believe these products do work."

He acknowledged, though, that complaints are being heard from many parts of the country. "It's not easy to replace a workhorse ingredient like phosphate," he says.

Even if dishes aren't getting as clean, Utah's water quality chief says it's still worth making the change.

"[It's] not that big a downside," Baker says. "If that means we need to be a little more careful of taking food products off our plate and not just relying on the dishwasher to do that, I think that's a small price for us to pay for an improved environment."

But Warren believes the outpouring of complaints from his customers indicates it's a big problem.

"I think there's other solutions," Warren says. "I don't think you have to put up with it."

Off-the-shelf products do seem to correct the problem in some dishwashers. There are various additives, conditioners and rinses that are sold in stores -- some with phosphate, some without.


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John Hollenhorst


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