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How harmful are phosphates in detergents?

Automatic dishwasher detergents with phosphates have handled a lot of dirty plates over the years, but new laws aimed at making the soaps easier on the environment are putting that to an end, and the industry hasn't been this agitated in years.

The Procter & Gamble research team has been piling up dishes coated with baked-on lasagna and dried egg and tea stains as they test and re-test new formulas for Cascade scheduled to start shipping by March, entirely replacing older versions on store shelves by July 1.

"I think we've narrowed it down to two or three," said spokeswoman Susan O. Baba, who noted that other industry players also are focused on this issue. Various companies keep filing new patents, she said, but it's not clear what new detergent recipes anyone will end up with.

"It's like the wild, wild West. That's essentially what happens when rules like this come down," she said.

The rules she's referring to are coming from 16 states that effectively ban the sale of detergents made for home dishwashers that contain phosphates as of July 1, 2010. Canada is working with a similar time line. The rules don't apply to commercial dishwasher detergents.

The additive, which has been blamed in environmental issues such as excess algae growth in rivers and streams, was eliminated under government pressure years ago from most laundry detergents but has continued to perform reliably in America's dishwashers. Phosphates help soften water and prevent particles from redepositing on dishes, according to the Soap and Detergent Association, a Washington industry group.

Baba called it the "great equalizer," saying even lower-grade detergents can do a pretty good job with the help of phosphates.

Doing without them has not been easy.

In the 1990s, companies in Europe and the United States poured money into trying to develop nonphosphate detergents that produced results consumers would accept, said Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Soap and Detergent Association. The results often weren't sparkling.

"Mainstream consumers walked away from it," Griesing said. He said it's harder to replace phosphates for dishwashers than it was for clothes-washing machines because the dish machines lack an agitator to help the soap by shaking things up.

The industry association does not agree that phosphates create the environmental problems attributed to them. Some industry representatives argue most of the phosphates in the environment are coming from other sources, such as farm runoff.

Those kinds of arguments haven't won a lot of sympathy from environmentalists and lawmakers, who figured the industry could come up with something that worked as well as phosphates if it tried hard enough.

In 2006, a push came in the state of Washington to ban phosphates from home dishwasher detergents. Sensing a trend, Griesing said, the industry group helped negotiate a delay until mid-2010 so manufacturers would have time to reformulate. In the time since, it has worked to make sure any other states that followed suit set consistent standards.

Bans have not passed in all 50 states, but most Americans will see the results soon anyway. Detergent makers that supply nationwide chains such as Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart and Kroger don't want to deal with making different formulas for stores in different places.

"It's going to be a national rollout," Griesing said.

That means there will be little point to cross state borders in search of traditional detergents with phosphates -- although the laws make it illegal to sell the products, not to possess them.

Meanwhile, the industry has been mixing ingredients and washing dishes, said Baba at Procter & Gamble.

"This is an industry that hasn't really changed a lot since it was created. Getting the formula right, even for us internally, has been really challenging."

Three Cascade products held the top spots in sales nationally in the 12 months ended Nov. 1, adding up to a total of $345 million in sales in supermarkets, drugstores and mass-merchandise outlets excluding Wal-Mart, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based market-research firm. Total sales for the segment added up to $578 million during the period.

The gel was the easiest to reformulate, Baba said, which is why the Cincinnati-based company introduced a phosphate-free gel version of Cascade in February 2009.

In April 2008, Colgate-Palmolive launched Palmolive eco+, which a spokeswoman for the New York Company described as "the first phosphate-free automatic dishwasher detergent available from a mass market brand in the U.S."

Method, a smaller company based in San Francisco, has been selling a phosphate-free option longer, but it, too, struggled to find the right recipe to meet consumers' standards.

The niche manufacturer originally sold phosphate-free dish detergent cubes that came in a clear plastic tube. The cubes would sometimes crumble before they were put into a dishwasher. And the perception was that they didn't work as well as traditional detergents.

"We wanted to offer a product that was stronger in performance, stronger environmentally and more consumer-friendly packaging," said Katie Molinari, a spokeswoman at Method.

The company took the cubes off the market by 2007 and spent about a year developing a different version. In August 2008, Method began selling its Smarty Dish discs, which Consumer Reports rated "very good" in its October 2009 issue.

The consumer magazine was less kind to some other phosphate-free offerings. It tested Kirkland Signature, sold by Costco; Great Value, sold by Wal-Mart; and Up & Up, sold by Target. All three costs less per load than the Method offering, the magazine said. But, "All left our test dishes somewhat dirty."

Clean remains the critical test for dish detergents.

"If the product is environmentally friendly and doesn't work, people aren't going to buy it," Molinari said.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service