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Smart bombs: They sure can dish it

They sure can dish it

Spokane County’s strict ban on dishwasher detergents with phosphates is soaking up national attention. The Los Angeles Times reported on the plight and flight of residents who aren’t happy with the scrubbing power of the environmentally friendly soaps.

“The dirty truth: They’re smuggling soap in Spokane,” mused the Monday headline in the Times.

It’s a funny article that discusses the underworld shoppers who cross the border into Idaho to buy the good stuff. The ban, the first of its kind in the nation, was implemented in July. Since then, people have discovered that phosphates were vital to softening the water, which, in turn, helped remove the food encrusted on pots, pans, plates and utensils.

It’s a comical narrative that isn’t exactly grounded in the truth. Shoppers aren’t really breaking any laws, since the ban is aimed at the folks who sell it, not buy it. Still, there’s no harm in a little fun. But what’s even more hilarious are the foam-at-the-mouth commentaries. To some, this is just another example of Big Government busting down doors and dictating lives. Eric Erickson, the head honcho at the conservative Web site, wrote a lengthy screed warning of a pending revolution.

If he lived in Washington, “I’d be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation.”

Hoo-boy! Looks like giving those plates an extra wipe and a rinse is cause for a Spokane Tea Party.

Look, I get it. The phosphate-free soap is an inconvenience, but there is a very good reason for the ban and relief is on the way.

Phosphates promote the growth of algae that gobble up oxygen and don’t leave enough for fish and plants. That’s why the chemical was banned from laundry detergents. The state has imposed very strict phosphate limits, which has made the building of a new wastewater treatment plant a challenge.

The ban that started in Spokane County will extend statewide in 2010. At that point, Washington will be one of at least 12 states that will ban the sale of phosphate-laden dishwashing soap. Other states are pondering bans, as well. The industry can see this tipping point and has vowed to come up with alternatives by the middle of 2010 that will clean dishes like the old stuff.

But you can bet that this national changeover wouldn’t have happened if forward-looking communities like ours hadn’t instituted bans. So, sure, it will be a bit of a pain for a while, but we ought to be proud of our efforts to improve the health of waterways nationwide.

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at or at (509) 459-5026.