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Reading the future in the phosphorus

The Oregon Legislature voted this week to ban automatic dishwasher detergent with phosphorus, to which we in Spokane can say, “Welcome to the 21st Century.”

And, “Good luck with that.”

Based on local experience, Spin Control can also predict what’s ahead:

Assuming the governor doesn’t veto the law, dozens of people will rush out within 24 hours of the signing ceremony and buy cases of their favorite detergent under the theory it will disappear from the shelves as soon as the ink is dry. They’ll ignore the fact that the law goes into effect in July 2010.

For a year, reporters will tell their readers, viewers and listeners that the ban will take effect July 1, 2010. These stories will routinely mess up the use of phosphorus, which is a noun, and phosphorous, which is an adjective. They will get letters from English teachers and chemistry instructors lecturing them on the difference, and do what they do with all such missives: ignore them.

Next July, shoppers who can’t find their favorite detergent on the shelves of their local Safeway, Albertsons or Zip Trip will call newspapers, radio and television stations to demand an investigation into the conspiracy to get rid of Cascade.

In late July, newspaper columnists and television anchors around the state will make trips to places where they can buy detergent with phosphorus, “smuggle” it back into Oregon and dare the government to come and get them. At least one will proclaim a desire to set up a “white market” for illegal detergent.

In early August, the letters to the editor pages will be filled with nasty letters from people who say the new stuff isn’t any good and their dishes are no longer clean because they can’t buy dishwasher detergent with phosphorus.

In mid-August, the letters to the editor pages will be filled with nasty letters from people who tell the previous writers that if they’d stop being lazy and just scrape the gunk off their plates first, the detergent would work just fine.

In early September, the Associated Press will write a story about Oregonians traveling to other places to get dishwasher detergent with phosphorus, or asking visitors to bring it with them when they visit from exotic climes (like Idaho). Even though there are no provisions to jail people who use phosphorous detergent, someone will dare the police to come and arrest him, saying government officials can have his dishwashing soap when they pry their cold dead fingers off the box.

In mid-September, Rush Limbaugh or some other radio talk show jock will read the AP story and feature it as the rant of the day, denouncing the intrusion of government into the kitchens of America. He will call on his listeners to do everything they can to fight this overreach of big government.

In late September, the cable news channels will engage in dueling programming over the “phosphorous issue.” Fox News will have a panel talking about how the marketplace should be allowed to determine whether people use detergent with phosphorus, including one panelist who will use some variation of the slogan “when phosphorous detergent is outlawed, only outlaws will have phosphorous detergent.”

Meanwhile on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow will host a panel that includes a member of an environmental group no one has heard of, saying the phosphorous ban doesn’t go far enough and insisting on a federal law to make everyone wash dishes by hand and air dry them in drainers, thus cutting phosphorus in lakes and fossil fuel carbons from electricity use.

In October, most Oregonians will be so accustomed to the change in dishwasher detergent boxes and brands that they will forget that the stuff they put in the machine doesn’t have phosphorus. If a load comes out less clean than normal, they’ll attribute it to the same things that they did a year earlier, such as the dishes were extra dirty, or they didn’t scrape off enough crud, or the kids used up all the hot water right before they turned the dishwasher on.

And they’ll probably be right.

Sometime down the road, they might notice there’s a little bit less algae in their favorite lake or stream. But the jury’s still out on that.

Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@ Spin Control is also a blog with daily posts and videos at blogs/spincontrol.
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