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By Anita Clifton


I grew up a resident scullery maid — and elevated washing dishes by hand to an art. My mother and I were by all definitions poor, and our meals were always without canned or boxed convenience but made from scratch. This meant lots of dishes. Four decades later, being a mom of four and with a deep-rooted love for fresh-tasting food still has me at the kitchen sink, throwing contemptuous side glances at our dishwasher during post-dinner cleanups.

Reaching for the bottle of liquid dish soap that sits eternally on the counter, I begin the task of scrubbing a like-new quality back to the charred and crusted baking dishes beside the sink. Then, I will generously squeeze more soap over three large sections of countertops and scrub some more, for the sanitary claims of the “antibacterial” labeling. This is a daily ritual, one I have estimated will consume a 28-ounce bottle of dish soap in approximately 16 days. Whatever ingredients liquid soap makers are using to sanitize our kitchens, four gallons of it are being disposed of annually in the Clifton household. If other “scullery maids” used just half of this, that still means for our community of about 5,000, that approximately 20,000 gallons of liquid soap (enough to fill Dodger Stadium), going down drains to somewhere else — to somewhere the dirt and contaminates belong — outside our home.

I set out to the store with a coupon for Dawn dish liquid. A rainbow of bottles containing tinted gels line the supermarket’s detergent aisle. Each label reveals a fragrance to a corresponding translucent gem-colored liquid. For a 28-fluid-ounce bottle of Dawn, I will pay approximately $3.25, $1 of which will be donated to a wildlife fund. This marketing strategy must be working well for the makers of Dawn. According to Statista, a marketing-based company that gathers data on 80,000 consumer goods around the world, dish and laundry detergent made $206.69 billion worldwide in 2016.

In my own micro-survey, I asked three other moms at my daughter’s soccer game what dish soap they buy. Of Dawn, one mom simply states, “It’s what my mom used, and so now it’s what I use. Plus it’s just better at cleaning.” The second mom firmly believes in supporting Dawn’s wildlife cleanup effort. Both have brand loyalty and only buy Dawn. The third mom, like myself, will switch around for the best deal.

Dish soap ad, 1965. Credit: Wikipedia

In the early 1900s, Proctor & Gamble (P&G), realized the importance of creating a brand, having an appealing package and then advertising the product on a mass scale. But they accidentally struck marketing gold in 1989 with Dawn dish soap. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound was the largest ever spill in U.S. waters. Alice Berkner, founder of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, secured a small grant from Chevron to test dish soaps on oil-covered fowl in the wake of the spill. Dawn cut the grease faster and better than any of the soaps that were tried.

The offshoot of this tragic disaster was the good citizen award for P&G — and the loyalty of consumers who wanted the chance to participate in helping with the cleanup effort. Since then, an even larger spill in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010’s Deep Water Horizon incident, has elevated Dawn to wildlife rescue royalty. The soap-maker’s pledge to give back $1 for every bottle of Dawn sold, quickly allowed them to cut a $500,000 check to wildlife causes.

My small survey of soccer moms is a microscopic confirmation of the success in consumer loyalty these advertising strategies have had. There’s some irony in the loyalty to Dawn has secured by its use to clean animals after oil spills. “What the company doesn’t advertise — and these days is reluctant to admit — is that the grease-cutting part of the potion is made from petroleum,” Dawn spokesperson Susan Baba said in an interview with NPR.

What other toxic magic is in that bottle on which we spend so much to sanitize our lives? Curious, I went back in the archives of soap-making to try and better understand. Soap ambitions have a historical integrity: Florence Nightingale’s rise to fame was attributed to helping Britain with the use of soap and instituting hygienic practices in nursing. This concept aided the Americans in the Civil War, which later propelled the manufacturing of soap into an industry. What historically started as a basic mixture of an alkali substance and a fat or oil now is a Frankenstein’s monster of chemicals.

Phosphates are the godfather of the sapone family. Phosphates are molecules composed of phosphorous and oxygen, both essential to healthy freshwater environments. Phosphorous can cause plankton and plants to grow, which is great for animals and fish to eat. An overabundance of phosphates, however, can deplete the level of oxygen in a water body through a process called eutrophication. A lack of oxygen causes aquatic life to suffocate and die. Dangerous levels of phosphates occur due to three major human contributions: wastewater treatment, industrial discharge, and excess fertilizers in agriculture. This ingredient promotes what is called an “algal bloom” in important freshwater sources. Blooms are created by disposal and runoff of phosphates from detergents and can become a covering of toxic scum resting on top of the water’s surface. It appears as a blue-green paint spill.

Most information I received in the past decade regarding cleaning was germ-centered — typical for a stay-at-home mom. The latest bleach-infused wipes or concentrated antibacterial soap on the market were hot topics at post-church lunches, indoor play places, and doctors’ waiting rooms. The bombardment of advertisements on television, every three to five minutes during daytime programming, is no joke, either! A dish commercial — mom and germs. A laundry commercial — mom and germs. A toilet cleaner commercial — mom tackling those germs.

Credit: Adam Rahn

Back in the rainbow aisle of the supermarket, I strike up a casual conversation with a lady with two children in tow. We each are conducting a stringent sniff test to make our respective decisions about which dish soap smells the cleanest. For me it’s the candy lemon fragrance of Dawn Ultra Concentrated. For her, it’s Ajax’s Grapefruit Antibacterial. She points at the kids, and responds with one word, “bacteria.” It’s an exchange I’ve had in various settings repeatedly with moms over the last 20 years. However acute my sense of smell might be, it was a faulty test for detecting the petroleum, FD&C Yellow 5, or methylisothiazolinone. Nor was I able to determine by whiffing away that my soap selection contained ingredients that have skin and breathing allergens, show high toxicity to aquatic life, and are not anaerobically degradable. The Environment Working Group (EWG) gives this product a D. EWG rates thousands of consumer products based on ingredients whether they are good or bad for the environment and compile a database for anyone to access. Yet, I had never heard of this until taking an environmental writing course.

I have seen such slimy manifestations in local water spots like the public beach near the Clinton nuclear power plant. Each summer our church is given access to a private beach area very near the plant, and last summer I recognized an algal bloom just outside the buoyed-off portion of beach. It was a small patch, and a research dive into any reports or warnings regarding swimming there could not be found in the last eight years. I witnessed another bloom where the water surface was almost completely covered at a city pond. Our local cross-country race course has athletes running along the pond edge during home meets, and I have spent a decade watching my kids run there. Last year was the worst I’d remembered. Both bloom sightings were in late August, when summer heat forces fish to seek the deeper, cooler regions of a body of water, and where oxygen is already lower than at the surface. While no public warnings have been made or reports of mass graves of floating fish, the smelly slime I saw there is framed with this greater image of hypoxic conditions on a bigger scale.

My bottle of soap with its elegant design and promises of a more sanitary home captures me with its eye appeal. Major players like P&G, Colgate, and Unilever have mastered jolie laide — beautiful ugly — in this everyday commodity. “About 76 percent of the phosphorous in detergents, 370 million pounds of it, ends up in surface waters, and the problem is getting worse,” according to an article on But what we get enchanted with in our respective markets comes from one of some 20 or so manufacturing sites in the United States. Half of these line the Eastern coastline. Another eight factories are along major Midwest waterways, like the Mississippi River.

Hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit: Wikipedia

Phosphates from sewage effluent going down our drains are a significant part of what is fueling hypoxic dead zones, as large as 8,000 square miles, in the Gulf of Mexico last year. The Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force was formalized under the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 2014, and now reports under the umbrella of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The task force figures in a 2017 congressional report showed phosphates from all freshwater sources were at their second-highest amounts in four decades of tracking — 200 metric tons, getting into the Mississippi River. For comparison’s sake, Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture (aka The Bean) is made of 110 metric tons of liquid mercury.

P&G has another problem to contend with as well: palm oil. It’s a common ingredient in detergents. Bustar Maitar, a writer on Greenpeace’s website, makes the accusation that every time we reach for that bottle of soap, “Proctor & Gamble are making us part of their scandal.” Greenpeace reveals findings from a yearlong investigation in 2013 that shows P&G is sourcing palm oil from companies connected to widespread forest devastation.

Palm oil by itself is not necessarily a threat, but so-called “dirty palm oil” — from forest destruction — is. Expansions of oil palm plantations are destroying forest habitats, and although P&G doesn’t harvest there, it contracts with law-breaking corporations who take no moral issue with their own practices of making a buck, according to Greenpeace. The organization also found that orangutan habitat was being cleared in plantations linked to P&G’s supply chain, and that forest fires and habitat destruction are pushing the Sumatran tiger closer to the brink of extinction. So, while my wonderful children won’t get skin blisters or diarrhea from the palm oil in our dish soap, the environmental impacts associated with its production begin to churn my stomach.

There isn’t much talk around my central Illinois farm town of Monticello about this “dirty” side of dish soap. Am I, like so many other moms here, distracted by the pretty packaging, clever marketing, convenient costs, and alluring aromas? There is probably a good deal of “yes” to that question, But the manufacturers aren’t held to a standard of transparency about their ingredients, either. The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act was created as a way to regulate the introduction of new commercial chemicals and their use. What it didn’t require was for cleaning products to list all of their ingredients, and many manufacturers opt not to do so — as was the case with Dawn’s use of petroleum, mentioned earlier.

Palm Oil Deforestation in Riau, Sumatra. Credit: Flickr

With profit margins in the billions, P&G made $671,000 in political contributions in 2016 — 51% of that to Republicans. Coincidentally, this was the same year that, the “Frank L. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act,” was expected to gain Senate approval and President Obama’s signature. With an estimated 700 new chemicals coming into the market each year, this proposed law would require the EPA to regulate household products that are now sold, and any new ones. Additionally, it would require higher standards for protecting “vulnerable populations”. Another $3-4 million was spent by this detergent giant to lobby and block any bill that would require transparency of the ingredients they are using.

For two decades I’ve been immersed in a middle-class, mom-driven lifestyle, where information came more from who has found the latest convenient products at nominal cost, than it did from the conscious search for products that were eco-friendly. If the label said “concentrated” or “kills 99.9% of germs”, all the better. Over that time, I’d attend the occasional party, where usually some perennial mom among us would go all-in on some home-based business that sells an extensive line of organic, non-hazardous, toxin-free cleaning products. Most who tried ended up back at the grocery store within a year. P&G knows this, too. Even though consumers have raised purchases of more environmentally friendly cleaning supplies another 10% this decade, most are still looking for a value and haven’t made it out of their “sanitary bubbles”.

Under the powerful magnification of a microscope’s lens, kaleidoscopic patterns of nacreous colors form around a dark eye — almost with the effect of a psychedelic tie dye pattern swirling down a drain. A soap bubble, so beautiful, yet so innocuously toxic. It’s deception almost a masquerade, when you add a citrus scent. Like all things that we give loyalty to, it’s not an easy thing to just give up. I sit with this captivating image of a soap bubble after watching a Ted Talk given by Lauren Singer, a twenty-something who lives a zero-waste lifestyle and blogs about it. She also started a company that makes eco-friendly, zero-waste cleaning products, among other things.

Another mom I see in circles around town recently gifted me with a jar of homemade soap she made from a recipe she found on Pinterest. I wonder if the marketing strategies of bloggers and hobbyists will compete with the sanitation brigade cheering at the next soccer meet. For my part, convenience and cost will probably continue to drive my buying decisions — just like all the predictive models suggest. Still, the weather is finally warming up, and summertime encounters with algal blooms in our favorite water spots might, just might, have me willing to pay a little more for a sparkling clean conscience.