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Dishwasher detergent safety

Our 2012 test of dishwasher detergents found a highly corrosive "green" dishwasher powder.

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Earthwise Dishwasher Powder was advertised as "naturally powerful and naturally kind". But our test of this product found it highly corrosive and failed to comply with a safety standard for hazardous substances. After we advised the manufacturer of the results, it withdrew the product from shop shelves.

Earthwise powder

Testing showed the Earthwise Dishwasher Powder we bought had a pH of 13.2, a level which is regarded as highly corrosive. Since 2007, the Cleaning Products (Corrosive) Group Standard has prohibited sales to the public of automatic dishwasher detergents with a pH higher than 12.5.

Automatic dishwasher detergents often contain corrosive alkaline salts and need to be used with care.
Automatic dishwasher detergents often contain corrosive alkaline salts and need to be used with care.

We've previously reported on cases where children have suffered severe burns to the mouth, throat and airways after eating dishwasher powders with a high pH. Some of these burns were so severe the children required numerous operations to repair damage caused by scar tissue.

18 of the products in our 2012 test had a pH below 12.5, complying with the pH standard. We have regularly included pH testing in our dishwasher detergent tests since 2015 and no products have recorded a pH above 12.5.

Marketing claims made for this powder may also breach the Fair Trading Act as well as separate rules for advertising hazardous products. These rules prohibit false or misleading representations about the safety of a substance. We think claims the powder is "naturally kind" give the impression it's a safer choice. With a pH of 13.2, that's not the case.

After we reported our results to Earthwise, the company said it had investigated and found variations in pH within the same batch. It subsequently advised that no further automatic dishwasher powder was distributed and existing product was withdrawn from shop shelves. A public recall was issued on 23 August 2012.

Health risks

Automatic dishwasher detergents often contain corrosive alkaline salts and need to be used with care. These substances can cause chemical burns if eaten, left on the skin or if they get into your eyes.

Detergents and cleaners are among the most common causes of inquiries to the centre about child exposures to hazardous substances.

All the products we bought had safety warnings and first-aid information on the packaging. However, this was usually in smaller print on the back of the container. None had a warning on the front. We also found first-aid information varied widely between products.

The National Poisons Centre's Lucy Shieffelbien says there's no harmonisation of first-aid advice. "Ideally, we would like to see manufacturers use the same advice that we give. Some manufacturers are very good and will actively seek our advice but most don’t," she says.

Child-proof?

Child-resistant packaging reduces the risk of children coming into contact with dishwasher detergent. However, no container is 100 percent "child proof". The Cleaning Products (Corrosive) Group Standard defines packaging as child resistant if 80 percent of children aged around 4 years would be unable to gain access to the contents, or would be unlikely to obtain a toxic dose within 5 minutes.

Regardless of the packaging, dishwasher detergents need to be stored well out of the reach of children or in a locked cupboard. This includes dishwasher tablets. These tablets could be confused with sweets and shouldn't be left where children can get them.

To reduce the risk of accidental exposure, only put detergent in the dishwasher when you're ready to start a wash. Make sure any residue is removed from the dispenser afterwards and close the door firmly. Burn injuries have occurred when children have swallowed detergent left in the dispenser.

Dishwasher detergent safety advice

The National Poisons Centre provides the following first aid advice for dishwasher powders and tablets:

  • If swallowed: immediately rinse the mouth and remove any remaining powder, then give a small amount of water (a quarter to half a cup for a child, 1 to 2 cups for an adult) and seek medical advice. If the person is having difficulty breathing, keep them calm and help them into a position so that breathing is as easy as possible. Call an ambulance.
  • If on skin: immediately flush the exposed area with lots of water and seek medical advice. Don’t leave the powder on the skin, even for a few minutes: it is corrosive and causes burns.
  • If in eyes: immediately flush the eye with room-temperature water for at least 30 minutes and seek medical advice.

Medical advice can be obtained from the National Poisons Centre, freephone 0800 764 766, or from your doctor.

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"Green" claims

This isn't the first time we've found problems with a "green" cleaning product. In 2010, we criticised the marketing of All Natural Nature's Choice laundry powder. This powder was advertised as "environmentally friendly" and "hypo-allergenic" but had a pH of 12.6. Companies making green claims need to ensure any claims are accurate, unambiguous and verifiable. Otherwise they shouldn't be making them.

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