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When Americans open their dishwashers these days, their plates and glasses may not look quite as clean as they used to. And here's why: Earlier this year, with little fanfare, detergent makers reworked their formulas for the good of the country's waterways. But NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports it's turned a simple chore into a frustrating mystery for many people.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: A couple months ago, Sandra Young from Vernon, Florida started to notice that something was seriously amiss with her dishes.

Ms. SANDRA YOUNG: The pots and pans were gray. The aluminum was starting to turn black. The glasses had fingerprints and still lip prints on them, and they were starting to get this powdery look to them. And I'm like, oh, my goodness. My dishwasher must be dying. I better get a new dishwasher.

SHOGREN: Young's not alone. In fact, many people across the country are tearing out their hair over stained flatware, filmy glasses and ruined dishes. Sue Wright from Austin, Texas says for months, her cups and glasses have been coming out of her year-old dishwasher covered with black specks. She called three repairmen to her kitchen, but her dishes were still dirty.

Ms. SUE WRIGHT: I looked at a plumber's rear end for about two months this summer, sticking out from under my sink. I was just totally frustrated. I couldn't figure out what was going wrong.

SHOGREN: Finally, after months of aggravation and expense, Wright found out the real reason for her speckled cups. This summer, detergent makers took phosphates out of their detergents.

Seventeen states banned phosphates from dishwasher detergents because the chemical compounds also pollute lakes, bays and streams. They create algae blooms and starve fish of oxygen. But dirty and damaged dishes are turning lots of people into skeptics, including Wright.

Ms. WRIGHT: I'm angry at the people who decided that phosphate was growing algae. I'm not sure that I believe that.

SHOGREN: Sandra Young was so mad that she called Proctor and Gamble, which makes Cascade, to complain. But when she did, a company representative told her to be more careful about what pans she puts into her dishwasher.

Ms. YOUNG: He said, well, if you're really having that hard of a problem, maybe you should just wash your dishes by hand, which I thought was kind of strange for an automatic dish washing company.

SHOGREN: Susan Baba from Proctor and Gamble says the company had no choice. It just wasn't feasible to make detergent with phosphates for some states and without them for others.

Ms. SUSAN BABA (Proctor and Gamble) You know, this isn't really a huge environmental win.

SHOGREN: She says that's because phosphates are wonder ingredients. They not only strip food and grease from dishes, but also prevent crud from getting reattached during the wash. So she says without phosphates, people have to wash or rinse their dishes before they put them in the dishwasher. That wastes water. Or they run their dishwasher twice. That wastes electricity.

Dennis Griesing of the American Cleaning Institute, a trade group, says it could take time, but phosphate-free detergents will improve. That's what happened with laundry detergents after phosphates were removed from them years ago. He says these inconveniences are part of a bigger trend.

Mr. DENNIS GRIESING (American Cleaning Institute): We're going through a very significant readjustment in our lives to accommodate our ecological needs.

SHOGREN: But not everyone is willing to adjust. Sandra Young figured out a way to undo the phosphate ban, at least in her own kitchen. She bought some Trisodium phosphate at a hardware store and started mixing her own formula.

Ms. YOUNG: And it seems to be working pretty good.

SHOGREN: So you just can't do without those phosphates.

Ms. YOUNG: Exactly. Yeah. Mm-hmm. The dishes just weren't coming clean.

SHOGREN: Other people have given up on their machines altogether and are washing their dishes by hand. But some are switching brands and making peace with phosphate-free detergents.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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