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Amy Longsworth’s troubles began over a month ago, with the wineglasses. She would put the elegant stemware into her dishwasher, and it would emerge wearing a ghostly film.
“[The glasses are] where I really started to notice it,” says the 46-year-old writer, “because, you know, who wants to drink their wine out of a sloppy bucket, right?”
Soon enough, Longsworth, who works at her home near Macomb and 36th Streets NW, was noticing a foggy white coating on all her glassware. Then she saw it on her cutlery.
Longworth’s Bosch dishwasher quickly established itself as the instigator of her problems. The tiniest application of Cascade detergent caused the Bosch to festoon its contents with a milky ectoplasm. Then the dishwasher began to projectile-vomit à la Linda Blair—spewing water into her kitchen, warping its white-oak flooring.
The sudden rebellion of her precision-made, strainless-steel appliance sent Longsworth on a quest for information. She publicized her queer experiences on the Cleveland Park e-mail message board. Six people wrote back with similar tales of recent hydrological woes.
Sharon Belliveau, whose Quebec Street abode lies several blocks north of Longsworth’s house, informed Longsworth of an upstart washing machine that had acquired a new ability to churn out massive volumes of foam. The monster foaming has put Belliveau, a government systems analyst, on semipermanent guard duty. “I kind of stand there and watch it,” she says. “It was really bad last time….The water went under the rug and made a huge mess.”
Belliveau ran a snake through her pipes, but the sudsing continues. She says the clothes come out of the washing machine feeling fine, though she’s “wondering if they’re cleaner” and would still like to know what’s behind the disturbance. “I have not changed laundry habits in seven years. I’ve used the same detergent for five years,” she says. “You wonder, as an analyst, what has changed.”
Longsworth thinks she may have found an answer.
On June 1, the Washington Aqueduct began adding phosphoric acid to the 4th High Pressure Zone, a contained sector of the water system that encompasses part of Cleveland Park (and Longsworth and Belliveau’s homes). It was an experiment designed to combat the city’s waterborne lead problem: Technicians at the aqueduct figured phosphate compounds would coat the lead pipes and prevent further leakage of the brain-damaging metal. With the phosphates apparently functioning fine in the 4th High Pressure Zone, the aqueduct introduced phosphoric acid into the entire D.C. system on Aug. 23.
Longsworth prefaces her it’s-something-in-the-water theory by acknowledging Cleveland Park’s alarmist reputation. “Every time you breathe in this neighborhood, you have the neighborhood complaining about it,” she says. But NIMBYism aside, she can’t think of anything else but a chemical change to explain her kitchen’s increasing wackiness, the discussion of which pains her. “I don’t want to sound like Suzy Homemaker here,” she says. “There are many bigger things to worry about in the world than my cutlery.”
The theory has caught on with neighbors struggling with their own problem appliances. Brendan Shane, an attorney whose Chevy Chase home sits on the edge of the 4th High Pressure Zone, owns a 6-month-old Whirlpool dishwasher that’s recently been coating his dishes with drippy deposits. “I suspect it is related to a change in the water treatment,” says Shane. “[The new treatment] seems like it’s designed to leave residue somewhere.”
Officials from both the aqueduct (which supplies the water) and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (which carries it) are less eager to connect the dots between phosphoric acid and foam, slime, and other mysterious phenomena.
“The only thing that I could think of is that if they had purchased some kind of water-treatment device, such as a water softener that removes minerals like calcium and magnesium and replaces them with sodium,” says Mike Chicoine, quality-control officer for the laboratory section of the Washington Aqueduct. “If you take [the minerals] out and you add detergents, you’re going to get a slippier, foamier type of water.”
Longsworth does not own a water softener. But there’s the off chance that phosphoric acid is filling in for one in Northwest.
“There are a lot of variables. I hesitate to speculate,” says Christopher Cahill, a materials chemist at George Washington University. But Cahill says the phosphoric acid could be forming compounds that remove minerals and kick up a detergent’s sudsiness. “I almost said [the hypothesis] holds water—ha ha,” says Cahill. “It’s certainly viable….[Phosphate compounds] were used quite often in laundry detergents to soften water.”
A lack of laboratory equipment precludes Longsworth from determining exactly what’s flowing out of her pipes. She’s invested her energy instead in homegrown experiments designed to rid her dishes of the stains. On a November afternoon, she mixes up a paste from baking soda and bottled water and applies it to a glass blender made opaque from a go-around in the Bosch. But the blender, after a few minutes of scrubbing, still sports a thick frost over 90 percent of its surface.
“There seems to be a lot of power in [my dishwasher],” says Longsworth, who wonders how such energy could be harnessed for a good use. “Could it be an alternative to fuel cells in cars? Maybe it can make foamy drinks or something.”CP