The detergents used in automatic dishwashers contain potent cleaning agents that can cause severe or even fatal reactions if they're ingested. These chemicals are corrosive, and they may cause severe irritation and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, along with systemic toxic effects.
Automatic Dishwasher Detergents
Some detergents also contain chemicals such as sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide, zinc chloride and hydrozincite that, although they are present in relatively low concentrations in the detergent, are still potentially toxic.
Sodium Carbonate and Potassium Carbonate
Two of the most common cleaning agents in automatic dishwasher detergents are sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate. Both of these chemicals will cause chemical burns and severe pain in the mouth, lips, tongue and throat if they're ingested, and the same damage and pain will likely occur in the esophagus and abdomen if the detergents are swallowed.
Gastrointestinal distress will likely follow, including vomiting and diarrhea, both of which may contain blood. Systemic reactions, including a drop in blood pressure, breathing difficulties and organ damage may occur, as well.
If someone ingests dishwasher detergent, seek medical help immediately. Do not induce vomiting, and give the person large quantities of water unless he or she is unconscious, vomiting or having difficulty swallowing.
Keep dishwasher detergents out of the reach of children. In many cases, children ingest detergents from the dishwasher dispenser, either before the wash cycle or after, when there is detergent residue left in the dispenser. Supervise children while you're preparing to use the dishwasher, and check detergent dispensers inside the dishwasher to be sure that detergent is being dispersed entirely and not building up inside the dishwasher.
Be sure, also, that dishes are being rinsed thoroughly of detergent residue to avoid contamination of food when the dishes are used after washing. A properly operating dishwasher should not leave enough detergent residue on dishes that the residue will pose any significant risk of harmful food contamination. If your dishwasher is leaving significant detergent residue on dishes, have it checked out by a technician.
Natural and Eco-Friendly Products
Some dishwasher detergents labeled as natural or environmentally friendly use less toxic cleaning agents, such as citric acid and sodium carbonate peroxide, but some products contain chemicals that pose a risk of both short- and long-term toxicity. Always follow the recommendations for safety precautions and first aid on the detergent's label, and avoid ingesting any kind of detergent, even those labeled as environmentally friendly.
Liquid Dish Soaps
The detergents in liquid dish soaps intended for use in sinks are generally less toxic than the chemicals in automatic dishwasher detergents. The detergents are usually those classified as non-ionic or anionic detergents, and they are also less toxic than the cationic detergents often found in fabric softeners and sanitizers.
Ingestion of small amounts of liquid dish soap may cause mild gastrointestinal distress, including vomiting and diarrhea. The symptoms of mild exposure are usually short-lived and go away on their own. Ingestion of large amounts may cause more severe gastrointestinal symptoms and central nervous system depression.
If you ingest a significant amount liquid dish soap, drink one or two glasses of water and seek medical help.