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Why are people popping laundry pods?

Those who do laundry know that balancing a full laundry basket while holding a tub of detergent can prove to be an arduous task, which is why the laundry pod is quite an amazing invention. Now if only teenagers didn't try and eat them...

Dousing oneself with a bucket full of ice water isn’t much fun, but at least that craze was cool. It had a point: raise money for ALS research. Biting into a laundry pod has no point, other than to demonstrate the mental shortcomings of the biter. For some bizarre reason people have been posting videos of their grimacing faces as they chomp down on a laundry pod. If they get away with just a grimace, they are lucky. They could just as well end up in hospital with chemical burns to their mouth. If they are dimwitted enough to consume a whole pod, they could end up with a premature date with the undertaker. Laundry pods are meant to be consumed by washing machines, not by people.

These pods are the product of a great deal of research and were designed to ease laundry chores. Consumers had expressed dissatisfaction with having to carry large boxes or bottles of detergent and they didn’t like having to measure out product. That sent researchers scurrying to find an easier way of transporting these goods and a more convenient way of introducing detergent into the washing machine. Enhanced convenience, producers figured, would enhance profits. And so the hunt was on for a concentrated, pre-measured form of the detergent that could be dropped into the washing machine. This turned out to be a formidable task.

The “packaging” had to be soluble in hot or cold water and had to be biodegradable so as not to raise any environmental concerns. Solid crystalline ingredients would not do, because fitting an appropriate amount into a pod would require compression into a small volume and that would lead to difficulty in dispersing the detergent throughout the load. Then there was the issue that what is called a “detergent,” is actually a complex mixture of chemicals that include surfactants, which are the actual substances that remove soil from the fabric, solvents that dissolve the surfactants, chemicals that dissolve stains, enzymes that decompose insoluble stains, fabric brighteners that absorb ultraviolet light and emit visible light, substances that prevent redeposition of soil on the fabric, bleaching agents and preservatives. Since some combinations of these are incompatible with long-term storage, researchers concluded that the ingredients would have to be in separate compartments in the pod and be released only when the pod was immersed in water in the washing machine. Quite a challenge!

That challenge was finally met in 2012 thanks to developments in the chemistry of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), a water-soluble, biodegradable polymer. This material had already been used to formulate laundry bags for hospitals, allowing bags filled with laundry to be dumped directly into washing machines, thereby preventing workers from being exposed to infectious material. However, when it came to using soluble plastic as the packaging material for laundry pods, there was an obvious problem: the contents contained water.

Experiments showed that the packaging could be prevented from being dissolved by the internal water if the water was limited to less than 7% of the weight of the contents. That, though, also meant that the contents had to be dissolved in very little water, resulting in a very concentrated solution. That was fine for using the pods in the way they were intended but it made for a very caustic and possibly toxic solution if the pod were ingested. And it wasn’t long before that happened.

Since the pods were attractively coloured, they ended up being mistaken for candy by some children resulting in many a trip to the emergency room. Various measures were considered to prevent such accidental poisonings, even adding a bitter substance to the packaging. But nobody ever thought that there would be people zany enough to video themselves biting into a pod just to show that they could withstand the torture dished out by the caustic contents. This time emergency room doctors were not dealing with young children accidentally chewing on the pods, they were forced to treat teenagers who had fallen off the evolutionary ladder. YouTube reacted to the insane craze by removing the videos featuring the antics of the crazies attacking laundry pods with their teeth and manufacturers warned that exposure to the contents of the pods could result in respiratory problems, seizures and even death. Hopefully that will throw ice water on this madness. 


@JoeSchwarcz