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Environmental Science/Burning plastic in dishwasher


QUESTION: Hello, I just bought some nipple brushes(for a baby bottle)  and put them on the top rack of the dishwasher...long story short the handle of one made contact with the element turned black, melted  and stunk up my kitchen.. I am in hte process of getting the black off the element, but want to know how affected the bottles in the kitchen could be or if its even safe to use the dishwasher

ANSWER: Hi Catherine
 Lots of new moms worry needlessly about things which could affect your infant's health. Melted or burned plastic is essentially inert. The black is carbon, the same stuff that makes charcoal, used to purify your drinking water, but I don't recommend eating it.
Plastics, and it may have been Polyvinyl Chloride, or it may have been Polyethylene, both of which are commonly used in household plastics, are hydrocarbons.  The contact with the heating element burned the plastic causing it to char. I daresay, that you can probably ignore the idea of getting the carbon off the element, unless it is causing additional odors or tastes in the dishwasher (which I doubt). About the only thing you can do is scrape it off, because carbon is not soluble in many things, except maybe molten steel, or you could try to burn the carbon off, but that's way way too dangerous because it might cause a fire in your kitchen by the time you applied the right amount of heat.  
So, consider this the equivalent of overcooking milk and turning it into a black cinder on the bottom of your pot.  Once the taste is gone, it has no further damage, except that it represents a potential hot spot for the pot.  The same is true for your heating element, but it won't represent a hot spot, just a spot where there is some extra carbon baked on the heating element.
If you are concerned, put run the dish drying cycle on your dishwasher a couple of times. Any residual compounds will be baked off and the result will be inert.
Enjoy your infant, and you have lots more to worry about, such as financing college, and his/her ultimate safety in a dangerous world.
Good luck
Dave Russell

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QUESTION: Thank you...I was upset and when I googled it made me feel worse.. sites saying how the melting plastic smell causes learning delays and other ailments..  I have ran the cycle a couple more times and when I open the dishwasher the steam still smells of the rancid plastic smell..weird since all that is there is a black mark, with no apparent plastic to the touch.  I even had a glass of wine on the counter across and when I went to drink i it tasted like the smell-it was terrible.  I will use the bottles..but just boil them first. So I will assume that with more cycles the smell will go away and the black carbon mark will be a reminder to be more mindful. I was considering taking steel wool to the element, but that may be dangerous. I wish I was a science person...I teach college English and I have been conditioned to view all plastics as evil products. This was a cheap Made in China nipple brush so I thought it was going to poison the house:)
Thank you so much!


I understand your concern, but our sense of smell is strongly connected to our sense of taste.  If you doubt this, try holding your nose and having your significant other (husband?) feed you a piece of raw onion. You will get the point quickly. Not to make too fine a point, smell is also psychological, and we smell things we think we should as well.  
Anyway, your child is safe.
Good luck and enjoy.

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David L. Russell, PE


I`m a Chemical,Civil and Environmental Engineer and have a number of projects in all phases of the environment. I have worked in the chemical industry and am active in professional societies, and am currently on an industrial wastes committee for the Water Environment Federation, and have taught courses in remediation in the US and abroad. I have written one book on Remediation of petroleum Contaminated Sites, and have a second book on PRACTICAL WASTEWATER TREATMENT to be published by John Wiley in September, 2006. I've also written over 30 articles on various elements of environmental problems and cleanup. Most Recently, I have addressed a NATO Scientific and Techical Conference on Ecoterrorism, and have worked with the same group on remediation of sites contaminated with Chemical Warfare Agent materials and othe materials as well. . I can answer q`s about Chemical and Environmental Engineering, land development, air pollution, water pollution, soil and water cleanup, combustion, international environmental problems, industrial processes chemical processes. Civil and Environmental and Chemical Engineering. Overall, I have over 35 years of experience in this area. Note: I do not answer homework questions


I love work in the third world and developing areas because it is challenging and one can get a sense of accomplishment.

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