Laundry Mystery Has Officials Looking For Answers

MOUNT VERNON, Ohio (AP) - There's a laundry mystery in the central Ohio city of Mount Vernon.

The mayor's office has received dozens of complaints of laundered clothes that have turned out splotchy, streaky, faded or bleached.

The first complaints, in the early 1990s, were dismissed as the probable result of too much Clorox, perhaps, or unevenly distributed fabric softener.

But, in 1999, the complaint log at the water treatment plant in this city about 40 miles northeast of Columbus showed an increase. During the next two years, dozens more rolled in. Already this year, the number is 28.

The department is asking residents who have complained to fill out a three-page questionnaire that covers the type of washing machine and detergent used to whether anyone in the home uses acne cream, which can react with some laundry products.

City officials hope to find a common denominator.

The Columbus consulting firm of Burgess & Niple, paid $5,000 by the city in September to study the problem, concluded that chlorine levels in the city's water would have to be 20 times the existing level to account for such problems.

No such spike in the chlorine content has been recorded at the water plant, plant manager Judith Scott said.

Scott is skeptical that the water is solely at fault. Why, she wondered, would only one item in a load be affected?

Perhaps non-colorfast dye is used in the affected fabrics, Scott speculated. The streaks seem to show up most often in darker, cotton garments, she said.

And it might be the detergent; one brand shows up a lot on the questionnaires, she added.

The consultant noted that the final disinfecting process used in Mount Vernon, injecting chlorine dioxide gas into the water, is uncommon.

One of the few cities in Ohio that use the process, Hamilton, in Butler County north of Cincinnati, recorded similar complaints. But those problems were concentrated in a neighborhood near the city's water-treatment plant.

In Mount Vernon, reports have been filed citywide, with no distinction between new subdivisions or 100-year-old homes.

"We don't seem to be able to find that consistency," Mayor Richard Mavis said.

Lately, the mayor's been spending as many as three days a week dealing with the problem. Mavis said he can't go to the store without someone stopping to tell a laundry story.

Residents bring bags of discolored clothes to city hall, but Mavis said he doesn't have to venture beyond his laundry room to find examples.

Among the casualties: his khaki Bermuda shorts and two pairs of his wife's dress slacks.

Mavis isn't quite ready to rule out something in Mount Vernon's groundwater-fed system and said the city may hire another consultant.

"It's something we feel confident in pursuing, and eventually we'll get to the bottom of this."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)