LOS ANGELES - It's a kitchen degreaser. It's a window cleaner. It kills athlete's foot. Oh, and you can drink it.
Sounds like the old "Saturday Night Live" gag for Shimmer, the faux floor polish plugged by Gilda Radner. But the elixir is real. U.S. regulators have approved it. And it's starting to replace the toxic chemicals Americans use at home and on the job.
The stuff is a simple mixture of table salt and tap water whose ions have been scrambled with an electric current. Researchers have dubbed it electrolyzed water, not as catchy as Mr. Clean. But at the Sheraton Delfina in Santa Monica, Calif., some hotel workers are calling it "el liquido milagroso," the miracle liquid.
That's as good a name as any for a substance that scientists said is powerful enough to kill anthrax spores without harming people or the environment.
Used as a sanitizer for decades in Russia and Japan, it's slowly winning acceptance in the United States. A New York poultry processor uses it to kill salmonella on chicken carcasses. Minnesota grocery clerks spray sticky conveyors in the checkout lanes. Michigan jailers mop with electrolyzed water to keep potentially lethal cleaners out of the hands of inmates.
In Santa Monica, the once-skeptical Sheraton housekeeping staff has ditched skin-chapping bleach and pungent ammonia for spray bottles filled with electrolyzed water to clean toilets and sinks.
"I didn't believe in it at first because it didn't have foam or any scent," housekeeper Flor Corona said. "But I can tell you it works. My rooms are clean."
Safe and inexpensive
Management likes it, too. The mixture costs less than a penny a gallon. It cuts down on employee injuries from chemicals. It reduces shipping costs and waste because hotel employees prepare the elixir on site. And it's helping the Sheraton Delfina tout its environmental credentials to guests.
The hotel's kitchen staff recently began disinfecting produce with electrolyzed water. They say the lettuce lasts longer. They're hoping to replace detergent in the dishwasher. Management figures the payback time for the $10,000 electrolysis machine will be less than a year.
"It's green. It saves money. And it's the right thing to do," said Glenn Epstein, executive assistant at the Sheraton Delfina. "It's almost like fantasy."
Actually, it's chemistry. For more than 200 years, scientists have tinkered with electrolysis, the use of an electric current to bring about a chemical reaction (not the hair-removal technique of the same name). That's how we got metal electroplating and large-scale production of chlorine, used to bleach and sanitize.
It turns out that zapping saltwater with low-voltage electricity creates a couple of powerful, nontoxic cleaning agents. Sodium ions are converted into sodium hydroxide, an alkaline liquid that cleans and degreases like detergent, but without the scrubbing bubbles. Chloride ions become hypochlorous acid, a potent disinfectant known as acid water.
"It's 10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria," said Yen-Con Hung, a professor of food science at the University of Georgia, Griffin, who has been researching electrolyzed water for more than a decade. "And it's safe."
There are drawbacks.
Electrolyzed water loses its potency fairly quickly, so it can't be stored long. Machines are pricey and geared mainly for industrial use. The process also needs to be monitored frequently for the right strength.
Then there's the "magic water" hype that has accompanied electrolyzed drinking water. A number of companies sell so-called ionizers for home use that can range from about $600 to more than $3,000. The alkaline water, proponents say, provides health benefits.
But Richard Wullaert, a Santa Barbara, Calif., consultant, said consumers should be careful.
"Some of these people are making claims that will get everybody in trouble," said Wullaert, whose nonprofit Functional Water Society is spreading the word about electrolyzed water.
Most of the growth has happened outside the U.S.
Russians put electrolyzed water down oil wells to kill pesky microbes. Europeans use it to treat burn victims. Electrolyzing equipment is helping sanitize drinking water in parts of Latin American and Africa.
It's big in Japan. People there spray it on sushi to kill bacteria and fill their swimming pools with it, eliminating the need for harsh chlorine. Doctors use it to sterilize equipment and treat foot fungus and bedsores. It's the secret weapon in Sanyo's "soap-less" washing machine.
In the United States, the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have approved electrolyzed water for a variety of uses.
PuriCore of Malvern, Pa., and Oculus Innovative Sciences of Petaluma, Calif., have developed treatments for chronic wounds. Albuquerque, N.M.-based MIOX sells municipal water-purifying systems. EAU Technologies of Kennesaw, Ga., caters to both ends of a dairy cow, with alkaline water to aid the animal's digestion and acid water to clean up its manure.
Integrated Environmental Technologies of Little River, S.C., is working with oil companies to keep wells free of bacteria, and with high schools to sanitize athletic equipment.
Electrolyzer of Woburn, Mass., is going after the hospitality market. The Sheraton Delfina purchased one of its machines. So has the Hyatt Regency Chicago and the Trump International Beach Resort near Miami.
Rebecca Jimenez, director of housekeeping, heard grumbling when the Santa Monica hotel got the machine last fall. Housekeepers doubted the flat, virtually odorless liquids were doing the job. Some poured shampoo into their bottles to work up a lather.
"If it doesn't suds up, it doesn't work," Jimenez said. "That's the mentality."
Still, she said, most have come around and are enjoying working without fumes and peeling skin.
Minnesota food scientist Joellen Feirtag said she was skeptical when she installed an electrolysis unit in her laboratory. She found the acid water killed E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other nasty pathogens. Yet it was gentle enough to soothe her children's sunburns and acne.
She now encourages food processors to consider electrolyzed water to help combat disease outbreaks.
Most are dubious.
"This sounds too good to be true, which is really the biggest problem," said Feirtag, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. "But it's only a matter of time before this becomes mainstream."