Look under the sink in almost any home in America and you’ll find a bottle of bleach. This chemical can kill microorganisms and remove or lighten color, keeping your whites white and your surfaces free from germs. Why, then, does bleach get such a bad rap?
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Is there any place for bleach in an eco-friendly home?
To answer these questions, we have to first understand what bleach is and how it works.
What is Bleach?
At a very basic level, what we mostly mean when we use the term ‘bleach’ is chlorine bleach, which contains sodium hyprochlorite. There are other types of ‘bleach’ such as oxygen bleach (hydrogen peroxide), and bleaching powder containing calcium hypochlorite, as well as sodium persulfate, zinc peroxide, bezoyl peroxide, bromate, carbamide peroxide, and others.
For the purposes of this article, we use the term ‘bleach’ to mean sodium hypochlorite (or a very similar chemical). This is the most common form used in the US, both at home and by institutions.
How Does Bleach Work?
If you aren’t in the mood for some fairly technical stuff, feel free to skip the next two sections.
As an oxidizing agent, bleach removes color by breaking apart the chemical bonds of a chromophore. This is the part of a molecule that confers color to a textile or solution. By splitting these bonds entirely, bleach changes the molecules so it either reflects color outside of the spectrum visible to the human eye or causes a molecule to no longer have color.
Reducing agents work in a slightly different way. They reduce the double bonds in chromophores to single bonds, also rendering it colorless.
Sunlight works in a similar way to bleach clothing and other textiles. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun alters the chemical bonds in the chromophores of dye molecules or fibers to lighten or ‘bleach’ the color. Thus, hanging white sheets on the line to dry is one of the most natural ways to bleach sheets.
Bleach kills or controls most types of viruses, bacteria, molds, mildews, and algae. It is also used as a weedkiller, as well as for the preservation of cut flowers, amongst other things.
As such, bleach is present in some capacity in most households.
How is Bleach Made?
Household bleach is made by sending a direct electrical current through a sodium chloride solution (table salt and water). The current splits the atoms, resulting in chlorine and caustic soda (lye). Both of these chemicals are highly dangerous and, when reacted together, create bleach.
So, while the components of bleach are naturally occurring, bleach is man-made and is one of the most corrosive chemicals around.
Bleach by Any Other Name – Bleach Alias Names
If bleach is so bad, then, what’s the alternative? Before we get to that, it’s important to note that bleach goes by many names. What might appear to be an “all-natural” bleach alternative could well be actual bleach itself, just rebranded.
- Sodium oxychloride
- Surgical chlorinated soda solution
- Chlorinated water (sodium hypochlorite)
- Hypochlorous acid, sodium salt (1:1)
- Sodium hypochiorite
- Sodium hypochloride
- Sodium hypo chlorite.
These are a few of the more common household or brand names for bleach:
- Dental antiformin
- Javelle water / Javel water
- Dakin’s solution
- Modified dakin’s solution
- Dakins quarter
- Dakins half
- Carrel-dakin solution
- Deosan Green Label Steriliser
- Hospital Milton
- Milton Crystals
- Neoseptal CL
- B-K liquid
- Hyposan and Voxsan
- AD Gel
- Sunnysol 150
- Caswell No. 776
- EPA Pesticide Chemical Code 014703
Bleach is Used in Many Household Items
Demonstrating the importance of conscious consumer choices across the board, bleach can be found in a wide range of products, including hair colorants, teeth whiteners, and skin whiteners. Chlorine is also used to produce things such as yoga mats and bottles, in the form of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, as well as in herbicides and pesticides. And dentists often use sodium hypochlorite for irrigation and disinfection during dental root canal procedures.
Not surprisingly, many home textiles such as carpets, rugs, and bedsheets are bleached with sodium hypochlorite, as are most paper products. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is the use of chlorine to bleach cake flour and other ‘white’ flours. This is yet another reason to choose unbleached whole wheat and whole-grain products.
The Health Effects of Bleach
If you tend to use bleach to clean the toilet bowl, you might be interested to know that when bleach mixes with ammonia (a key component of urine), this creates a toxic, deadly gas that can severely compromise lung function. In this process, bleach decomposes to form hydrochloric acid, which reacts with ammonia to form toxic chloramine fumes.
According to Washington State Department of Health, exposure to chloramine fumes can result in irritation to the throat, nose, and eyes, and symptoms such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Watery eyes
- Chest pain
- Pneumonia and fluid in the lungs.
Of course, urine is not the only thing you’ll want to avoid mixing with bleach. Vinegar, dish soap, drain cleaners, and basically any other cleaning product containing acids or ammonia can result in the formation of toxic chlorine gas, chloramine fumes, or even mustard gas (the deadly gas used in World War Two).
Mix bleach with acids and you risk exposure to chlorine gas. Such exposure, even at low levels and for a short period of time, causes irritation to mucus membranes (eyes, nose, throat, etc.). This results in symptoms such as coughing and breathing problems, watery burning eyes, and a runny nose. If exposure is prolonged or severe, you may experience chest pain, severe respiratory problems, vomiting, fluid in the lungs, pneumonia, or even death.
As chlorine can also be absorbed through the skin, you may experience irritation, pain, inflammation, swelling, and blistering even if you use an acidic cleaning solution or plain vinegar to wipe down a surface previously treated with bleach.
In every case, it’s best to not mix bleach with other household chemicals and to always wear gloves and ensure good ventilation when cleaning. If you have pets, especially birds, in the house, make sure to seal them off from any area where you’re using bleach. Any exposure to chlorine or chloramine can be fatal to animals (including human infants) whose respiratory capacity is much smaller than that of a healthy adult human.
Bear in mind that the density of chlorine gas is approximately 2.5 times greater than air. This means that unless there is a lot of air movement, chlorine gas will sink and remain near the ground. If you have a dog, cat, or crawling infant close by, they may be exposed to a higher level of chlorine gas than an adult who is sitting or standing.
Bleach also reacts with some oven cleaners and insecticides, as well as with hydrogen peroxide. And, if you have an outdoor pool, be careful not to mix pool chemicals containing calcium hypochlorite or sodium hypochlorite with cleaning products.
It should also go without saying that all household cleaners must be kept out of reach of children, vulnerable adults, and pets. Ingesting bleach can cause horrendous corrosive damage to the gastrointestinal tract, and accidental exposure to bleach is one of the main reasons for calls to Poison Control in the US.
If you are exposed to bleach or its fumes, get outside for fresh air and/or flush the affected area with water. In most cases, symptoms are mild and resolve after taking these steps. If you’re unsure, call Poison Control, your emergency vet, or 911 in a medical emergency.
Watch out, too, for products such as ‘bleach wipes’. In some cases, these contain ammonia, not bleach, meaning that they shouldn’t be used in addition to other products containing bleach, for the reasons already mentioned.
Long-Term and Environmental Health Effects of Bleach
If the immediate risks of exposure to toxic fumes aren’t enough to convince you to switch to an eco-friendly cleaning product, how about the fact that chlorine gas can also create carcinogenic dioxins? These compounds have also been linked to a range of health issues including immune disorders, miscarriage, birth defects, infertility, and diabetes.
And, even if bleach goes down the drain without causing you or your family any immediate health issues, it breaks down in the environment to form halides. These are known toxins for aquatic life. Sodium hypochlorite, when added to water or wastewater, easily reacts with organic material such as humic and fulvic acids in surface water. This results in the generation of many volatile and non-volatile disinfection by-products toxic to aquatic life.
Household bleach use is arguably less of a problem for waterways than industrial and institutional use of bleach. For instance, sodium hypochlorite is often used to disinfect hospital wastewater, which helps to prevent the spread of pathogenic microorganisms. Unfortunately, however, chlorine disinfectants in wastewater react with organic matter to produce compounds such as AOX (halogenated organic compounds adsorbable on activated carbon) which are toxic to aquatic organisms. These are also persistent environmental contaminants, meaning that they do not break down readily and instead accumulate in the environment.
In one study, researchers examined wastewater samples from the infectious and tropical diseases department of a hospital in a large French city. They assessed the toxicity to representative aquatic organisms and determined levels of fecal coliforms, AOX, chloride, and other substances. Results showed that the wastewater was acutely toxic to aquatic organisms but did lower levels of pathogens. The researchers suggested further study to establish a level where disinfection remained effective while reducing risk to the wider environment.
Chlorine is also used to treat drinking water in most cities. This treatment can oxidize contaminants, leading to the production of trihalomethanes (haloforms) which, again, are carcinogenic and linked to breast cancer, miscarriage, and fertility issues. In the home environment, mixing bleach with wastewater can also form organic compounds that can be problematic. These include chloroform (a haloform) and carbon tetrachloride.
Chloroform exposure can cause fairly immediate symptoms such as headache, dizziness, and breathing problems, and is also linked to birth defects, liver and kidney damage, and even cardiovascular problems such as heart attack.
Carbon tetrachloride is a solvent for oils and fats, lacquers and varnishes, rubber waxes, and resins. Imagine, then, what it does to your skin and mucus membranes. Exposure to this chemical is associated with nerve damage, endocrine damage, and serious liver and kidney damage which may result in coma and death. Indeed, while carbon tetrachloride was used in the production of refrigeration fluid and propellants for aerosol cans, as a pesticide, cleaning fluid, and degreasing agent, and in fire extinguishers and spot removers, its harmful effects led to it being banned for most uses. Nowadays, this chemical is only used in some industrial applications, but it can still be formed through the seemingly innocuous action of mixing bleach with wastewater.
To Bleach or Not to Bleach
All in all, it’s worth asking whether bright white sheets are worth the health risks associated with bleach. If your family is especially messy or prone to accidents and stains, consider choosing furnishings and linens that are forgiving in this regard, such as eco-friendly rugs with a tight, small pattern that hides stains. Or, choose naturally stain-resistant products such as organic, untreated wool.
When only “bleaching” will do, use hydrogen peroxide instead (wear gloves as it can cause burns). Or, better yet, hang the offending item on the line to bleach in the sun. As for household cleaning products, consider switching to natural disinfectants and good old-fashioned elbow grease. Be aware, though, that ammonia, baking soda, vinegar, and Borax are ineffective against Staphylococcus aureus; Borax, baking soda, and standard detergents also won’t kill Salmonella or Escherichia coli (vinegar and ammonia can kill both Salmonella and E. coli).
Unlike cleaners/detergents and sanitizers, which remove germs from surfaces so they can be rinsed away or reduce the levels of germs on a surface, respectively, disinfectants destroy or inactivate germs. Disinfectants are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and should be used after cleaning visible blood or other bodily fluids that may carry germs.
Natural Alternatives to Bleach
Research shows that several essential oils, including thyme and tea tree oil, are highly effective against a range of pathogens, including Staphylococcus, Salmonella, and E. coli. Indeed, some eco-friendly natural disinfectants such as Benefect are now registered with the EPA. As with bleach, natural disinfectants need to be used at a certain concentration. However, these products also tend to need to remain for longer on a surface to destroy germs (15 minutes or more, typically).
In some households, cleaners and sanitizers may be sufficient for most surfaces and textiles. The occasional deep clean with a natural disinfectant can also offer peace of mind. In a household with residents who are immunocompromised, however, bleach may be the preferred cleaner, despite its risks to health and the environment, because it is so effective at eradicating germs.
Where possible, keep the use of bleach to a minimum and take appropriate safety precautions. Wear protective gloves and a mask, wipe down surfaces after bleaching, ensure good ventilation, and keep vulnerable parties away from areas being cleaned.
If you fear poisoning from bleach or any other cause, call 1-800-222-1222 for poison control help 24 hours a day.