Some of the most common items in your house might not be as safe as you think. One example? The dangers of bleach, one of the most commonly used disinfectants in the world. And sadly, the latest example of this occurred at a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant in Burlington, Massachusetts, where one person died and 10 others wound up in the hospital due to cleaning product fumes.
The incident is still under investigation, but an emergency hazmat crew on the scene identified the main culprit as sodium hypochlorite — a compound found in household bleach. The worker was said to be mixing cleanings when the emergency ensued, but the incident is still under investigation.
Despite claims that it’s extremely safe when used properly, bleach continues to be the subject of research for its potential impact on respiratory health, particularly in children.
In addition, one of the scariest dangers of bleach involves what happens when you mix it (on purpose or without realizing it) with other household chemicals.
BuzzFeed includes three toxic bleach combinations on a list of common products never to mix, warning readers about what happens when bleach comes into contact with vinegar, ammonia or rubbing alcohol.
Still, some of the dangers of bleach are not well-known, and people continue to mix products and expose themselves and their families to dangerous chemicals, all in the name of cleanliness.
But I think you should never use bleach in your home again, and I’m going to explain why. As a bonus, I’ll also show you some natural cleaning products that can get the job done without putting you and your family in danger.
What Is Bleach?
To understand the dangers of bleach, it’s best to first look at its most common uses. To be specific, bleach is a disinfectant and stain remover. Many people don’t realize this, but bleach isn’t intended to be used as a household cleaner, but rather after washing surfaces to remove any germs that remain.
Bleach can be purchased in both liquid and powder forms. Many industrial processes also employ the use of bleach to kill germs, destroy weeds and bleach wood pulp.
Depending on the type of bleach you get, it may or may not contain chlorine. Typically, bleaches either contain an active ingredient of chlorine (sodium hypochlorite) or hydrogen peroxide.
What ingredients are in bleach?
To understand the dangers of bleach, it’s important to know what’s actually in it. After using water as a base, a typical bottle of bleach contains: (2)
Sodium Hydroxide: This is where the chlorine molecules in bleach are released (when it’s combined with sodium chloride). While The Clorox Company is correct in saying that there is no “free” chlorine in liquid bleach, it’s also true that chlorine molecules are released during certain processes of bleach use. (3)
Here’s what the CDC has to say about sodium hydroxide, quoted directly from their website:
“Inhalation of sodium hydroxide dust, mist, or aerosol may cause irritation of the mucous membranes of the nose, throat, and respiratory tract. Children exposed to the same levels of sodium hydroxide in air as adults may receive a larger dose because they have greater lung surface area:body weight ratios and increased minute volumes:weight ratios. In addition, they may be exposed to higher levels than adults in the same location because of their short stature and the higher levels of sodium hydroxide in air found nearer to the ground. Direct contact with the solid or with concentrated solutions causes thermal and chemical burns leading to deep-tissue injuries. Very strong solutions of sodium hydroxide can hydrolyze proteins in the eyes, leading to severe burns and eye damage or, in extreme cases, blindness. Ingestion of sodium hydroxide can cause severe corrosive injury to the lips, tongue, oral mucosa, esophagus, and stomach. Stridor, vomiting, drooling, and abdominal pain are early symptoms of sodium hydroxide ingestion. Ingestion may lead to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract and shock.” (4)
While home cleaning products do not contain enough sodium hydroxide to cause some of these effects on their own (such as chemical burns), there is already evidence that aerosol use of bleach does have an impact on the respiratory systems of both adults and children. Chlorine bleach is not believed to bioaccumulate in the body, but the damage it does may compound over time. (5)
Chlorine poisoning is a definite concern when using bleach products with sodium hydroxide and sodium chloride. This may occur when bleach an ammonia are mixed (more on that in a moment); or if bleach is directly ingested. Symptoms including breathing difficulty, swelling of the throat and many more complications. (6)
Sodium Hypochlorite: This common bleaching agent is one of the things that gives bleach its strong scent. (7) Breathing its fumes may result in poisoning and is more likely when the product is mixed with ammonia. (8) Many people refer to pure sodium hypochlorite simply as “bleach,” as it’s the most commonly encountered bleaching agent. A common misconception occurs when people assume this ingredient is where the chlorine in chlorinated bleach comes from; however, like I mentioned above, it occurs as a reaction between sodium hydroxide and sodium chloride.
Sodium Chloride: Table salt is another name for sodium chloride. It’s used in bleach as a thickening and stabilizing agent.
Sodium Carbonate: This ingredient neutralizes acid and helps to build “cleaning efficiency.” It’s used to improve the ability of bleach to remove alcohol and grease stains. (9)
Sodium Chlorate: One of the breakdown substances from sodium hypochlorite, sodium chlorate is known to accelerate and increase flammability. (10)
Sodium Polyacrylate: In the U.S., sodium polyacrylate is considered probably safe, but the Environment Canada Domestic Substance List classifies it as “likely toxic to organ systems.” (11) It’s used in detergents and bleach to stop dirt from redepositing on fabrics during wash cycles.
Sodium c10-c16 Alkyl Sulfate: Found in some bleach products, this alkyl sulfate causes eye and skin irritations and is potentially toxic to the liver after persistent inhalation. (12)
History of Bleach
Throughout history, the process of “bleaching” has been accomplished by a number of methods, the earliest form that of spreading cloth out in an open area of land, known as a bleachfield, to be whitened by water and the sun. This is sometimes referred to as “sun bleaching.” Given the dangers of bleach today, maybe we should have stuck to this method.
In the 18th century, four scientists made discoveries related to chlorine that set off the creation of chlorine bleach as we understand it today.
Carl Wilhelm Scheele of Sweden discovered chlorine in 1774 (although the word “chlorine” wasn’t used to describe it until 1810). French scientist Claude Berthollet was the first to create sodium hypochlorite and recognize chlorine as a bleaching agent. Another Frenchman, Antoine Germain Labarraque, discovered hypochlorites worked to disinfect.
Finally, Charles Tennant of Scotland determined that combining chlorine and lime would produce the best bleaching results known at that time. He received a patent in 1798 for his concoction.
On the hydrogen peroxide side: scientist Louis Jacques Thénard produced the substance for the first time in 1818. It wasn’t used for bleaching until 1882 and then became commercially popular in the 1930s.
Main Uses of Bleach
For bleach fans, there isn’t much that can’t be helped with a bit of bleach. As a disinfectant, household bleach is recommended for:
- Sanitizing toilet bowls
- Sanitizing floors
- Removing stains from cups/drinkware
- Adding shine to glass items
- Whitening clothes and removing stains
- Cleaning outdoor furniture to repair mildew damage
- Mold/mildew removal
- Window washing aid
These are just some of the common recommendations for bleach. When it comes to black mold, the CDC recommends using a bleach solution for disinfecting affected areas, although they do warn of the dangers of mixing bleach with other cleaners. (14)
If bleach were your only option, then perhaps it would be worth using it when sanitizing your space or ridding it of mold. But it’s not the only choice — I’ll touch later on better alternatives to bleach.
Dangers of Bleach
1. Doesn’t Mix Well with Others
One of the greatest dangers of bleach is that it is hazardous when combined with a number of other products. There are warning labels on all bleach products about never combining it with supplies containing ammonia or “other household chemicals,” but how possible is that to follow?
For instance, many people don’t take the time to read through labels such as this one. Second, the resulting issues that occur are not outlined on the label, so consumers aren’t necessarily aware of how dangerous it is to combine bleach with other things.
Third (and this one is my most concerning problem), there’s no way to guarantee that cleaners don’t mix when you have to use them on the same surfaces, even if you rinse the surface well.
“But Dr. Axe,” you may be thinking, “Is it really that big of a deal?”
Let’s look at what happens when bleach is combined with various substances.
Bleach + Ammonia
Mixing these two can be a potentially deadly combo. When ammonia and bleach are combined, the chlorine in bleach converts to chloramine gas. (15) Chloramine gas exposure can result in:
- Shortness of breath
- Watery eyes
- Chest pain
- Throat, nose and eye irritation
- Pneumonia/fluid buildup in the lungs
Ammonia is found on its own as a cleaning agent and in some glass cleaners. Even scarier is that there is ammonia in urine, which should result in even more caution when you clean anything soiled by urine.
Oh, and let’s not forget that about 25 percent of US public drinking water is treated with monochloramines. The boiling point of these chemicals is about 75 degrees Fahrenheit and they can be liberated from water over the course of 24 hours or so, so the water you use to rinse your surfaces might contribute to the formation of chloramine gas as well.
It’s not that uncommon for people to be poisoned this way, and although most cases of sodium hypochlorite poisoning (the official term for the condition) are resolved without lasting effects, there have been many reports of this chloramine exposure causing damage such as severe lung injury. (16, 17) The risk is multiplied when a person has pre-existing respiratory conditions. (18)
There’s also a rare but possible interaction between chlorine bleach and ammonia. Have you ever heard of liquid hydrazine? If not, you may recognize its “street” name: rocket fuel. You guessed it — if “excess” ammonia is present when combined with bleach, it’s possible to create explosive rocket fuel. (19)
To be honest, the amount of ammonia and bleach needed to make this reaction is probably only going to be found in industrial settings. However, I think the chloramine gas issue is reason enough to avoid this altogether.
Bleach + Acidic Products
Another type of common cleaning product category are acidic cleaners. This includes vinegar, some glass cleaners, dishwashing detergent, toilet bowl cleaners, drain cleaners, rust removal agents and brick/concrete detergents.
Like with ammonia, this combination causes the release of a dangerous gas — this time, though, it’s chlorine gas. (20)
At even small levels for short periods of time, chlorine gas causes reactions such as:
- Ear, nose and throat irritation
- Coughing/breathing issues
- Burning, watery eyes
- Runny nose
After long periods of exposure, these symptoms may graduate to:
- Chest pain
- Severe breathing problems
- Fluid in the lungs
It’s possible for chlorine gas to be absorbed dermally (through the skin) and cause pain, inflammation, blistering and swelling. The acid can burn the skin, eyes, ears, nose, throat and stomach.
Bleach + Alcohol
Many people see rubbing alcohol and acetone as very benign as cleaning agents. However, when these substances touch bleach, they create chloroform… You know, the stuff in movies that kidnappers use to knock people out. (21)
Bleach + Other Cleaners
Adding bleach to other cleaners like hydrogen peroxide, oven cleaners and some pesticides can result in noxious fumes like chlorine gas or chloramine gases. Just don’t do it. (24)
Bleach + Water
All that’s really left, as far as cleaning is concerned, is water, right? Well, yes — the instructions on household bleach do explain that it’s only to be combined with water and always diluted before it’s used to clean any surface (the water in the washing machine dilutes bleach for laundry).
This would be okay, except that alcohol isn’t the only substance that reacts with bleach to create chloroform gas. Water with a high enough level of “organic matter” (also known as dirt) can create chloroform gas. (25)
Clean tap water is okay, but what happens when you’ve been using that water to clean and rinse? The evidence for this problem is the next major danger of bleach.
2. Toxic Showers
You’ve probably noticed you don’t pass out every time you take a shower. I can’t imagine many people showering much, if that were the case. However, it’s still pretty likely that you’re being exposed to low levels of chloroform in your shower. Even the CDC admits it. (26)
This isn’t a shock to most people. Actually, an article in the journal Medical Hypotheses postulated in 1984 that chloroform exposure in the shower might pose a “serious public health concern.” (27) Even with several follow-up studies around the world, not much has been done to counteract this problem.
The World Health Organization, in a release about common disinfectants, explains that chloroform is formed when chlorine reacts with organic matter. One class of organic matter that is of major concern are known as “humic substances.” Among the list of these substances are phenol and alcohol, two compounds excreted in human urine. (28, 29)
Disinfecting your shower with chlorinated bleach is one way chlorine might find its way into your shower. In addition, most public water supply systems are treated with chlorine or chloramines to disinfect the water, so running an actual shower likely increases the chlorine content. (Chloramines also interact with organic matter to make chloroform, but not as often as chlorine.)
Add to that the fact that showering is meant to remove the dirt from your body, and the propensity many people have for relieving themselves in the shower, and you’ve got a toxic combination. Chloroform is really dangerous on its own, but when exposed to sunlight can also convert to phosgene, an even more sinister chemical that was used as a chemical warfare agent in World War I. (30)
In chlorinated water, a person is significantly exposed to chloroform in just 10-15 minutes in the shower. (31) Again, the presence of bleach used as a cleaner will contribute to this amount. The amount of chloroform you breathe and the amount that you’re exposed to through your skin are about equal. (32)
In Taiwan, a study was conducted to look at the areas with highly chlorinated versus those with unchlorinated water and to compare the risk of cancer. The researchers discovered that total cancer cases were significantly higher in areas with major chloroform exposure (up to six times higher for those who routinely took 20-minute showers). (35)
This is all the more reason, in my opinion, to ditch the bleach… And probably install a whole-house water filter to eliminate chlorine, while you’re at it.
3. Baby (and Pet) Magnet
While it’s possible to keep bleach away from kids and pets, there are still a great number of bleach poisoning incidents every year. Cleaning substances account for about 11.2 percent of poison control cases (totaling 118,346 cases in 2015). (36) This doesn’t break down into bleach versus other cleaners; however, the World Health Organization lists bleach as one of the top poisoning toxins in the world for children. (37)
Pets also routinely get into bleach products, although the statistics on that aren’t as readily available.
If ingested, undiluted, extra-strength bleach can burn the mouth, nasal passages, throat and stomach. Fortunately, most cases aren’t extremely dangerous because of the noxious smell bleach presents, which stops the majority of kids or animals from drinking much of the substance.
The first thing you should know is that bleach exposure should always be considered a medical emergency, particularly if undiluted bleach was ingested. Never encourage your child or pet to vomit, which can cause additional damage, but instead give them water to drink to help prevent additional chemical burns and seek medical help immediately.
4. May Encourage Mold Growth
Another surprising item on a list of the dangers of bleach is that it may encourage the growth of toxic mold, rather than helping to clear it. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Organization) actually advises against using bleach to clean mold infestations for this reason. (38) The EPA followed suit and updated their mold guidelines to eliminate suggesting bleach. (39)
Bleach and mold do not mix well because of their innate properties. The opportunistic mold needs to spread roots (mycelia) down into a porous surface in order to survive. On the other hand, chlorine bleach only works on non-porous surfaces and breaks down very quickly. By using bleach on a mold-infested surface, what you end up doing is actually just allowing water (the majority of household bleach content, and what’s left over when the chemicals dissipate) to add moisture to an area that desperately needs to stay dry.
Some sources even suggest that bleach use on porous surfaces can cause mold growth in areas where it wasn’t before. (40)
The bottom line here: never treat mold with bleach. Instead, follow OSHA or EPA’s mold guidelines for the best ways to rid your home of toxic mold safely.
5. Induces Respiratory Issues
Even without combining it with other chemicals, bleach causes issues of its own. Bleach is more likely to cause respiratory problems than other cleaners. (41) Multiple studies have found that bleach can be particularly problematic for people with asthma or chronic bronchitis, although some small studies indicate it might alleviate some asthma symptoms. (42, 43)
Enough research has indicated that bleach is connected with asthma symptoms that The Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics (AOEC) named bleach an asthmagen. (44)
Other lung injuries and respiratory conditions may occur as a result of inhalation of chlorine bleach. (47, 48) For example, one study found that exposure to common cleaning chemicals, bleach in particular, resulted in a 24-32 percent increase in the probability of observed people developing COPD. (49)
Chlorine gas can also cause chemical pneumonitis, a condition identified by coughing, difficulty breathing, the feeling of not being able to get enough air (air hunger), wet/gurgling chest sounds and burning in the chest. Repeated exposures can lead to inflammation and lung stiffness, causing respiratory failure and possibly death. (50)
6. Neutralized By Dirt
If all of the above weren’t enough for you, it turns out that bleach is actually neutralized by dirt until so much of it is used that you chance a great deal of inhalation of the fumes it creates. The WHO explains the way bleach works in this way:
“[Bleach] acts as a potent oxidizing agent and often dissipates in side reactions so rapidly that little disinfection is accomplished until amounts in excess of the chlorine demand have been added.”
In other words, bleach works only on surfaces without organic material. Before using it to disinfect, you’re supposed to thoroughly wash the affected surface, most likely with something that is going to react badly with bleach. (51)
Better Bleach Alternatives
May I suggest something better?
First of all, if you’re interested in decreasing your total chlorine exposure, you may want to look into installing water filters that rid your water of the chemical. Two options include point of use systems and point of entry systems. Point of entry or “whole house” filters are a great option because you know that even the water you use in the shower has been purified to eliminate chloroform-causing chlorine. (52, 53)
Then, try these other non-bleach options:
Distilled Vinegar: On its own, vinegar is an incredible cleaning solution. It may not smell great, but it’s sure to help keep your place fresh and clean.
Lemon: In the form of juice or lemon essential oil, this citrus fruit is great for killing bacteria. Just make sure to keep it in glass, not plastic, because the acidity of lemon oil can eat away at plastic.
Hydrogen Peroxide: This safe bleach alternative will do a great deal to keep whites white and disinfectant anything, all without the dangers of bleach hanging over your head.
I’ve also designed several eco cleaners that combine the germ-killing and laundry-cleaning effects of a number of natural products:
Homemade Stain Remover: Do you know the key to stain removal? It’s making sure you don’t use the same method for every stain. Check out my stain remover ideas and trash the bleach bottle.
Finally, if you still choose to use bleach, consider using one ranked well by the EWG (Environmental Working Group). They carefully examine ingredients and production processes in order to make sure you’re aware of what’s in your products and what potential dangers they might pose. (If it helps to put it in perspective, the leading brand of household bleach is rated “F,” which is just as bad as it was in school.)
Here are EWG’s Bleach Rankings.
Final Thoughts on the Dangers of Bleach
- Bleach has been a common household disinfectant for many years. However, the ingredients it contains, in my opinion, do not warrant the potential problems it may pose. Why? The dangers of bleach are amplified when mixed with certain other substances.
- Never combine bleach with any other household cleaner, because it might result in the release of a number of types of toxic gases. In particular, avoid using bleach to disinfect your shower, as it can be a factor in the creation of chloroform, a probable carcinogen.
- Always keep bleach away from your children and pets if you choose to have it in your home. Never use bleach to treat mold, as it may actually encourage more mold to grow. Be aware that you have to use a great deal of bleach to disinfect surfaces that still contain dirt, because organic matter neutralizes the germ-killing power of the substance.
- The most common physical ailment connected with beach exposure are respiratory issues, including asthma, COPD and chemical pneumonitis.
- If you or someone you know ingests bleach, do not encourage them to throw up but instead give them water and treat the situation as a medical emergency.
- Alternatively, you could do what I’ve done and get rid of the bleach altogether. There are a number of beneficial alternative cleaners and detergents that don’t carry the same dangers of bleach, including lemon essential oil, tea tree essential oil, hydrogen peroxide, borax and distilled vinegar.
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