The Lowdown on Bleach

Editor’s Note: We continue our look at common chemicals used in household cleaning products and their impact on health, home and environment.

Bleach is another common household cleaner with a reputation for being tough on stains. It’s also the catch-all for bacteria and other germs lurking in your household. Bleach has been used for decades by an estimated 85 percent of all American households. Sounds generally safe, and if used properly, typically presents no issues. However, with the increase in household products already containing bleach, indoor air quality/ventilation, and lack of general precaution (gloves and/or masks), using bleach can present a host of problems.

Bleach is actually a combination of chlorine and sodium hydroxide. It’s sometimes referred to as “sodium hypochlorite” or “hypochlorite”. Disinfectants and cleaners, scouring powders, automatic dishwashing detergents, mildew removers and toilet bowel cleaners often contain sodium hydroxide. Bleach has several uses around the home including: mold and mildew removal, disinfectant, and of course, in the laundry. Bleach can also extend the life of fresh flowers and kill weeds in your walkway.

Bleach is primarily a skin and eye irritant. It is also harmful if swallowed. Household bleach is the most common cleaner accidentally swallowed by children under the age of 6. We discussed the effects of mixing bleach and ammonia in a prior post, but it bears repeating….NEVER mix bleach and ammonia. You’ll product a toxic gas that can be fatal and/or explosive. Also, bleach should never be mixed with anything containing acids, such as vinegar. Toxic gases can be released. Bleach can also damage, corrode and discolor surfaces with repeated use.

Bleach’s effect on the environment is minimal compared to other ingredients in household cleaners. Bleach breaks down in waterways as salt water. Household cleaners containing bleach or chlorine are not as gentle on the environment because of the presence of other chemicals.

A lot is still unknown about long-term, low-level exposure to many household cleaning products. It may not be so much the use of a single product as it is in how we use it or in what combination. While bleach is generally safe, how we use it and where are two important factors in our level of exposure. Repeated use in a poorly ventilated area without gloves or masks can cause skin and eye irritations at the minimum. Mixing bleach with other products to “improve” its cleaning performance can cause serious health damage and in some instances, death (i.e. bleach and ammonia). Also, skin, eye, and respiratory problems are compounded in children and pets because of their size. Be cautious when using bleach around children and pets. Also, be sure to protect yourself by not mixing bleach with any other cleaner, wear gloves and limit your daily exposure.

There are natural alternatives on the market to disinfectant and remove stains from your home. Natural cleaning products, particularly those containing soy, offer the same cleaning power without the fumes and increased risk for skin and eye irritations. Soybeans are broken down into micro particles that move at incredible fast speeds across a surface, destroying grime, dirt and bacteria. Soy is also biodegradable and gentle on the environment, you, your family, and your pets.

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