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What Is Bleach? And Why Is It Dangerous?

We recently had a reader ask us, "Exactly what is bleach and why is it so bad?". Well, understanding what it is without a chemistry degree can be a challenge, so I'm going to try my best to explain it, but don't expect much, m'kay?

To make bleach, a direct electrical current is sent through a sodium chloride solution (table salt and water). This basically "splits" the atoms leaving chlorine and the caustic soda.

Both chlorine and caustic soda (lye) are extremely dangerous. These two chemicals are reacted together to create what we know as bleach. (If you're interested in knowing about this process in detail, click here.)

Does this make bleach "natural"?

Depends on your definition of the word "natural".

Although bleach comes from a natural source, the process it undergoes radically changes the substance into something far more harmful to humans and the environment, as I'll show below. It's not what we're looking for in a sustainable conversation.

It's also important to remember that not all natural compounds are good for us either.

For instance, lead and mercury are naturally-occuring substances but can be deadly to humans. The same goes for the leaves of rhubarb plants, arsenic found in many fruit pits, and mistletoe to name a few.

What is Bleach Doing To Our Health?

Bleach is one of the most corrosive and deadly chemicals and still it can be found at every supermarket and drugstore in the nation, and under countless kitchen sinks. With such broad household use, it's important to remember the risk it poses to children (especially because small amounts will affect them more than adults) or anyone unaware of its effects.

The burn you feel when using bleach products or the coughing you may experience is a sign of the corrosive properties of bleach in your body. And that slippery feeling of bleach on your skin? That's actually caused by the lye (caustic soda) reacting to the fats and oils on your skin.

Below are the personal and environmental concerns of using bleach1, 2:

  • When mixed with ammonia, it creates a deadly gas. Remember that urine contains ammonia, so usng the products in the toilet increase the risk of creating a toxic gas that can actaully stop lung function.
  • Chlorine and dish soap can create mustard gas, a deadly gas used as a weapon in WWI! What is bleach even doing in our homes?!
  • Chlorine is actually a gas at room temperature, which makes breathing it in likely in most homes.
  • In its gaseous form (such as at room temperature, mentioned above), chlorine can create dioxins, a known cancer-causing compound also related to birth defects, miscarriage, infertility, diabetes, immune disorders and more.
  • It's highly corrosive to the skin, lungs and eyes, as well as other materials, and can actaully cause frost bite to the skin and eyes, as well as chemical burns and ulcerations.
  • The oxidation of chlorine may also form hypochlorous acid, which has the ability to penetrate and destroy cell structure.
  • It increases asthma and allergy symptoms because of the likelihood of inhalation. It can also cause wheezing, bronchospasm and sometimes noncardiogenic pulmonary edema (a lung condition that prevents enough oxygen from entering the blood).
  • Pets and birds are more susceptible because of their small air capacity and the likelihood of filling their lungs with vaoprs.
  • Ingestion of bleach causes corrosive damage to the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract.
  • Chlorination of drinking water can oxidize organic contaminants, producing trihalomethanes (also called haloforms), which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
  • When household bleach is mixed with wastewater it is found to form numerous organic compounds. Two of those compounds are chloroform - which can cause dizziness, headache, respiratory issues, heart attack, liver and kidney damage, birth defects and more - and carbon tetrachloride - which is responsible for nerve damage, liver and kidney degeneration, coma and death.
  • Chlorine and wastewater can also create Trihalomethanes, a toxic carcinogen that has been linked to breast cancer3 and miscarriage andother fertility issues in animals4
  • Bleach also breaks down in the environment to "halides", which shellfish, as well as other aquatic life.
  • Organichlorides, which contain chlorine, stck around in the environment for a long time and have been linked to reproductive issues, immune dysfunction, cancer, hormonal disruption and more.

What is Bleach Found Within?

Bleach is in or contributes to the manufacturing of about 15,000 products, far from the common image of a big white bottle. It is most obviously found in cleaners, especially bathroom cleaners, such as toilet cleaner, sprays, disinfectants, wipes and more.

Bleach wipes are esecially disturbing since the chemical will most liekly come in direct contact with most people's hands. (How many people actually reach for gloves before reaching for a disinfectant wipe? Not enough!)

You can also find bleach or bleach-like substances in things such as teeth whiteners, hair colors, and skin whiteners. Sadly, some people even attempt to make their own homemade skin bleach without ever understanding the dangerous effects of using bleach on your body.

And chlorine is used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, herbicides, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals. It is used to bleach pulp and paper, to disinfect well or city water, and even contributes to making artifical sweetners, such as Splenda!

What is bleach NOT in?! It's no wonder that 28% of household accidents are due to bleach and bleach-containing products. And it certainly isn't any surprise that cancer, auto-immune disorders, and development issues in children are on the rise with caustic substances such as these being used on the very surfaces they're crawling around on.

Safer Bleach Alternatives

Green Your Clean

The good news is that there are natural alternatives to bleach, depending on what the bleach is needed for. Outside of extreme circumstances (like serious blood infections or medical settings), bleach is rarely a necessity; usually it's just a convenience - but a health inconvenience.

For cleaning and purifying: Using white vinegar and melaleuca oil in your cleaning products is an effective and completely natural cleaning agent. For tough spots, stains, food or dirt, combining baking soda and vinegar clean effectively without corrosion. Hot, boiling is also a disinfectant, as is the sun.

For stains: Hanging whites in the sun can help "bleach" out discoloration, but it can also discolor so be careful how you use it. Hydrogen peroxide also acts as a stain lifter and removes discoloration, but can damage some fabrics - spot check before widespread use. Using a good stain remover works well too. Check out ideas for natural household cleaners here.

Reader Tip:
I wanted to share with you a bleach alternative that my mom found and we've been using for our whites and more. You mix together 12 cups water, 1 cup peroxide, and 1/4 cup lemon juice!

- Michelle P.

And with any choice, be sure to ask yourself, "What is bleach really worth?" Is it worth having the brightest whites to go with your irritated skin or the "cleanest" home for your wheezing child?

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1. http://www.ejnet.org/dioxin/#cancer
2. http://www.health.state.ny.us/environmental/emergency/chemical_terrorism/chlorine_tech.htm
3. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3702953
4. http://www.jstor.org/pss/3702950