Marketed under many name brands, chlorine bleach is a common household cleaning product. Elemental chlorine is a gas at room temperature and pressure. Chlorine bleach is produced by chemically breaking down the components of salt water. The process combines chlorine with sodium to produce bleach's active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite. Ingesting a high concentration of chlorine bleach can result in damage to the gastrointestinal tract or death.
Ingestion of chlorine bleach occurs often, but usually in small amounts. Many public water systems are treated with chlorine to kill harmful bacteria. Also, cleaning dishes, cups or utensils with bleach may leave small traces of the substance behind. In most cases, the traces of chlorine found in drinking water or left behind on a cup won't harm you. However, direct ingestion of pure liquid chlorine bleach can have life-threatening effects. Young children have been known to get into the cleaning supplies and drink bleach. Although chlorine bleach has a strong smell, it is almost colourless. Children may mistake the chemical for water and drink it. Inhaling chlorine fumes can be dangerous as well. Often when chlorine bleach is mixed with other cleaning products, most notably ammonia, it forms potent gas fumes. These fumes will irritate the eyes, nose and throat if inhaled.
After ingesting a large amount of bleach, the mouth and oesophagus will feel as though they are burning. Bleeding may also occur. Once in the stomach, intense nausea may develop. This nausea is usually followed by vomiting. Additional symptoms include watery eyes and blurred vision. These effects result when chlorine contacts the moist tissues of the body. This produces an acid that will damage tissues. When chlorine is inhaled, respiratory distress symptoms are experienced. These include heavy coughing and trouble breathing. If exposure continues, fluid can begin to fill the lungs within two to four hours.
If chlorine bleach is ingested orally, it is very important not to induce vomiting or to drink any other liquids. Vomiting the bleach will only cause further harm to the oesophagus from the acid. If you or your child has ingested chlorine bleach, call 999 immediately. Once the patient arrives at the hospital, they will attempt to remove the substance from the body as quickly as possible. Pumping the stomach contents out is usually the best way to remove the bleach. If you have inhaled bleach, move to an area with fresh air immediately. Remember, chlorine bleach can also harm the skin. Exposed skin should be washed with soap and water as soon as possible.