Health hazards of chlorine bleach

Written by tamasin wedgwood
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Health hazards of chlorine bleach
Chlorine bleach may release toxic gases when mixed with other cleaning products. (Cleaning materials image by TekinT from Fotolia.com)

Chlorine bleach contains chlorine, a toxic gas, combined with sodium and oxygen as sodium hypochlorite. Hazards arise when the chlorine is released from this bond. According to professors at McGill University, chlorine gas is the most common source of toxic exposure incidents worldwide, with mixing bleach with other cleaning products the biggest single source of chlorine release. Chlorine bleach is also a common food tampering adulterant.

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Gastrointestinal Damage

Excluding deliberate beverage tampering, accidental ingestion is relatively unlikely because this strong-smelling, caustic liquid induces the gag reflex. However, when it is swallowed, bleach causes corrosive damage to the throat and stomach linings. At domestic concentrations, severe tissue damage or systemic poisoning are unlikely. Both toxicity levels and causticity are more hazardous in industrial-strength bleach products.

Skin Damage

Undiluted bleach is corrosive. Even domestic bleach damages skin tissues and removes essential fats. During extended contact, small amounts of toxic chlorine may enter the body through the skin. Industrial bleach carries a much greater corrosive hazard, and protective clothing and eye protection are required.

Lung Damage

It is relatively easy accidentally to mix bleach, used in cleaning, with other cleaning products--for example in the toilet, sink or drain. Mixing bleach with ammonia is particularly hazardous, releasing chlorine gas, ammonia gas and chloramines. Because urine contains ammonia, the use of chlorine bleach to clean bathrooms is a common source of chlorine and ammonia release.

These gases are caustic and irritating, and inhalation damages the lungs and nasal passages. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia gas for longer than 15 to 30 minutes can lead to irreversible damage, even death. Because chlorine gas is water-soluble, it forms hydrochloric or hypochlorous acid upon meeting moisture in the mucus membranes, eyes and mouth. In the lungs, acid damage results in pulmonary oedema (release of fluid into the tissues), causing breathing difficulties. Proteins in tears protect the eyes from the worst effects of chlorine release, but soreness, redness and minor tissue damage may occur.

Chloramines cause similar breathing difficulties and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and skin. These are the compounds that cause irritation in swimming pools. Chlorine, ammonia and chloramine are all denser than air, meaning that these vapours tend to collect near ground level and are slow to disperse, particularly if the working area insufficiently ventilated.

Explosion

More likely to occur in an industrial than a domestic setting, ammonia mixed with bleach in higher proportion may form nitrogen trichloride or hydrazine, both of which are explosive. Exposure to hydrazine causes burning pain in the eyes, nose and throat, headache, dizziness, and ultimately seizures or coma.

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