Is Bleach Toxic? Effects of Chlorine Bleach

Is Bleach Harmful for You and the Environment

For many years, individuals and organizations alike have used bleach to solve their various sanitization and disinfection needs. Bleach belongs to a large group of compounds designed to whiten, clean, and kill most viruses. It is composed of hypochlorite (NaOCl) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) states that bleach is known for eliminating the following with its antimicrobial properties:

  • Algaes;
  • Bacteria;
  • Mildew;
  • Mold;

Be sure to check each product’s EPA Master Label for the kill claims specific to that product.

According to ScienceDaily, “researchers have now discovered that bleach fumes, in combination with light and a citrus compound found in many household products, can form airborne particles that might be harmful when inhaled by pets or people.”

Products containing bleach emit hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and chlorine gas (Cl2) that can amass in dangerous levels in households. When these two gases react with light plus the citrus chemicals in common household cleaning products (for example lemon or orange-scented cleaners) or raw citric acid in foods (such as where lemons for garnishing were recently cut at the bar, or a food prep area where lemon juice was spilled), they form secondary organic aerosols (SOAs) that are often linked to various health effects throughout the body. As such, it is important to understand exactly how chlorine bleach impacts human health and the environment, as well as to be aware of bleach-free alternatives.

Effects of Chlorine Bleach on the Body

As you use chlorine bleach, you may endanger your own body and the health of those around you. The more you use chlorine, the more effects you are potentially exposing yourself to, as well as anyone else that must work in or share that space. The most notorious effects of chlorine bleach occur within the respiratory system, but all of the following regions can be affected by chlorine bleach:

  • Respiratory: Chlorine bleach inhalation can cause discomfort, coughing, and can lead to acute, or long-term chronic chemical pneumonitis. The inflammation that stems from pneumonitis can progress into stiffness of the lungs. If untreated, effects can result in respiratory failure. In restaurants and cafeterias, this risk can be particularly acute when bleach is used to clean walk-in refrigerators or other small spaces with limited air circulation;
  • Eyes: Bleach will cause obvious discomfort immediately after contact with eyes. Bleach will combine with the natural liquids in your eyes and form a harmful acid. Aside from discomfort, the acid that is created in the eye can lead to corneal ulcers, and potential loss of sight;
  • Mouth/Throat: Many dentists have witnessed patients using household bleach to whiten teeth because they are unaware of the effects it has on the mouth and throat. Bleach can soften and damage mouth tissues and dead tissue can lead to cavities that warrant root canal work, or even tooth loss altogether;
  • Stomach/GI Tract: Bleach can produce esophageal gastric burns due to its corrosive nature. In the case that you ingest bleach, you may experience burning, vomiting, damage to the lining of the stomach, and long-term damage/fatalities. In particular, the use of bleach to clean dishes, equipment, or food prep areas runs the risk of chemical contamination or bleach getting into food;
  • Skin: When your skin comes into direct contact with bleach you may experience burning, itchiness, and general discomfort. Long exposure can lead to hyperpigmentation.

Interactions of Bleach With Other Chemicals

When bleach is mixed with other chemicals, harmful reactions can occur. Specific combinations can create completely toxic, hazardous chemicals. The following are product combinations that you should never make:

  • Bleach + vinegar = toxic chlorine gas;
  • Bleach + ammonia = toxic chloramine vapors;
  • Bleach + rubbing alcohol = chloroform;
  • Bleach + certain cleaning products = toxic chloramine vapors.

Be aware of the various chemicals in your cleaning agents to ensure they do not contain some sort of component that could potentially be lethal. A restaurant manager in Massachusetts was killed in November 2019 from inhaling vapors when bleach reacted with ammonia in his restaurant.

When following cleaning, sanitizing, and disinfecting protocols in a commercial kitchen, it is especially important to know of any potential interactions, and to use only safe combinations of solutions. Anyone can check with their respective state’s Department of Health to find the dangers to avoid if you are unsure.

Effects of Bleach on the Environment

Since society is often looking for ways to think clean and work green, it is important to be aware of the effects that bleach can have on the environment. Bleach can impact three areas generally:

  1. Air: Factories emit bleach toxins into the air during ventilation and exhaust processes. When these toxins are pushed into the air, there can be serious short and long-term effects on people as well as other organisms that rely on oxygen. The toxins will also eventually reach the ozone layer, contributing to ozone depletion;
  2. Water: Manufacturers that emit bleach into the air also often emit bleach into surrounding bodies of water. Water and chlorine react with light to make organic pollutants that can taint water as well as cause various health effects;
  3. Wildlife: When bleach is pushed out into the air and water, wildlife is affected directly. Bleach is also corrosive and flammable, which can increase the impact on wildlife.

Alternatives to Bleach for Sanitizing and Disinfecting

Bleach is frequently used as a cleaning agent on its own, but is also routinely added to other solutions (like many liquid drain cleaners), so it becomes important to understand the safe alternatives for adequate sanitization.

Industrial sanitizers are regulated by the EPA and typically include quaternary ammonium (“quat”); however, quat solutions must be diluted to the proper concentration to ensure efficacy while maintaining their no-rinse status. This requires regular measurement and “recharging” of the solution.

Pre-moistened wipes, as well as ready-to-use no-rinse sanitizing sprays feature pre-measured and pre-diluted solutions, and can be used in commercial settings to avoid chemical interactions or the cumulative health risks and environmental hazards of bleach.