Bleach, or sodium hypochlorite as it is known chemically, is used in huge quantities around the world, as a disinfectant in municipal waste systems and swimming pools, a laundry whitener and deodorizer in commercial and consumer applications and as a disinfectant used in cleaning. Many schools, care facilities and other institutions specify that bleach must be used routinely as a disinfectant because it is effective on a wider range of bacteria and viruses than many other disinfectants and is cheap and accessible.
Bleach is produced by a chemical reaction that combines sodium hydroxide, water and chlorine —hence the name chlorine bleach. The chlorine in sodium hypochlorite is chemically bonded, but even under the most stringent quality control, the first stage of bleach production, when the chlorine gas is produced, results in the creation of a toxic byproduct known as dioxin. One of a family of organochlorines, dioxin has been identified as a carcinogen and has been linked to genetic changes and birth defects.
Bleach in the environment
Bleach itself breaks down mainly into salt, oxygen and water when it is released into the environment, but small amounts of AOX, or “adsorbable organic halides,” are also released. They are known to be toxic to shellfish and other marine and aquatic organisms. The Nordic Ministers Conference, made up of environmental ministers from Norway, Sweden and other Nordic countries, lists bleach as one of a number of substances considered dangerous to the environment.
Scorecard, the hazards ranking system developed by Environmental Defense in the U.S., ranks bleach as a high risk environmentally and a slight to moderate risk in the workplace.
Bleach in the workplace
Bleach sold for household use is usually five per cent sodium hypochlorite whereas industrial bleach is typically 10–12 per cent, which increases the hazard when it is used in the workplace. Bleach splashed in the eyes can result in long-term damage and excessive exposure to the fumes from bleach can cause sore throat, coughing and other respiratory irritation. People with asthma or other respiratory ailments can be particularly affected by fumes from bleach.
Bleach also poses a workplace hazard because of the risk that it could be accidentally
mixed with other chemicals, particularly ammonia. Bleach and ammonia, when combined,
produce chlorine gas, which can be fatal if inhaled.
The Janitorial Products Pollution Prevention Program (JP4), a combined initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency , the state of California and a number of U.S. cities, lists bleach among products to “Use with extreme care or avoid if possible. Those care instructions involve using bleach in the smallest amounts and greatest dilutions to achieve the desired result , providing proper ventilation and using gloves to avoid skin irritation. Bleach should never be mixed with other cleaning products.
Alternatives to bleach
In some places, hydrogen peroxide has been as an alternative to bleach but at the strengths
needed for disinfecting, it can cause serious burns. It is also not as effective against as
wide a range of bacteria and viruses as bleach. Products contained quaternary ammonium compounds, known as “quats,” are also available for local disinfecting of surfaces, although their effectiveness varies, depending on the product. Some of them also contain other ingredients that are hazardous to workers
or the environment and care should be taken to ensure that bleach is not being eliminated in favour of a product that is even more toxic.
Chemical manufacturer Rochester Midland currently has a quat cleaner available that offers nontoxic ingredients and a wide range of effectiveness against bacteria and viruses, including HIV. It is called Enviro Care Neutral Disinfectant and is available in Canada under the Enviro-Chem brand name.
The JP4 project in the U.S. has tested the product on cleaning sites in California and includes it among its recommended list of alternative products.