Liquid bleach can be a safe and efficient cleaner and disinfectant when handled correctly, but can be rather harmful when not used properly. Though a staple in American homes for more than a century, many households appear to be unfamiliar with its potential dangers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported a 20 percent increase in calls to poison control centers during the coronavirus outbreak presumably related to the misuse of household cleaning products as people sought to protect themselves from infection. A follow-up survey CDC conducted in May found 39 percent of Americans had engaged in at least one “high-risk practice” in the prior month to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, including gargling with diluted bleach
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Robert Laumbach, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, says there are some misconceptions people have about liquid bleach including “thinking it has systemic antiviral properties if ingested,” or that diluting concentrated liquid bleach weakens its disinfecting ability.
Clorox, the maker of the oldest and most familiar brand of liquid bleach (active sodium hypochlorite or NaClO), say the best first step is to read and follow the instructions on the label. “To use bleach properly, read and follow the label carefully, as instructions may vary depending on the product,” a spokesperson for the company told AARP in an email exchange.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises to check the label to see if the bleach is intended for disinfection, has a sodium hypochlorite concentration between 5 percent and 6 percent, and is not past its expiration date. “Some bleaches, such as those designed for safe use on colored clothing or for whitening, may not be suitable for disinfection.”
Here are six things experts say you shouldn’t do with liquid bleach.
1. Don’t mix bleach with other cleaning products
Other than adding water, bleach should be used on its own. Mixing ammonia, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide, alcohol or other chemicals with sodium hypochlorite may cause chlorine gas to be released, a toxic chemical you don’t want to breathe in.
In 2016, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported over 6,300 exposures to chlorine, making it the most common inhalational irritant in the U.S. About 35 percent occurred as a result of mixing liquid bleach with other household cleaning products, according to Chlorine Gas Toxicity, a book cowritten by Ashkan Morim, M.D., and Gregory T. Guldner, M.D., of the University of California, Riverside.
Symptoms of chlorine gas exposure include burning of the throat, eye membranes, trachea and the bronchi that conduct air from the windpipe to the lungs, they wrote. Higher concentrations can cause narrowing of the airway, fluid in the lungs and other lung injuries.
2. Don’t gargle or drink diluted bleach
Some people may think bleach can kill off viruses in the body, but that’s not so, according to Laumbach. Gargling or drinking bleach most likely would cause superficial burns in the esophagus. The CDC notes that adults attempting suicide by ingesting liquid bleach have shown that “a lethal dose” of sodium hypochlorite can vary from 7 to 18 ounces at concentrations of 3 percent to 12 percent.
3. Don’t bathe in bleach
Sure, you can swim in a chlorinated pool – but the concentration of bleach used to keep a pool clean is miniscule compared to the strength of household bleach. “It’s usually recommended to maintain 2-4 ppm (parts per million) free available chlorine in pool water. That’s more than 10,000-fold dilution compared to household bleach,” Laumbach says. Household bleach will irritate skin, and prolonged contact can damage skin, he says.
Wash your skin immediately if bleach gets on it, and do the same if it gets in your eyes, advises Clorox. The company also recommends wearing protective gloves, if you plan on cleaning with bleach for an extended period.
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4. Don’t use bleach straight out of the bottle
Household bleach is no more effective in disinfecting at higher concentrations than at those recommended by the manufacturer, according to Laumbach. “You should dilute it to prevent irritation of skin, eyes and the respiratory tract. Higher concentrations are potentially harmful overkill.”
A spokesperson for Clorox echoes that advice: “As with any other bleach product, Clorox Bleach must be diluted.” To properly disinfect hard, nonporous surfaces, Clorox recommends you pre-wash the surface, mop or wipe with a diluted solution of liquid bleach (1/2 cup of Clorox Bleach per gallon of water), and allow the solution to sit on the surface for five minutes before rinsing it off. Also, make sure to use liquid bleach in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhaling harmful fumes.
5. Don’t use bleach to clean fruits and vegetables
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reassures consumers that “there is currently no evidence of human or animal food or food packaging being associated with transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
Instead, the FDA recommends consumers “rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water, including those with skins and rinds that are not eaten.” It also suggests washing the lids of canned food before opening to limit potential exposure to other food-borne illnesses.
6. Don’t soak your face mask in liquid bleach straight out of the bottle
“Soap and hot water will clean the mask and kill any coronavirus,” says Laumbach, who advises that bleach is not needed to disinfect a cloth face mask.
But, the CDC says it’s okay to hand wash a cloth mask in a diluted solution of bleach. They recommend 4 teaspoons household bleach per quart of room temperature water, soaking the mask for 5 minutes, and then thoroughly rinsing and drying it. Or, CDC says you can use the washing machine: “Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the face covering.”