Bleached out

Gleaming white isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Bleach is in everything from cleaners to coffee filters, and its misuse can carry toxic consequences.

Bleach is in everything from cleaners to coffee filters, and its misuse can carry toxic consequences.

Photo By David Robert

Chlorine bleach is a familiar ingredient used in household cleaning products to disinfect and kill germs. It whitens and brightens clothes in the wash. Chlorine is also added in miniscule amounts to drinking water for purification. It’s also commonly used to bleach paper products, and it’s got some serious side effects.

Have you ever gotten red, irritated eyes from spending time in a swimming pool? The culprit is usually chlorine, or sometimes bromine. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? It was caused largely by CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, chlorine-based chemicals used in refrigerants, propellants and cleaning solvents. They were outlawed by an international treaty in 1987, but the damaging effects of chlorine molecules are long-lasting, and ozone depletion is still a major problem. Chlorine chemicals also contribute to global warming.

I once cleaned my tub with basic scrubbing cleanser and then sprayed some bleach on the shower curtain to get rid of a spot or two of mildew. When I turned on the hot water, the steam carried the mix of chemicals into my lungs, and I was sick for a week, and taking strong antibiotics to combat a bad bronchial infection. Lesson learned.

Turns out the combination of cleanser and bleach (acid plus base, I wasn’t paying attention) produces a highly toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure can cause intense reactions, including watering and burning of the eyes, inflammation of the sinuses and airways and difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure can cause damage to lung tissue, which is called chemical pneumonia.

As an alternative, buy chlorine-free products like dishwashing liquid, cleaners and laundry detergent by eco-friendly producers like Planet or Biokleen. They’re easy to find, work great and have a lesser impact on human health and the environment.

Manufacturers of paper towels, coffee filters, paper napkins, toilet paper, facial tissue and office paper commonly use chlorine or chlorine derivatives to produce the white merchandise we’ve come to expect. This bleaching process releases organochlorines—mainly dioxins—into the environment. Dioxins are toxic, which means they are poisonous; and carcinogenic, which means they cause cancer. They are also endocrine disrupters, which means they disrupt your hormone system and can cause reproductive problems.

Better options include products labeled as Processed Chlorine Free (PCF). Look for unbleached or brown paper products made by companies like Seventh Generation, Earth First or Atlantic at your supermarket or drugstore. Whole Foods carries its in-house brand, 365.

Chlorine bleach is included on many environmental organizations’ lists of chemicals to avoid, and the chlorine industry—producing millions of tons per year—is a major source of mercury emissions into the atmosphere. Even though chlorine bleach is considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be “simple and effective” when properly used in small quantities in a well-ventilated space with protective gloves, accidental misuse is extremely common.

Keep your eye out, and try to avoid products that contain chlorine or use chlorine in the manufacturing process. If your store doesn’t already carry enough products for you to choose from, ask them to get more.