Chlorine bleach is one of the most commonly used disinfectants. It’s inexpensive and effective, and for many of us, the smell brings memories of summer swimming pools, clean sheets, or other positive experiences.
When liquid bleach (a solution of sodium hypochlorite) is added to water, it forms hypochlorous acid. This acid passes through the membranes of bacteria and the casings of viruses and disrupts their function, killing them.
A bleach solution will knock out COVID-19 viruses in one minute and sanitize most surfaces in two minutes. That means you need to leave it on the surface or items you’re sanitizing for the full 1-2 minutes. Don’t think you can pass a bleach-soaked cloth over a counter, dry it, and have a sanitized surface.
Still, that’s quick service. Chlorine historically prevented the spread of cholera and typhoid in water and it still is used as a disinfectant in places like hospitals, restaurants, and swimming pools, where contamination of surfaces or fluids can be a serious public health problem.
Safe use at home
Chlorine is also used as the basis for chemical weapons. It is a highly toxic, corrosive chemical that can seriously harm eyes and skin. It should never be used full strength and must be stored out of reach of children.
Mixed with ammonia, chlorine bleach creates chloramine gases. These can cause nausea, coughing, chest pain, irritation to eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and even pneumonia. Mixed with acids, it creates chlorine gas or hydrochloric acid, which can be fatal. Mixed with alcohol, it can create chloroform and hydrochloric acid, both of which can be fatal.
Often, we don’t really know all the ingredients in our household cleaners. Adding bleach to other substances is always risky, since you may not realize that they contain acids, ammonia, or alcohol until the chemical reaction begins.
Even used cautiously, chlorine has dangerous effects. Chlorine dissolves animal proteins, so it can make holes in your beautiful wool or silk fabrics, carpets, and curtains. You might not realize that your furnishings or clothing are made with animal fibers until they are damaged by bleach.
Since bleach is corrosive, it can also damage marble, metal, and plastic. Over time, even diluted bleach can harm most of the materials in your home.
Chlorine breaks down into salt and water over time. That can take years, however, and in the meantime, it can do quite a bit of environmental damage, killing fish and birds directly. It can also create dioxins, which can cause cancer.
Household use of heavily diluted bleach is not the biggest environmental consequence, however. The production of chlorine creates dangerous chemical by-products which deplete the ozone layer and cause air and water pollution.
All in all, chlorine bleach is not the best choice for home use. Consider using oxygen bleach (non-chlorine bleach) if you feel you must use bleach. Leave chlorine for situations like water purification, where it is necessary, and choose milder disinfectants for your home.