Or are we gaining one health benefit at the expense of another?
Sherrie Glassmeyer was a healthy 54-year-old when she mysteriously contracted lung cancer. She never smoked, didn’t live in a home with smokers, and had no cancer in her family history. She lived in the mountains above Denver where the air was clean and free from city-based pollutants. She exercised regularly and ate a healthy diet. Sherrie quickly succumbed to her cancer, and within eight months of her diagnosis, she was dead. How she contracted lung cancer is a mystery to her family and her team of physicians, but she did keep a known lung-irritant in her home. You probably have in your home right now, too: chlorine bleach.
Whether or not chlorine bleach is safe is the hot topic of internet debate, and when I heard of Sherrie’s mysterious death and saw the amount of bleach used for cleaning and laundry in her widowed husband’s home, I began to wonder, is household use of bleach really safe?
We know the manufacture of chlorine bleach creates byproducts Mother Nature doesn’t know what to do with, so they end up taking hundreds of years to decompose. In the meantime, they don’t play nicely: organochlorine byproducts gather in reservoirs and waterways, increasing the risks for cancer and birth defects, and wreaking havoc on birds and fish. Organochlorines are so pervasive they even show up in breastmilk. Greenpeace has called for the end of chlorine bleach manufacture altogether. Clorox.com says that bleach manufacture has come a long way, and organochlorines are now fully contained and not released into the environment.
Assuming Clorox is right, and the environmental impact of manufacture is minimal, what about actual household use? Is bleach dangerous for your health?
There is no doubt chlorine bleach kills COVID-19 and every other germ you can name, and that is a wonderful thing.
Bleach solutions are the go-to disinfectant in hospitals, clinics and veterinary offices nationwide for hard surfaces and laundry and in restaurants for sanitizing dishes. In times of natural disasters, aid workers often request chlorine bleach for emergency drinking water purification. Bleach works by burning away a germ’s protein outer coat, leaving the bacterium or virus susceptible to the elements–kind of like a de-shelled turtle. On a busy California highway. In the middle of summer.
Chlorine bleach obliterates germs. But I wonder, are we sacrificing long-term health, like healthy lungs, for the short-term–albeit vital–benefit of disinfection? Whether or not that’s the case seems to hinge on one important and ever-so-frequently-flauted guideline: use bleach right, Karen.
When I was growing up in Kentucky, we poured generous, unmeasured amounts of chlorine bleach into the washing machine, into a sinkful of dirty dishes, and in the mop bucket as a cultural norm, right along with smoking Marlboros and wearing cowboy boots. I remember the ferrous odor burning my nose, and the distracting irritation on my skin. We were using too much bleach! Clorox.com recommends 2 tsp per gallon of rinse water for dishes, and ½ cup per gallon for household cleaning. Keep a measuring cup and spoon that you only use for cleaning next to your bleach bottle, and wear gloves when using any bleach solution.
What is Mixed With
It’s tempting to mix bleach directly with your cleaner, but be careful. It’s safe to mix with Pro-Tek™, but mixed with ammonia or vinegar or dish soap and you’ve just created toxic fumes that can trigger asthma or otherwise irritate your lungs. Additionally, bleach mixed with some cleaners, and then exposed to sunlight releases secondary organic aerosols (SOAs), which can leave you breathing like Darth Vadar. Clorox.com says it’s better to scrub your surfaces with soap and water and let the surface dry. Then, follow up with bleach diluted with plain old water to further disinfect.
How Frequently You are Exposed
A study of bleach and other disinfectants by Harvard University and the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) followed 55,000 hospital nurses for eight years. None of the nurses had lung issues at the beginning of the study, but by the end, over 600 nurses reported some sort of lung disease. The study concluded exposure to chlorine bleach and other disinfectants was associated with a 30% increased risk of lung-related diseases. Prudence might suggest to use bleach only when truly needed, but the CDC recommends disinfecting high-use surfaces every day. So what’s the solution?
Let’s not forget, good old-fashioned soap and water mixed with elbow grease kills germs, too. Soap breaks germs open like a crowbar. The scrubbing and air drying finishes the little buggers off. Pro-Tek™ properly diluted, sprayed on a counter top, scrubbed, and allowed to dry for ten minutes meets the standards for disinfection. The downside? It takes longer. Consider saving the big bleach gun for when you’re in a hurry.
How Big You Are
Children and pets are at increased risk from chlorine bleach poisoning because they are smaller, more often on the floor, and still put everything in their mouths. Not only do they get more exposure, but their lungs are less capable of processing toxins in general compared to adult lungs. A bucket of floor cleaner or even plain water mixed with bleach is off-gassing, and a dog or toddler is a lot closer to it than you are, and much more tempted to play in the water or even–ew–drink it. Even if you elevate the bucket, pets or toddlers can four-limb across the wet floor and then lick their paws or fingers afterward, unwittingly poisoning themselves. If you suspect accidental ingestion it’s important to call Poison Control or your vet right away.
The hack: be sure your bleach-disinfected floor is completely dry before anyone–furry or diapered–comes into contact with it. Use the kitchen sink as your mop bucket, wearing gloves when you drain the water. Keep the room well-ventilated to minimize floor-level exposure to fumes and off-gasses.
So, back to my original wondering…did chlorine bleach cause Sherrie’s lung cancer? I wasn’t able to find any definitive research linking household chlorine bleach use to lung cancer. Does bleach kill COVID-19 in a time when 85,000 people nationwide have died from it? Yes.
The bottom line is, chlorine bleach is safe when you know how to use it, but for everyday use, organic, non-toxic, biodegradable soap is the healthiest choice for the environment and your family. Fur babies, included.
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