20 April 2004

Chlorine in Household Cleaners

Excerpted from Seventh Generation's Information Bulletin, "Facts about Chlorine."

Simple Solution

Should I worry about chlorine in household cleaners? In a word: Yes. Whether found alone or in a mixture of other chemicals, household products that contain chlorine pose a number of serious health risks. Products of special concern include: automatic dishwashing detergents, chlorine bleach, chlorinated disinfectant cleaners, mildew removers, and toilet bowl cleaners.

Many household cleaners contain chlorine, though it often masquerades behind aliases such as "sodium hypochlorite" or "hypochlorite."

Breathing in the fumes of cleaners containing a high concentration of chlorine can irritate the lungs. This is particularly dangerous for people suffering from heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema. And the risks are compounded when the cleaners are used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, such as the bathroom. Chlorine is also a highly corrosive substance, capable of damaging skin, eyes, and other membranes. Chlorine was listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act, and exposure to chlorine in the workplace is regulated by federal standards. What is Chlorine?

What Can I Do to Protect My Family from the Hazards of Chlorine? You can do plenty.

• One of the most important things you can do is buy paper products that aren't bleached with chlorine. That's because chlorine bleached paper can contain dioxin and organochlorine residues that can transfer to any food or person they come in contact with. Choose instead unbleached paper towels, napkins, facial tissue, and bathroom tissue… . How Does Paper Bleaching Affect Me?

• The EPA says that using bleached coffee filters alone can result in a lifetime exposure to dioxin that "exceeds acceptable levels". Choose instead unbleached coffee filters.

• Using detergents that contain chlorine in the dishwasher or clothes washer can pollute the air in your home. The water in the machines, which contains chlorine from the detergents, transfers the chlorine to the air through a process called "volatilization." We then breathe the contaminated air. Choose instead cleaning products made without chlorine. Once These Chemicals Are Inside My Body, What Can Happen?

• Dishwashers are the worst culprits, releasing chemicals in a steamy mist when the door is opened after washing. In a clothes washer, chlorine mixes with the dirt in clothes to generate airborne, toxic chlorinated organic chemicals. Chlorine-free dishwashing detergents are readily available. Click hereto read the rest of Seventh Generation's Information Bulletin, "Facts about Chlorine.

Helpful Hints

• Particularly dangerous are fragranced chlorine bleaches and products made with chlorine bleach plus surfactants. Disguising the odor – actually making the experience of inhaling chlorine bleach pleasant – can lead to over-exposure, as we inhale the fumes unchecked.

• Another danger lies in mixing household products containing chlorine, either intentionally or unintentionally. These mixtures can create chlorine gas and chloramines, both of which are toxic gases that can injure the deep tissues of the lungs. Although the number of reported incidents is relatively small, the percentage of accidents with moderate to serious outcomes is high.

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