Cleaning can also be too thorough. Why is it dangerous to drink bleach and other cleaning agents, or in some cases, even touch them?
"Go wash your mouth with bleach!” was once a common retort, mainly directed at children who were cheeky or spoke rudely. Fortunately, people don’t seem to have followed this instruction seriously, since anyone trying to follow it to the letter would likely suffer severe poisoning. So if you have just consumed some kind of cleaning agent, stop reading now and immediately call a poison information center, available 24 hours a day, such as America’s Poison Centers, or go to the nearest medical center with a sample of the material, which may be very toxic.
Household bleach, used for sterilization and cleaning, contains 3–6% sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl). This bleach effectively eliminates fungi, bacteria, and viruses by virtue of its ability to break down proteins. But this property is not limited only to the agents we want to get rid of. As a corrosive substance, Sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in household bleach, can destroy human tissues with the same efficiency as it eradicates unwanted microorganisms.
A study that examined the impact of corrosive substances on human bones, teeth, hair, nails, and soft tissue found that at a concentration of about 5%, sodium hypochlorite didn’t cause any structural change to teeth or bones, but instead bleached them. In contrast, hair was completely corroded and broken down within eight minutes, while nail and soft tissue took six hours to reach a similar condition. Therefore, when using household bleach for cleaning surfaces, it is important to wear protective gear such as gloves, glasses, and clothing to protect our skin and other organs.
Contrary to what some may believe, bleach is not an acid, but a base, with a pH value of about 11, and in some cases even 12 or 12.5. In contrast, the pH level of most parts of our body is 7.4, where 7 represents a neutral solution such as water, which is neither acidic nor basic. When we dilute bleach with an acidic cleaning agent, harmful gasses such as chlorine or chloramine (NH2Cl), which are hazardous to inhale, are released. Therefore, one should avoid mixing cleaning agents without a clear understanding of their chemical properties.
What Should I Do if I've Been Exposed to Bleach?
Solutions, powders and vapors of hypochlorite compounds, including bleach, are corrosive, irritant substances that can harm the eyes, skin, and respiratory system. This active ingredient causes tissue damage by breaking down fats and proteins, causing cell death (nercosis). The severity of the damage depends on the duration of exposure, and the quantity and concentration of the active substance. If household bleach spills onto the skin, wipe it off immediately and rinse the area under running water to prevent discomfort, inflammation, and potential blisters. If bleach gets into your eyes, rinse them immediately with running water, without any delay.
External tissues are primarily affected by contact with bleach economica, but they can be rinsed clean. In contrast, when bleach is ingested, it can remain in our digestive system for a long time and cause substantial damage. Here too, the severity of the symptoms depend on the extent of exposure; in very severe cases the damage may be fatal or require surgical intervention to mend the digestive system. Children are more vulnerable than adults to poisons, due to the fact that their bodies are still developing as well as the fact toxic doses are determined by weight. Therefore, an amount that may not harm an adult could be extremely toxic for a small child. Fortunately, bleach has an unpleasant taste (don’t try it at home!), so if a child accidentally sips it, they are likely to stop immediately due to its bitter taste.
Mild symptoms of bleach ingestion may include irritation of the esophagus and stomach, vomiting, chest and abdominal pain, as well as the development of perforations and scars within the digestive system. The stomach acid neutralizes some of the bleach, but the same process releases chlorine gas, which can damage the lungs when inhaled.
In case of swallowing, it’s recommended to drink large amounts of water or milk to dilute the bleach. Industrial-strength bleach contains higher concentrations of sodium hypochlorite than household bleach, and thus it can cause even more severe tissue damage.
If you’ve ingested household bleach, it’s critical to seek immediate attention, going immediately to the emergency ward, preferably bringing the consumed substance’s container, for the healthcare provider to determine the best course of action. In some cases, an endoscopy (a visual examination of the interior of the abdomen using an optic fiber) or stomach pumping in order to empty it may be necessary. Treatment will aim to alleviate symptoms of poisoning, according to the severity of the patient’s condition. If poisoning is not treated adequately, it can lead to irreversible damage to internal organs. Tragically, there have even been cases of infants dying after accidentally drinking bleach.
Furthermore, contact between bleach and blood plasma may lead to cell death, hemolysis (rupturing of red blood cells) and rhabdomyolysis (muscle breakdown), disintegration of the hemoglobin molecules that transport the oxygen in the blood, and in severe cases, kidney damage.
This doesn’t imply that concerns are limited only to household bleach. Other cleaning agents might also contain sodium hypochlorite or other toxins such as sodium hydroxide. Therefore, they too should be handled with utmost care.
If you’ve ingested bleach or any other cleaning agent, seek emergency medical attention immediately | Shutterstock
Cautionary Tales: The Underestimated Dangers of Soaps
Even soaps, intended for cleaning our bodies, should be used with caution. For instance, when soap gets into the eyes, for example, it may cause a burning sensation or even impact eyesight. Additionally, inhaling soap vapors may lead to throat edema, causing difficulties with breathing and swallowing. Ingesting soap may cause pain, swelling of the throat, lips, and tongue, and discomfort in the digestive system, to the point of vomiting or blood in stool.
Laundry reagents, intended for cleaning our clothes, are also not without dangers. In 2011, Tide introduced a new laundry detergent in the form of concentrated pods, which are more potent than standard laundry powders. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 12,000 children under the age of 5 were exposed to such pods in 2014. The pods dissolve in water, and children who consumed them experienced vomiting, respiratory difficulties, and lethargy. Given these incidents, it’s cevident why laundry powders and pods should be kept well out of children’s reach.
Beyond accidental swallowing of pods, there are some who do this on purpose due to peer pressure: the introduction of the pods spurred jokes about their candy-like appearance and led to social pressure to taste them. This situation escalated early this year with the advent of the ‘Tide Pod Challenge’ on social media, encouraging teenagers to film themselves consuming the laundry detergent. As a result, 86 cases of teenagers who chewed laundry pods were reported in the first few weeks of 2018 in the US.
Such exposure can result in heart attacks, pulmonary edema, respiratory failure, coma, and even death. However, none of these have deterred some teenagers from getting carried away with this dangerous trend. In response, YouTube announced it would remove any videos promoting this challenge, vehicle US legislators demanded that laundry pods be made to look less appealing and less reminiscent of gummy candy.
So what’s the bottom line? Cleaning can indeed be too thorough, and consuming or drinking cleaning agents is strictly prohibited. These substances should only be used as directed by the manufacturer’s instructions, and it’s imperative to store them safely out of reach of children. Health organizations advise against transferring cleaning agents to alternative generic containers, as the name of the substance and its associated dangers are clearly marked by the manufacturer on the original packaging.
When cleaning the house, remember to ventilate the area, wear suitable clothing, and avoid prolonged exposure to toxic substances. And if you’re really curious about the taste of laundry pods, bath soap bombs, furniture cleaner, or anything else exotic, head to the fridge instead and prepare a hearty feast.
Please note: this article offers general scientific information and should not be considered a substitute for professional personal medical consultation.