More than 85% of American households use chlorine bleach to clean their homes and whiten their clothes. Since Clorox hit the market in 1913, we have assumed the chemical compound is safe. Consider this 1954 advertisement.
Also note in the ad above that “Clorox is a non-poisonous disinfectant . . .” We know this isn’t true. Household bleach is one of the leading causes of accidental poisonings in the United States. But more is coming to light about the hazards of sodium hypochlorite.
1. Bleach is linked to childhood infections.
A recent study by the University of Leuven in Belgium found the chance of flu was 20% higher and recurrent tonsillitis 35% greater among children whose parents used bleach to clean their home.
Researchers looked at 9,000 children between the ages of 6 and 12 in the Netherlands, Finland and Spain.
The parents were asked to complete a questionnaire on the number and frequency of times their children had flu, tonsillitis, sinusitis, bronchitis, otitis (ear infection) and pneumonia in the preceding 12 months. They were also asked if they used bleach to clean their homes at least once a week. Use of bleach was common in Spain (72% of respondents) but rare in Finland (7%).
The study concludes,
“Passive exposure to cleaning bleach in the home may have adverse effects on school-age children’s health by increasing the risk of respiratory and other infections. The high frequency of use of disinfecting irritant cleaning products may be of public health concern, also when exposure occurs during childhood.”
The study supports the hygiene hypothesis theory which suggests a young child’s environment can be “too clean” to effectively stimulate or challenge the child’s developing immune system.
2. Bleach can make a mold situation worse.
Chlorine bleach’s ion structure prevents the chlorine from penetrating porous materials such as dry wall and wood. Mold’s enzyme roots grow inside the porous materials, rendering the bleach ineffective.
The water component of bleach, however, does penetrate the dry wall (or wood), which fosters further mold growth.
Chlorine bleach will discolor or whiten the surface, leading the building occupant to believe the problem is solved – until the mold reappears.
A study of mold growth on Douglas-fir lumber notes the ineffectiveness of bleach. The study, appearing in Forest Products Journal, concludes:
“While bleach is often recommended for remediation of surface mold on wood, our results illustrate that the treatment does not eliminate the surface microflora.”
3. Bleach emits harmful fumes.
A whiff of household bleach lets you know the fumes are very strong. One European study showed that bleach often reacts to produce Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), most of which are toxic. The study, Halogenated Volatile Organic Compounds from the Use of Chlorine-Bleach-Containing Products, notes:
One of the most surprising results was the presence of carbon tetrachloride (a probable human carcinogen and a powerful greenhouse gas that was banned for household use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) in very high concentrations.
It is commonly known that toxic fumes are produced when bleach is combined with ammonia. Urine contains ammonia which makes cleaning bathrooms even riskier. The lack of ventilation in the bathroom aggravates the problem.
Safe alternatives to chlorine bleach
Hydrogen peroxide offers one of the safest solutions to disinfection and laundry whitening.
The extra oxygen molecule (H202) provides a scavenger looking for weak bonds to break.
These bonds are often found in pigments of a laundry stain.
As a disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide acts as an oxidizer, killing germs, viruses and even fungi. H2O2 has none of the problems of gaseous release or chemical residues associated with chlorine bleach.
Most chlorine-free bleaches on the market contain hydrogen peroxide.
Store-bought hydrogen peroxide is a 3% solution. Industrial strength hydrogen peroxide is available as a 35% solution.
This is extremely caustic and must be handled with care. I often make my own 3% solution using industrial strength. (I buy mine here.)
When it comes to surface mold, it is always advisable to rule out the presence of hidden water damage. A crack in a tile or a history of a water leak may indicate a larger problem, which can lead to serious health issues. (See “Where Do I Begin?” for suggestions on ways to address mold problems.)
Assuming the problem is simply a surface one, hydrogen peroxide is an excellent option as well as white vinegar, borax and tea tree oil. For more on surface mold see Got Surface Mold? 10 Natural Solutions.
Given the toxic nature of chlorine bleach, why not enjoy a safe and natural alternative?