Thursday, May 8, 2008

Obsessive cleaning can be hazardous to your health

Having twice been the victim of other people’s careless bleach use, I’m not a fan of bleach. Most people don’t seem to know that you are supposed to dilute it before use. Clorox recommends using 3/4 cup in 1 gallon of water.

Even diluted, bleach is not as harmless as many people think. More than 85% of American households use it, according to the American Chemistry Council.

One major use of bleach is for laundry. Quite handy for removing stains, but regular use should not be necessary if you have a good detergent.

Bleach is also commonly used for disinfection in the kitchen or bathroom. But many users don’t know that prolonged exposure is required to kill germs. Clorox recommends soaking for 5 minutes. Just splashing bleach on the cutting board isn’t going to do it. But it could make you sick.

Bleach is toxic. It causes skin and eye irritation, breathing problems, and asthma.

Studies have shown that children whose parents frequently use bleach are much more likely to develop persistent wheezing, which can lead to asthma. It’s not clear whether the bleach itself causes the wheezing, or whether extreme cleanliness is at fault. Children who grow up without being exposed to germs end up with weak immune systems, which can lead to asthma or allergies.

When combined with other common, household substances, such as ammonia, toilet bowl cleaners, or vinegar, bleach produces a poisonous gas. The Washington State Department of Health warns that prolonged exposure to this gas can damage the lung tissue, causing severe breathing difficulties, pneumonia, or even death. If you use bleach to clean your toilet, don’t pour any other cleaners in until you’ve flushed the bleach out.

According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, more than 20,000 children were reported to have been exposed to bleach in 2006 ( In comparison, approximately 40,000 cases of salmonella infection are reported each year, according to the Center for Disease Control.

If you do use bleach, be smart about it. Make sure it is clearly labeled and kept out of the reach of small children. Dilute it, rinse with lots of water afterwards, and either let it air dry, or dry with a clean towel.

It doesn’t make sense to splash bleach on the utensils, then dry them with the towel that’s been hanging there all week. And my favorite: people who bleach their cooking utensils, but use their dish sponge on the floor.

If you’re worried about germs, (or if you swear by bleach but order your burgers rare) then check out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for preventing salmonella infection:

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