Thursday, September 07, 2006

Using Chlorine Bleach To Cleam and Disinfect the Home

A couple of posts ago, I emphasized the potential dangers of using chlorine bleach. As most of us know, it is a substance that must be handled with great care. It can be damaing to to certain materials. More importantly, it can be harmful or fatal to people. But, as long as we follow directions and also keep it out of the reach of children, there's no need to be afraid of chlorine bleach.
In fact, chlorine adds to our safety. Even if we don't pesonally have a bottle on hand, we daily benefit from its disinfectant properties. The proper amounts purifies our drinking water and our swimming water. Many public buildings, especially hospitals, are made sanitary by chlorine.
Chlorine bleach is a good, broad-spectrum disinfectant. It is not a perfect disinfectant, but it kills many strains of bacteria, many viruses including HIV, and some fungus and molds. Chlorine bleach eliminates germs and bacteria that my be hiding in the fibers of fabric items, and it is good for disinfecting white bedding items. It also attacks germs on counters, tubs, showers, etc. Because it does kill bacteria and fungus so effectively, it eliminates many unpleasant household odors.
The FDA and the USDA consider that bleach is a safe method for sanitzing food-contact surfaces in your home. They believe that it does not accumulate with repeated use, and that it breaks down, leaving salt water behind. Of course, again, this must be done according to directions for safe use and never used at the same time as an ammonia based product. Clean before you sanitize to get rid of any organic matter that might reduce bleach's effectiveness.
Cheryl Mendleson of Home Comforts fame says that you can disinfect pot scrubbers and dish brushes by immersing them in a solution of tablespoon regular chloinre bleach per gallon of water for five to ten mintues. Then, drain and let dry. She also suggests that you at least occasinally use bleach when you wash dish cloths, dish towels, kitchen hand towels, aprons, pot holders, and bleach-safe table linens.
In fact, Cheryl suggests that you never buy cloth for the kitchen that you cannot bleach. I must say that since I love colored kitchen cloths and pretty linens and delicate lace tablecloths, I do not follow the rule of buying only bleach-safe kitchen and dining room fabrics. But, I do undersatnd her point.
Cheryl also says that when used according to instructions, bleach is a good choice for disinfecting baby and children bleach-safe equipment, toys, and utensils, when you think that this is necessary. Our noses are sensitive to bleach, and the fact that a slight bleach odor remains on such baby items does not mean that they are unsafe. But, to be on the safe side, you should try to dilute the bleach solution to the extent that it does not leave chlorine odors on items used around baby. Again, I would clean before sanitizing.
John Hopkins University suggests that we all keep chlorine bleach products on hand in case there might be a flu pandemic one day. So, they I figure that if bleach is useful in fighting a pandemic, it must work for ordinary cold/flu seasons as well.
According to the hospital, chlorine bleach can be used to disinfect materials contaminated by blood or body fluids. The hospital suggests that you can use a particular dilution of hospital grade bleach. A more realistic solution for most of us is to use household chlorine bleach in a 1:10 ratio with water. To keep its effectiveness, this dilution must be kept in an opaque container away from sunlight and re-mixed every day. The hospital suggests that an easier option is to use Chlorix surface spray as a good, pre-mixed alternative. The hospital also gives directions for mixing granular chlorine if you cannot obtain liquid bleach. Naturally, the hospital guidelines include cautions for safe use.
John Hopkins reccomends using rubbing alchohol for surfaces where bleach cannot be used. (If you are interested, visit this link,
to learn more about the bleach reccommendatiosn, as well as a thorough guide for preparing your family for a possible flu pandemic)
When cleaning hard, non-food contact surfaces, you may sanitize and clean in one step. There are powdered laundry detergents that are safe to add to a bleach solution to use as a household cleaner. But, do not do this without reading the directions given by a manufacturer of household bleach.
In researching bleach as a disinfectant, I learned two things that I had not known before. One, is that bleach should be diluted in cold, rather than hot water, or else it loses its effectiveness. The other is that undiluted household bleach may cease to be effective as a sanitizer after six months. Since I do not use bleach on a daily basis, it takes me a while to go through a bottle. So, in the future, I will check the date on the bottle more closely. This is particularly important as I do want to follow the John Hopkins reccomendatons for having bleach on hand. I will need to rotate bottles out so that I won't get caught with a sick family and a bottle of bleach that doesn't work as a disinfectant any longer.
Most of us use chlorine to tackle mold at one time or another. "Spore Tech, Mold Investigations" is of the opinion that chlorox does do a fair job of fighting certain molds and fungus (athelete's feet, being one) on hard, non-porous surfaces. They state that is not effective for porous surfaces, such as wood. Therefore, they believe that its use as a mold fighter should be reserved for kitchen and bathroom countertops, tubs, and shower glass.
Some families who develop a mold problem in their home turn to commercial services for helping them get rid of mold. Spore Tech warns to be wary of those who reccommend using bleach outside of the guidelines mentioned in the above paragraph. This would be an indication
that they do not know what they are doing.
At this point, majority opinion still holds that bleach is a great disinfectant and a good cleanser. However, bleach does have its critics, particularly when it comes to its role as a cleaning product.
Cleaning industry experts Don Aslett and David Andrew Smith have independently come to the conclusion that chlorine bleach masks cleaning problems without solving them. Don Aslett applies this specifically to the mold issue. He thinks that chlorine bleaches merely "bleach" the color out of mold in a shower or tub, making it less visible to the eye, but leaving spores to grow.
Mr. Smith sees even more limitations to bleach's cleaning power. He believes that our parents' and grandparents' generation began to rely heavily on laundry bleach as a cleaning product. Thus, we associate its strong smell with clean bathrooms. Yet, in his opinion, the whitening effects simply fool us into thinking that chlorine bleach gets rid of dirt, mold, stains, and other things. Thus, he thinks we deceive ourselves by relying considering bleach as a household cleaner.
I think there may be merit to Mr. Aslett's and Mr. Smith's points of view. Thus, I don't rely soley on bleach or bleach-containing products when cleaning my home But, since the medical community still considers bleach to be a decent, fairly broad-spectrum disinfectant, I do frequently use surface cleaners with bleach in them. I don't think of bleach as the total answer for keeping my home clean and fresh; it's just one weapon in my arsenal of cleaning products. Here's a definition of chlorine and a a description of its benefits from "How Stuff Works". I must admit that this article is a little over my head. But, I find that if you can grasp how and why something works, you can use it more effectively. So, I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it:

"Chlorine itself is a gas at room temperature. Ordinary table salt (sodium chloride, NaCl) is half chlorine, and a simple electrochemical reaction with salt water produces chlorine gas easily. That same reaction produces sodium hydroxide (NaOH), and by mixing chlorine gas with sodium hydroxide you create sodium hypochlorite (NaOCl). When you buy a gallon of bleach at the grocery store, what you are buying is the chemical sodium hypochlorite mixed with water in a 5.25-percent solution. You're buying salt water that has been changed slightly by electricity. Chlorine is used in pools and drinking water because it is a great disinfectant. It is able to kill bacteria and algae, among other things. Chlorine also makes a great stain remover, but not because of the chlorine itself. Natural stains (as well as dyes) produced by everything from mildew to grass come from chemical compounds called chromophores. Chromophores can absorb light at specific wavelengths and therefore cause colors. When chlorine reacts with water, it produces hydrochloric acid and atomic oxygen. The oxygen reacts easily with the chromophores to eliminate the portion of its structure that causes the color."

Got all that?

In closing, I'd like to throw out a question: I have found two references to the fact that my parents' generation turned away from other cleaning and laundry methods in favor of using bleach. Does anyone know why this happened?

Until later,


plainandsimple said...

Hi Elzabeth
The smell of my childhood is the smell of bleach! To my mother NOTHING was clean unless it had been bleached liberally with the undiluted extra thick stuff. When I went green I abandoned bleach because the liberal use of the product harms the environment and can upset people who have chemical sensitivities. However, since my little girl had a really nasty tummy bug I keep a bottle on hand to sort out the loo and bathroom.

I have quite a few magazines from the 1930s to 1960s and bleach is advertised with gusto in them. One has a photo of a dirty toilet and basically says no-one will visit you if your house is dirty and the best way to clean it is with bleach! Perhaps, our mothers and grandmothers succumbed to advertising just as we do!

Elizabeth said...

How intersting that you found so many ads about bleach in your 30's to 60's magazines. It must have been an advertising thing, as you say.

From my research, I gather that chlorine bleach has been around a long time. But, it wasn't such a big deal before our parents' and grandparents' day. But, because they took up bleach in a big way, many of us grew up associating bleach with a clean home and clean laundry.

I think one problem is that many of us have cleaned as your mother did -- by liberaly using the thick, undiluted stuff. I've been guilty of that myself -- not a smart thing for an asthmatic to do! I don't know about Great Britian, but we Americans think that if a little bit of something is good, a whole lot must be better. That's not necessarily true, and it's certainly not true when it comes to using strong substances, such as bleach or ammonia.