A recent report showed that American bleach brand Clorox was still experiencing a major sales boost nearly 18 months after the beginning of COVID. A quick Google search revealed that two major Australian-sold bleach products are also experiencing a huge uptick in sales as a result of the pandemic.
Bleach has always been a go-to product for killing germs and there is no doubt that it absolutely obliterates all micro-organisms it comes into contact with, so it’s not surprising that people have bought it in record amounts at the time of a major international health crisis. But, and it’s a big but, it’s not ideal for either human health or for the environment and with sales now so high, it’s a genuine concern.
Common household bleach is typically a mixture of chemicals, with the main (and most problematic) ingredient being sodium hypochlorite. Bleach has been around since the 18th century when it was most popularly used as a disinfectant, stain remover and fabric lightener, with this last function giving its popular name to the product. These uses are still common today, with one main caveat — we now know just how detrimental this product can be to us and to the environment.
First, let’s look at the effects on us. Bleach is corrosive, highly reactive and produces irritating fumes that linger in the atmosphere, but those things can be mitigated with correct use — diluting it with water, not mixing it with any other chemicals or compounds and only using it in a very well-ventilated space. Still not ideal, but manageable in the average household unless you are an asthmatic, say. Then it becomes a bigger problem.
And then there are the environmental effects, a real area of concern. Bleach is an organochlorine not readily found in nature. According to Greenpeace, it’s the inherent instability of chlorine that makes bleach an effective disinfectant: it easily bonds with other chemicals to destroy microorganisms, but it is that same instability which makes it dangerous when it enters the environment as it can react with all manner of other chemicals.
And bleach does enter the environment through waterways and the atmosphere. In waterways, bleach can form dioxins, known carcinogens, which seriously harm both aquatic and wild life (and human life if they get the chance). In the atmosphere, it is associated with ozone depletion, which obviously has long-term environmental effects.
Although some amount of bleach from household usage will enter the environment, for example when flushing a freshly bleach-cleaned toilet, the major damage comes from the manufacture of these products and the large-scale use of them by industry. So, although we as individuals may use a small amount at a time, by using any at all we are supporting an incredibly destructive industry.
The good news is, there are readily available alternatives. A baking soda and white vinegar mix is a time-honoured non-toxic, non-corrosive cleaning alternative (make sure to use it while it’s still foaming). Rubbing alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are two other disinfectants that don’t contain chlorine. Essential oils like tea tree and lemon are also really effective as is good old fashioned Castile soap and water.
The take-away? Don’t reach for the bleach.
Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.