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Cleaning maven Linda Jones shares her tips, tricks and insights with a monthly column for Sandy Wipes.

Cleaning Catastrophes: Combinations to Avoid

By Linda Jones, 8 April 2013

    It was a cool, January night in Juniata Park, Philadelphia, and 61-year-old Edward Maj was finishing up his weekend chores. Wresting with a stubborn second-floor toilet that wouldn't flush, he poured in a few household chemicals in an attempt to break up the clog.

    He didn't see, feel or smell any strong threat; there were no warning signs. He didn't realize what he was doing was dangerous until it was too late. He collapsed in that bathroom, and his wife called for paramedics. When they arrived, Edward regained consciousness, telling them he was all-right. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness minutes later. Paramedics struggled to keep Edward with them, but the damage was done - he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital.

    Chemical experts later determined that by mixing ammonia, bleach and drain cleaner, he had unwittingly created chlorine gas, a deadly toxin that destroys the respiratory organs and leads to a slow, agonizing death by asphyxiation. This chemical weapon was used in World War 1 to devastating effect, and has been outlawed in the Geneva Protocol, an international treaty against using chemical warfare. It is similar in its effects to mustard gas.

    Most Americans, including Edward Maj, are not aware that such a deadly weapon can be created so easily, simply by combining household cleaners. He was not the first -and he certainly won't be the last - victim of accidental self-administration. Today, we're going to look at dangerous cleaning combinations, and how to avoid them.

Bleach Combinations

    The most common and deadly mistake consumers make is combining ammonia or ammonia-based cleaning products with a chlorine-based bleach. Most people have these ingredients (or cleaners containing these ingredients) under their kitchen sink. Without getting too deep into the hairy chemistry details, the bleach decomposes to form hydrochloric acid, which reacts with ammonia to form toxic chloramine fumes. The fumes are colorless, and there is little to no warning that a chemical reaction is occuring.

    Ammonia is sold on its own as a cleaning agent, but can also be found in many glass/window cleaners and some indoor or outdoor paints. Urine is also a highly concentrated source of ammonia. Therefore, you should never use a bleach cleaner to clean cat litter spills or diaper pails.

    If you live in a region or state that is prone to earthquakes, it's best not to store bleach and ammonia in the same spot. The last thing you want to worry about during an earthquake is the release of a toxic gas that can cause you to black out.

Bleach and Other Chemicals

Chlorine bleach's active ingredient is sodium hypochlorite. This ingredient is quite volatile, and reacts not only with ammonia, but with most drain cleaners and other acids to produce chlorine gas. You should avoid using bleach with any of the following acids:

Vinegar Certain drain cleaners
Certain glass/window cleaners Lime/calcium/rust removal products
Certain automatic dishwasher detergents/rinses Certain brick/concrete cleaners
Certain toilet bowl cleaners Any product with an acidic/corrosive warning

FIRST AID
If you are ever accidentally exposed to fumes from mixing bleach and ammonia and/or acids, immediately remove yourself from the vicinity while you avoid inhalation. Early symptoms include coughing/wheezing, nausea, shortness of breath, watery eyes, chest pain, throat/nose/eye irritation.

Call 911 for emergency help, even if you feel like you're alright (the reaction may be delayed slightly). Do not return to the area without first seeking instructions from 911 or Poison Control for ventilation.

Other Dangerous Combinations

Bleach represents the most volatile cleaning ingredient because it reacts with so many different chemicals, but it's not the only danger under the sink. Here are some other rules to keep in mind:

Don't mix different brands of the same product.
Often, different brands of the same product (ie. two drain cleaners) will use different cleaning mechanisms and chemicals. As a result, combining two or more products can have unpredictable adverse reactions. At the very least, the mixture is likely to render the cleaners ineffective at their job. Drain cleaners are a particularly nasty combination hazard: Never use them at the same time, or even one right after another. Allow a period of at least 2 hours between combinations of different brands.

Don't mix certain disinfectants with detergents.
Check disinfectant ingredients for 'ammonia' or 'quaternary ammonia'. This ingredient poses a hazard with common detergents, and will render both products ineffective at disinfecting or cleaning.

Don't mix alkaline products with highly acidic products.
In chemistry, acids and bases (alkaline products) are on opposite ends of a spectrum, and combining them can lead to violent reactions. Many strong acids and bases will splash when combined, leading to chemical burns to anyone nearby. For example, oven cleaners often contain Sodium Hydroxide, AKA Lye. Lye is a strong base, and mixing it with a strong acid such as sulpheric acid (found in drain cleaners) or hydrochloric acid (found in toilet bowl cleaners) releases toxic fumes that can cause burns and damage mucous membranes.

Many household cleaners are flammable.
You shouldn't smoke a cigarette when using household cleaners, and you should be cautious as to which cleaners you use for gas stoves or heaters.

Read The Label

All cleaning ingredients are different, and you'd need to be a chemistry major to really understand which combinations are safe and which aren't. Fortunately, manufacturers are required by law to give you the most important do's and dont's of a product on its label. Unfortunately, most of us ignore the label completely.

It takes very little time to consult with a label before using a product, and doing so can literally save your life. Always read the labels, especially when you're considering mixing cleaning ingredients. When shopping and trying to decide between brands, check the label and see which one has more 'extreme' warnings and conditions - you're better off getting safer products to begin with. Consider getting natural or green cleaning products, which almost always carry fewer risks and often are as effective or better than the chemical competition. For more information, visit the EPA's Green Purchasing Guide.

Safety is very important when dealing with increasingly toxic home cleaning products. I hope this quick guide has been helpful to you in deciding how to use those products under your sink. Remember, the safest way to clean is to follow the label and use as directed, and if you're ever unsure if a combination is safe, don't risk it!

You can avoid unsafe combinations by using products that are effective on their own. Sandy Wipes has a suite of wipes products that contain several effective anti-bacterial cleansers to get just about any surface clean, without the potential risks of combining products.

Questions or comments can be sent to me directly at linda@sandywipes.com, I look forward to hearing from you!

Editors' Note: This article contains links to external websites. When clicking a link, you should be aware that other sites have their own terms as well as privacy policies, and that our privacy policy only applies to pages hosted by Sandy Wipes. Furthermore, this article is provided for informational purposes only. Neither Sandy Wipes nor Linda Brown are responsible for any damages or injuries that occur as a result of following the guidelines on this page.

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