Does Cleaning with Bleach Create Indoor Air Pollutants?

Bleach is one of the most common—perhaps the most common—household chemical.  Obviously, the caustic liquid is a reliable disinfectant for sanitizing kitchen and bathroom surfaces, but it can also break up and remove stains from clothing and linens.

Unfortunately, bleach (and, more specifically bleach-based cleaning products) also commonly discharge hypochlorous acid and chlorine gas.  These dangerous chemicals  can accumulate in very somewhat high levels, particularly in a poorly-ventilated environment.  And then if these agents come into contact with sunlight—and even some indoor lights—the compounds can split into other elements that are small enough to create air particles known as secondary organic aerosols (SOAs).  

Secondary organic aerosols make up a majority of fine particulate matter, which are the miniscule air particles that contribute to low visibility and smoggy haze at high levels.  When these SOAs are small enough, it is easy to inhale them; and when they travel deep into our lungs, they cause short-term health effects including eye, nose, and throat irritation, as well as coughing, sneezing, and shortness of breath. 

Now, many household cleaners have added orange or lemon or even pine scented components to help hide their strong odors.  These compounds that are added to cleaners are called limonenes and they come from natural sources like orange or lemon rind.   This makes sense, of course, since that is where their respective oils are; and the oil is what gives these fruits their aromatic essence.  Sometimes these limonenes are added to cosmetic products or pharmaceutical products, again for the purpose giving them a pleasant aroma.    

Now, these chemicals—limonenes–are not toxic on their own.  Unfortunately, when they mix with bleach fumes, the can create even more potentially dangerous air particles.  And since many people use both aromatic cleaners and bleach, the new data warns this could be very harmful.  Overall, the researchers advise the effects could be particularly disastrous for those with existing respiratory conditions, like asthma, and those who spend a great deal of time using industrial-strength cleaning supplies. 

Study leader Professor Chen Wang advises, “Fine particles are only formed in presence of light, because light split the compounds from bleach, and reacts with limonene. We observed reaction of limonene with bleach emissions in the dark, but not particle formation.” 

Professor Wang also advises opening windows whenever you use any household cleaner, to help dissipate these particles.  

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