Is the chlorine bleach used for whitening clothes bad for the environment? And if so, what are some safe alternatives?
—Nancy Potter, via e-mail
More than 80 percent of American households use chlorine bleach to whiten their clothes and clean inside their homes, but most consumers don’t realize that the use of this seemingly innocuous cleaning additive could be polluting their home as well as the great outdoors.
“The fumes of cleaners containing a high concentration of chlorine when breathed in can irritate the lungs and be particularly dangerous for people who suffer from heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema,” says Patty Avey, editor of SmartLivingNews. “When the fumes are emitted in small, poorly ventilated rooms such as the bathroom, the risks are increased,” she adds.
Another immediate risk of having chlorine bleach around the house is accidental ingestion by little ones—poison control centers across the country receive about 20,000 such calls each year. Also, combining chlorine bleach with ammonia and other acids can cause deadly fumes.
Meanwhile, though, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) maintains that there is no danger in using chlorine bleach around the house, claiming that the amount of chlorine is too low to warrant serious concern. But the agency does regulate the use of chlorine for industrial purposes, and confirms links between exposed workers and lung irritation.
Whether used at home or in the factory, chlorine is a big problem for the environment once it is discarded or rinsed away. It bonds with other chemicals in the wastewater stream to form carcinogenic “organochlorines” (such as dioxin) that contaminate drinking water supplies, among other risks.
Luckily, healthy and environmentally safe alternatives to chlorine bleach abound. Many of these can be made at home with household products you probably already have. Half a cup of hydrogen peroxide can work well as a bleach alternative when diluted with warm water prior to going in the wash load.
For those not so ambitious, commercial variations on such formulas, which give consumers the benefit of oxygen-based stabilizers that ensure even distribution within wash loads, are available from companies such as Seventh Generation, Earth Friendly Products and BioPac. Most of these products are available at natural food stores as well as online and at larger, well-stocked supermarkets.
But before spending a fortune on bleach alternatives, consumers should see if hard water might be causing their clothes to look gray and dingy from soap scum and mineral deposit build-up. Clues that you might have hard water include clean dishes with water spots on them, white and crusty sediment on fixtures, or a recurring bathtub ring. If you do have hard water, simply add enough baking soda to the laundry to make the wash water feel slippery to the touch and see if that doesn’t whiten whites and brighten colors.
CONTACTS: SmartLivingNews, www.smartlivingnews.com; EPA Chlorine Fact Sheet, www.epa.gov/chemfact/f_chlori.txt; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com; Earth Friendly Products, www.ecos.com; Bio Pac, www.bio-pac.com.