Lessons about household cleaners and disinfectants from two case studies.
Disinfectants should be saving lives by killing germs, yet, if they are not used the correct way, they can kill. Here are two case studies. Let’s see if you can figure out what went wrong.
After a friend told Mary that she needed to disinfect the fruits and vegetables she had just bought at the supermarket, Mary filled up her sink with water, added a 10% bleach solution plus vinegar and put her fruits and vegetables in her sink to soak. Within a few minutes, Mary developed difficulty breathing. She called 911 and was transported to the nearest hospital. She could have died.
What did Mary do wrong?
What caused Mary’s difficulty breathing and could have killed her?
The answer: Mary mixed bleach with vinegar which created a potentially lethal chlorine gas. As Mary inhaled that gas, her bronchioles got inflamed and her lungs got so irritated that they started swelling, giving her wheezing and difficulty breathing. Had Mary stayed near her sink, she could have died.
Lesson learned: Never mix bleach with vinegar. If you do so by mistake, get away from the gases as fast as possible. Open all the windows to get as much fresh air as possible. If the gases are outside—for example, if there are chlorine gases coming from a swimming pool (there was a wrong mix of disinfectants in a New Jersey swimming pool in July 2020 where four children and one adult had to be hospitalized)—go far away upwind and, if possible, to higher ground. The reason for going to higher ground is that chlorine gas is heavier than air so chlorine gas will go towards the ground and fresh air will go up.
What if Mary had mixed bleach with a bathroom cleaner solution? Would it have been better? No! Bathroom cleaners, window cleaners, and glass cleaners all contain ammonia. Mixed with bleach, ammonia creates a potentially lethal chloramine gas. (Bleach creates chlorine gas with vinegar and chloramine gas with ammonia, which can both be lethal.)
© Dr. Chris Gilbert, MD, PhD