Dangers of Mixing Common Cleaning Products
Avoid Toxic Fumes, Use Safer Substances
Cleaning products containing chlorine bleach and acid inadvertently used together on the floor of a Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant recently killed the general manager. Within two weeks, chemical fumes from mixing cleaning chemicals at a Red Robin restaurant in Woburn sent three employees to the hospital.
These dangerous chemical reactions can also happen with little warning in our homes, especially in small and enclosed environments like bathrooms. Some toilet bowl cleaners contain acid, some glass cleaners contain ammonia and many products contain bleach.
Director of the TURI Laboratory Jason Marshall works with companies and janitorial formulators to find safer cleaning substances or methods that work as well as toxic cleaners. He shares his knowledge on which combination of cleaning products to avoid and how to reduce the use of toxic cleaners in homes and small businesses.
Q. What is the most dangerous combination of cleaning products to avoid?
A. Never mix bleach and ammonia cleaners. This brew creates gases called chloramines, which can quickly cause eye, nose and throat irritation, and even death.
Acid-based toilet bowl cleaners and bleach are also a very dangerous blend. Some people may add bleach to the bowl but the combination of bleach with the acid releases chlorine gas. Even at low levels, it irritates eyes, nose and throat and causes coughing and breathing problems. Very high levels can cause death.
Mixing two types of drain cleaners, which contain acid and other ingredients, can release chlorine gas or other hazardous byproducts.
Q. Do I need bleach to clean and disinfect my home?
A. Bleach is a disinfectant, not a cleaner. It kills bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It is important to remember that some microbes are beneficial. Product manufacturers sometimes advertise the negative view of germs and potential health affects to cause public alarm and increase the desire for antimicrobial products.
If you absolutely need to disinfect for bodily fluid clean up (vomit, blood), clean surfaces with detergent or an all-purpose cleaner before disinfecting. It won’t work if the chemical can’t get through the dirt to the hard surface you want to sanitize.
Most importantly, do not combine products which contain bleach with ammonia or any other cleaners. When using bleach, wear rubber gloves and eye protection. Open windows and turn on vents to dissipate the toxic fumes.
Q. What is the difference between cleaning, disinfecting and sanitizing?
A. Cleaning products remove debris, dirt and dust. Sanitizing reduces contaminants to a level where health is not affected. Disinfecting kills all microorganisms and is mostly used in hospitals to prevent infectious diseases. Most households do not need to sanitize or disinfect with a few exceptions noted above (bodily fluids). Restaurants need to sanitize food contact surfaces as stated in local regulations.
Q. How can consumers find safer cleaning products?
A. Safer alternatives to hazardous cleaning products exist for nearly every type of household cleaner. Look for products with credible third-party certification such as Green Seal, EcoLogo and Safer Choice. This means that the products have been reviewed for standards such as performance, health, environment and sustainability. Manufacturers with these third-party certifications report product ingredients. Also look for smaller producers which may not have funds for the third-party process, but who are transparent about their ingredients. Even though these products are safer, make a practice of not mixing cleaning solutions.
Read product labels carefully so that you can choose a product that is the best fit for the application you need it for. Products are formulated for specific soil types. For example, toilet bowl cleaners are designed to remove hard water stains. Glass cleaners are formulated for fast drying. Disinfecting products are designed to kill bacteria, not for cleaning. So choose the right cleaner for the job. Choosing a green product for the wrong type of cleaning will not work well.
If you read “safe when used as directed” on product labels, be wary. Products should be safe under all conditions, especially for children and pets.
Q. Can I make my own cleaning products and if so, do they work?
A. You can make your own cleaning products. However, you still need to be careful to not make a dangerous mixture.
In the lab, we’ve tested the performance of do-it-yourself recipes for basic household cleaners. Common ingredients include white vinegar, salt, baking soda, baby oil, washing soda, lemon juice, aluminum foil, cornstarch and toothpaste.
Q. What can restaurants do to reduce toxics when local regulations need to be followed?
A. Follow regulations from your local board of health while adhering to the same guidelines: Use the right product for the job, don’t mix cleaning products and read labels. Any business that uses chemicals should train workers about chemical safety, proper usage and how to respond to emergencies.
The TURI Lab has worked with manufacturers of cleaning products to identify and promote safer chemical cleaners as well as best practices. We have worked with MD Stetson in Randolph on investigating non-traditional sanitation efforts. For example, can an all-purpose cleaner and microfiber cloth remove enough bacteria in general areas to eliminate the overuse of disinfecting chemicals?
We have worked with Alpha Chemical Services in Stoughton to validate cleaning performance. We have also worked with Chemco Corporation in Lawrence, which sells products to the quick service restaurant industry, to develop safer cleaning products and provide training on how to use chemicals in the work place.