In this time when many are seeking ways to disinfect their homes to avoid infection with COVID-19 and flu, some may be tempted to mix cleaning chemicals. Stress from the lack of disinfectants on grocery store shelves is compounded by daily headlines referencing the number who are infected or who have died from either of the viruses.
It’s important to stay focused on what you can do to reduce your potential risk for infection. Cleaning surfaces at home and frequently washing your hands are two essential strategies, as you work to build your immune system to ward off any infection.
The COVID-19 virus, also named SARS-CoV-2, is encased in a lipid envelope, which means it’s a single strand of RNA wrapped in a bubble of fatty molecules. This makes it, and others like it, highly susceptible to soaps and disinfectants. This is good, since you may only have soap and elbow grease at home at the moment. Good Housekeeping warns that:1
“… before you reach for every cleaning product under your sink and start playing chemist, take caution. ‘People often think that if one product works, mixing it with another one will make it even better,’ says Carolyn Forte, Director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab.”
The truth is, most over-the-counter cleaning products have more than one ingredient and are designed to be used alone. When mixed, they may produce unhealthy chemical reactions or dangerous, and sometimes fatal, fumes. Let’s look at the top six chemicals you should never mix.
Sodium Hypochlorite and Acetic Acid
You know these chemicals by the common names — bleach and vinegar. Mixing them together will produce chlorine gas, which sometimes has fatal results.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported on the tragic death of a restaurant employee who died from inhaling fumes after two products containing acid and bleach were mixed. Ten others from the restaurant also became sick as a result. Samara Geller with EWG said:2
“Our thoughts are with the family, friends and co-workers of this gentleman. No one should be put in a situation where simply coming to work and doing their job could result in serious injury or even death from toxic cleaning products. Unfortunately, this is a persistent issue that triggers tens of thousands of illnesses and poisonings each year in the U.S.”
While vinegar is a common household cleaner and bleach might be found under your sink or in your laundry room, they are not safe when used together. Chlorine gas is poisonous and once was used during World War I as a chemical weapon.3 Exposure to chlorine gas can result in long-lasting changes to your lung tissue.
The key to this chemical reaction is an acid-acid mixture. When bleach is mixed with other acid-based chemicals, such as drain openers, toilet bowl cleaners and oven cleaners, chlorine gas is released.4
The gas irritates the pulmonary tract and may cause significant damage to the upper and lower lungs. Toxicity is related to the concentration of the gas and time you are exposed. The gas has a strong odor so it’s easily detected and will quickly cause burning in your eyes, throat and upper respiratory tract.
Combining Bleach and Ammonia Is a Common Mistake
This combination of chemicals releases chloramine gas. Ammonia is found in many glass and window cleaners as well as urine.5 This means you should not use bleach to clean litter boxes, diaper pails or toilet bowls. Exposure to chloramine gas can trigger symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing and chemically induced pneumonia.
The symptoms may appear after taking just a few breaths and can last as long as 24 hours, or longer if you have an underlying respiratory condition. In one case study,6 two separate groups of military personnel were treated in an emergency room after they were exposed to the combination of bleach and ammonia while cleaning the barracks.
In the first group 36 male soldiers were treated and one week later 36 female soldiers were treated, also after cleaning the barracks. Nebulized sodium bicarbonate solution had been used to treat chlorine gas, but when tried after exposure to chloramine on 22 patients there wasn’t any difference in the outcome.
Before moving on, let’s cut to the chase. If you choose to use bleach, then at no time should you ever mix it with any other chemical, household product or food. In nearly every instance, it produces a reaction. The only time it’s safe to mix bleach with anything is when you’re diluting it with water.
Mixing Drain Cleaners Could Destroy Your Plumbing, and More
You’ve probably come across a stopped-up drain or two in your home. Sometimes it’s running slowly and at others it’s just completely clogged. While you may be tempted to purchase an over-the-counter drain cleaner to get the job done, know that most contain toxic ingredients and you can easily unclog your drain using what you already have at home.
However, if you do choose to use drain cleaner and the first bottle doesn’t finish the job, remember to buy the same one for the second go-round or you may get burned, breathe toxic gas or cause an explosion.
Not all drain cleaners use the same caustic ingredients to clean your pipes. Some are made with sodium hydroxide, bleach, sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid — mixing these is dangerous.
For example, mixing one made with sodium hydroxide and another made with sulfuric acid creates an exothermic acid-base reaction. Steaming hot water may come shooting from your drain and you may be burned by excess acid or base in the liquid.7
When a drain cleaner made with bleach is mixed with one containing hydrochloric acid it produces chlorine gas.8 While you may think this is the easiest way to clean your pipes, there are good reasons to use other options, as explained by Angie’s List:9
- Cleaners are toxic, especially the inexpensive varieties — Even when you don’t mix chemicals, the fumes from all drain cleaners must be avoided as they irritate your eyes, nose and mucus membranes. Run the fan in the bathroom as the fumes stick around long after the cleaner has been poured down the drain.
- They damage your pipes — The caustic chemicals used to eat through the clog will also damage your pipes. If it accidently gets on your finishes, they will eat through those as well.
- They’re bad for the environment — Those caustic chemicals you don’t want in your home are now flushed down the drain, out to the wastewater treatment plant and into the environment.
- Drain cleaners are not always successful — Depending upon why your drain is backed up, the cleaner may not be successful in getting the water flowing again. When the clog is thick, there is trouble in the sewer line or pipes are broken, drain cleaners won’t fix the problem.
When you’re stuck at home with a backed-up drain you probably have what you need to unclog the drain and get things moving again. Here are several options that can be used together since there are no dangerous chemicals involved:10
- Bent wire hanger — Use a regular wire hanger. Straighten it and then create a hook on one end. Place the hook end down the drain and start pulling up what was stopping the water. Have some paper towels handy to throw the mess in the garbage. Follow this up with hot water and the drain should clear.
- Boiling water — This is a good way to unstick a drain. Using boiling water, pour it down the drain in stages, allowing 15 seconds between each pour.
- Baking soda and salt — Place half a cup of salt and half a cup of baking soda in a jar or bowl and mix well. Pour this down the drain and wait for 20 minutes. Follow it up with boiling water.
- Baking soda and vinegar — You are probably familiar with the resulting fizzle and foam when these are combined. While it’s not effective as a cleaner, the foaming action does help break down grime on the pipe. Pour baking soda down the drain, followed by white vinegar. Follow this up with hot water after 10 minutes.
- Plunge it — Use a different plunger than the one you use in the toilet. If the above suggestions aren’t working fast enough, you can try plunging the drain, followed by a second strategy as needed.
MacGyver Mixture Makes Corrosive Peracetic Acid
While hydrogen peroxide and vinegar are effective when used separately, don’t mix them. When combined they produce peracetic acid, a toxic caustic acid. Exposure to your eyes, skin and respiratory system produces irritation.11
According to Susan Sumner from Virginia Tech, the combination of these two ingredients can kill over 100,000 types of germs, including E. coli and salmonella. However, there’s a method you use to avoid the toxic reaction when the chemicals are mixed.12 She offers this recipe at Cleaning Business Today:13
- Pour 3% hydrogen peroxide into one spray bottle and distilled white vinegar (5% ascetic acid) into a second bottle. Do NOT mix them together in one bottle as they will create an unstable and highly corrosive form of peracetic acid
- Clean the surface with soap and water. Dry it with a clean cloth or paper towel
- Spray the surface with either the hydrogen peroxide or the vinegar. The order does not matter; just don’t spray them on at the same time as when mixed they will create an unstable form of peracetic acid
- Let it set for at least five minutes before wiping off with a clean cloth or paper towel
- Repeat with the second bottle
Baking Soda + Vinegar = Ineffective for Cleaning
It bubbles and looks like it’s working hard, but it essentially has no cleaning power. Both products work well independently, but when combined they lose all power and effectiveness, except when you’re using the foaming action to help clear your drain as described above.
Used separately, baking soda adds scrubbing power and it doesn’t scratch the surfaces of your home. It can be used to clean out grime from bathtubs and sinks, as well as to remove stubborn cooked food in your pots and pans. Avoid using it over large areas, such as floors, as it requires time and water to remove the granules.
White vinegar is a simple floor and counter cleaner. Before using it on your floor, be sure it can withstand the acidic pH. Add a cup to your wash to help keep your washing machine free of mineral deposits. A mixture of vinegar and dish soap can remove some of the worst grime and dirt you can throw at it.14
While it’s a good cleaner, be sure to keep it away from solid wood, granite, marble or soapstone as it ruins the finish. Don’t put it in your iron, either, because it will ruin it. Interestingly, you should avoid cleaning up spilled egg with vinegar as it changes the consistency and will make cleaning up even more difficult.