Household Cleaning Products Aren’t Always Safer
It’s not unusual to find potentially dangerous chemicals in workplaces. Whether it’s an industrial facility or a construction site, household cleaning products used to perform a wide variety of tasks come with a long list of warnings, cautions, and procedures to ensure worker safety and to protect the surrounding environment.
Sometimes, supervisors or workers will choose products made for “household” use over their industrial counterparts, believing that anything made for the home must be inherently safer. That can be a dangerous assumption, because many “household” products contain deadly chemicals and toxic substances. That even applies to many products that are marketed as “green” or “natural” alternatives. Familiar cleaning products can release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) that can cause eye and throat irritation in the short term and create significant health effects from long-term exposures.
Even something that seems as harmless as fragrances can create hazards in the workplace. The chemicals that create those pleasant smells can trigger unpleasant reactions for workers who suffer from allergies or asthma. When those chemicals react with other airborne chemicals, they can produce hazardous gases such as ozone and formaldehyde (which is a recognized carcinogen).
Common chemical hazards
Three types of products account for most of the danger in “household” products. Chlorine bleach, used alone or within many types of cleaners, contains sodium hypochlorite, which will react with acids, ammonia, and most drain cleaners. Ammonia is often found in glass cleaners and some types of paint (and can occur in heavy concentrations in human urine, setting the stage for reactions when cleaning restrooms). Many general types of cleaners, such as toilet cleaners and drain cleaners, contain vinegar and other types of acids in various concentrations.
While those three types are most common, there are many other potentially hazardous chemicals in household products. You’ll find solvents derived from petroleum and other organic solvents like toluene and xylene in paints and perchloroethylene in heavy-duty cleaners, glycols in window cleaners and anti-freeze products, silicas in abrasive cleaners, and compounds like phosphates and trisoldium nitrilotriacetate in detergent products.
Depending upon the specific chemical and formulation, hazards can range from corrosion and skin irritation; to burns on eyes, skins, and in the throat; to noxious and sometimes toxic fumes; to the potential for fire. Workers with medical conditions such as asthma, breathing problems, or heart issues may be at greater risk from exposure.
Mixing up trouble
Many cleaning chemicals aren’t particularly dangerous by themselves, but when mixed with another chemical, they can provide deadly results. For example, if a product containing bleach comes in contact with another product containing ammonia, the combination will produce chloramine gases. These gases can produce shortness of breath and coughing, as well as eye irritation and nausea. Breathing large amounts of chloramine gas can cause chronic breathing problems, as well as death.
If you mix a product containing bleach with something that includes an acid, the result will be chlorine gas. In small concentrations, chlorine gas will interfere with breathing, cause coughing, and irritate mucous membranes. In larger concentrations, it can lead to pneumonia or death. When chlorine gas comes into contact with water, the combination can result in hydrochloric or hypochlorous acid.
That’s why it’s never a good idea to combine two cleaning products. The two combinations described above aren’t the only hazardous ones. The sodium hypochlorite in bleach will also have dangerous interactions with a variety of other common chemicals, among them hydrogen peroxide, certain insecticides, and some oven cleaners. And using two different formulations of drain cleaners in sequence or at the same time is a recipe for everything from explosions to toxic gas.
Washing away problems?
There’s a tendency to believe that washing chemicals down the drain makes the problem go away. It’s true that some chemicals break down into harmless components or lose much of their toxicity when treated. However, municipal wastewater treatment systems have no effect on many chemicals, which are then discharged into streams or aquifers.
In addition, treatment processes cause some chemicals to transform into more hazardous substances, many of which do not biodegrade. That means those chemicals can eventually find their way into drinking water supplies, aquatic life, and animals that eat aquatic life (including human beings).
When using any type of chemical, the key is to check everything and assume nothing. If “household” products are going to be used on the jobsite, the individuals who are responsible for worker safety must obtain the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for each product or its active ingredients.
Workers should be briefed on the hazards associated with the use of the chemicals, including warnings about interaction and recommendations for proper disposal. They should use only as much of the chemical as is needed to accomplish the task, and have clear instructions for storage of any unused material. They should wear the correct PPE (personal protective equipment) for the task they’re performing. Finally, when using any chemical that has the potential to emit fumes, proper ventilation is critically important.