Why You Should Not Mix Bleach and Vinegar While Cleaning
By Daniel Yetman
Bleach and vinegar are common household cleaners used to disinfect surfaces, cut through grime, and get rid of stains. Even though many people have both these cleaners in their homes, mixing them together is potentially dangerous and should be avoided.
The type of bleach typically used for household cleaning is a made of sodium hypochlorite diluted to 3 to 8% in water. Vinegar is a diluted form of acetic acid. When sodium hypochlorite is mixed with acetic acid or any other type of acid, it releases potentially lethal chlorine gas.
In 2016, the American Association of Poison Control Centers reported more than 6,300 exposures to chlorine gas. About 35% of these exposures were caused by mixing household cleaners.
Keep reading to find out if there are any situations when it's okay to mix bleach and vinegar together and what you should do if you accidentally breathe in chlorine gas.
Can You Mix Bleach and Vinegar?
Bleach can refer to any chemical that's used to get rid of stains or disinfect surfaces. The most typical form used as a cleaner is sodium hypochlorite. By itself, bleach can damage your skin but is non-toxic when inhaled. However, it can become potentially lethal to inhale when mixed with other household cleaners.
Sodium hypochlorite is made up of a sodium, oxygen, and chlorine atoms. When this molecule is mixed with the acetic acid in vinegar or other types of acid, it releases chlorine gas. Chlorine gas is extremely dangerous to human health. It's so powerful that Germany used it during World War I as a chemical weapon.
Vinegar isn't the only cleaner you need to be careful mixing with bleach. Bleach also reacts with ammonia to create chlorine gas. Bleach can also react to some oven cleaners, insecticides, and hydrogen peroxide.
Many household cleaners contain a chemical called limonene that gives them a citrus smell. When bleach fumes mix with limonene, they create small particles that may be damaging to both people's and animals' health. However, more research is needed to examine these particles' potential health risks.
Is it Safe to Mix Them in Small Amounts?
According to the Washington State Department of Health, even low levels of chlorine gas, less than 5 parts per million (ppm), is likely to irritate your eyes, throat, and nose. It's never a good idea to mix these two cleaners together.
Unlike some other dangerous chemicals like carbon monoxide, chlorine gives off a distinctly pungent and irritating odor. If you notice a strong smell after mixing cleaners, it's a good idea to immediately leave the area.
The severity of symptoms you develop after breathing in chlorine gas depends on how concentrated it is, measured in parts per million (ppm), and how long you inhale it.
- 0.1 to 0.3 ppm. At this level, humans can smell the pungent odor of chlorine gas in the air.
- 5 to 15 ppm. A concentration over 5 ppm causes irritation to the mucus membranes in your mouth and nose.
- Over 30 ppm. At a concentration higher than 30 ppm, chlorine gas can cause chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing.
- Above 40 ppm. Concentrations higher than 40 ppm can cause potentially dangerous fluid build-up in your lungs.
- Above 430 ppm. Breathing in more than 430 ppm of chlorine gas can be lethal within 30 minutes.
- Above 1,000 ppm. Inhaling chlorine gas above this level can be deadly immediately.
Can You Combine Bleach and Vinegar in a Washing Machine?
Mixing bleach and vinegar in your washing machine is also a bad idea. Chlorine gas may be released from your washing machine when you take your clothes out. It may also leave traces of chlorine gas on your clothes.
If you use bleach in your laundry, it's a good idea to wait several loads before using vinegar.
Symptoms of Exposure to a Bleach and Vinegar Reaction
The severity of the symptoms you'll develop after chlorine exposure depends on the amount of chlorine gas you inhale. Symptoms usually start fairly quickly. Most people exposed to low amounts of chlorine gas recover without complications.
If your exposure to chlorine gas is relatively brief, you may notice irritation of your nose, mouth, and throat. Lung irritation may develop if you breathe in chlorine deeply.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if you accidentally breathe in chlorine, you can experience the following:
What to Do if You Get Bleach and Vinegar on Your Skin or Inhaled Chlorine Gas Vapors
There's no cure for breathing in chlorine gas. The only treatment option is removing the chlorine from your body as quickly as possible and seeking immediate medical attention to treat your symptoms.
If you breathe in chlorine gas, you can follow these steps to help get the chlorine out of your system:
- Immediately go somewhere where you can breathe in fresh air.
- Change and wash any clothes that may have been contaminated.
If your symptoms are severe, call 911 or the National Capital Poison Center (NCPC) at 800-222-1222 and follow their instructions.
Spilling bleach can cause irritation to your skin. You can take the following steps to reduce your chances of developing complications:
- Remove jewelry or clothes that came in contact with bleach and clean them after you wash your skin.
- Rinse your skin with a sponge or an absorbent cloth over a sink.
- Avoid touching other parts of your body such as your face while cleaning.
- Seek immediate medical attention if you spill bleach in your eyes or if you burn your skin.
Vinegar may also irritate your skin. Even though it's unlikely to cause any serious health complications, it's a good idea to wash vinegar off your skin to avoid any redness or soreness.
Mixing bleach and vinegar creates potentially lethal chlorine gas. If you notice a pungent smell after mixing household cleaners, you should immediately leave the area and try to breathe in fresh air.
If you or somebody you know notice any symptoms of chlorine gas poisoning, it's a good idea to immediately call 911 or the NCPC at 800-222-1222.
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