Few of us will have got through our lives without knowing what chlorine smells like. Most public swimming pools – and nearly every private pool bigger than a toddler’s paddling pool – usually have chlorine added. In many places, chlorine is added to the water as a disinfectant.
However, chlorine does have its “dark side” and can be extremely dangerous if mishandled. Should you have chlorine bleach in your household? Read the pros and cons and decide.
1. Chlorine is extremely effective as a bleach. A good soak in a solution of chlorine bleach (not concentrated bleach – that’s too tough on materials) will completely strip most stains from white cottons (the exceptions that this writer has encountered have been oil stains, and grass stains on cricket whites). Be careful what you soak in chlorine bleach. It strips colour completely, so chlorine should never come near coloured items. Also read the care labels on anything that isn’t cotton to check for “do not use chlorine bleach” warnings.
However, this bleaching action of chlorine makes it suitable for adding creative effects to darker coloured cotton clothing, e.g. acid-washing or reverse tie-dyeing denim jeans.
2. Chlorine is a very effective germ-killer. It is three times as effective as bromine at killing nasties like E. coli, and is six times as effective as chlorine. This is why chlorine is added to water supplies and to swimming pools to prevent infections and water-borne diseases. It also kills amoebas and viruses as well as bacteria.
This germ-killing and whitening ability makes chlorine very good for soaking cloth nappies made from towelling or bleach (and chlorine bleach is usually cheaper than the oxidisation powders often sold for whitening nappies). It is also useful for killing germs around the toilet and in bathroom surfaces. Because chlorine does not bleach the colour out of plastics, it is very good for cleaning things like shower curtains. In solution, it can also be used to clean the insides of fridges and microwave ovens, but you will need to rinse well afterwards.
1. Chlorine can be fatal if the gas in inhaled. You know how the fumes from swimming pools smell. You need to be very careful when using chlorine in a small enclosed space where you are likely to have your head down low – the typical example would be if you are cleaning around the outside of a toilet. Chlorine gas is heavier than oxygen and sinks to the bottom of the room, and if the room is poorly ventilated, you can get in trouble.
2. Chlorine is lethal when mixed with other house cleaning products. Never, ever mix any chlorine based product with an ammonia based product, as the two will combine to make ammonium chloride, which was used in chemical warfare in the trenches of WWI. This gas reacts with the mucous membranes of the throat, eyes and lungs to become the highly corrosive hydrochloric acid. Those of you who have read Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum” will have read a description of the effects of inhaling this gas. You probably need to be careful when soaking nappies in a chlorine solution, as urine can give off a bit of ammonia, but as long as you’re not using straight chlorine bleach or too strong a solution, and you change the solution daily, you shouldn’t have any problems – this writer didn’t).
3. Chlorine is an irritant on your skin – many people often complain of itchiness and dry, flaky skin after swimming in a chlorinated swimming pool. Chlorinated water can also have an interesting effect when it comes in contact with bleached blonde hair (which includes hair bleached by the sun) as it can form a greenish deposit on the hair that is very noticeable in lightened hair. While a chlorine bleach solution is very effective at getting inkstains off your hands, you need to rinse it off well and use a rich hand cream afterwards. If you use chlorine for general domestic cleaning, use rubber gloves.
Chlorine-based gases are implicated in the destruction of the ozone layer and as a greenhouse gas. The most notorious offenders are CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) in aerosols. Some of these are released by household bleach.