Bleaching is the process of removing color from fabrics or clothing. The process of bleaching is also done to remove stains and is commonly used as a disinfectant. Bleach is so widely popular that you likely have a canister of it somewhere in your home. Used for decades, it has become a staple to clean and sanitize the home.
However, bleach cannot be ignored for what it is: a highly concentrated chemical agent. Thus, like many other chemicals, bleach has an impact on the environment and human health. But what are they? Let’s find out.
What is Bleach Made of?
You’ve likely used bleach dozens, if not hundreds of times, without fully knowing what bleach is made of. Your common liquid bleach consists of a few ingredients: sodium hypochlorite, sodium hydroxide, hydrogen peroxide, and calcium hypochlorite. Some, or all these compounds, depending on the brand/manufacturer, are diluted with water to make your typical liquid bleach.
Sodium hypochlorite, the main ingredient in bleach, is made from reacting chlorine with sodium hydroxide. Chlorine itself is a highly irritating element that is yellow-green in gas form.
How is Bleach Harmful To The Environment?
Bleach poses harmful impacts to the environment in a few ways. Specifically, bleach is a major concern for water quality, soils, and wildlife. Bleach is considered an unstable chemical solution, meaning it is highly reactive, corrosive, and can easily bind with other elements to create a new compound.
Bleach is difficult to regulate, as consumers are free to use bleach however they wish. Most of us are guilty of not reading the proper use instructions when using bleach. Use instructions are meant to protect the consumer and the environment. When used properly, bleach poses less risk but not zero risk.
When bleach is flushed down drains via toilets, washing machines, or other routes, it becomes mixed with all other wastewater if connected to urban systems. For homeowners who have independent water systems or wells, any wastewater is likely dispersed underground or flushed directly into the environment without treatment.
Both systems are challenging when attempting to mitigate pollutants or chemical agents like bleach. In most urban settings, wastewater is sent to water treatment facilities to be sanitized and filtered and is then released back into the environment: i.e., lakes, streams, rivers, the ocean, etc. However, water treatment systems cannot filter out 100% of pollutants or contaminants. Interestingly, bleaching agents are used in water treatment facilities to sanitize water before entering the environment.
What's more, a study published in the Nature Public Health Emergency Collection found that chlorine-based disinfectants (CBDs), like bleach, increased residual chlorine content up to 0.4 mg/L in Wuhan surface waters (ponds, lakes) during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic between years 2020 and 2021. This confirmed that bleaching agents were making their way into water bodies at elevated rates post-water treatment. The study also accounted for runoff water sources, which do not go through a treatment process.
The environmental impact of such compounds in water bodies can have reproductive and/or neurological effects on aquatic species and those higher in the food chain that may consume them. Soils and sediment may also bind with the compounds, storing them within soils for a longer period of time as it degenerates.
How is Bleach Harmful To Human Health?
Bleach use has been shown to cause respiratory inflammation, including cough, chest tightness, and general breathing discomfort. Bleach should never be ingested and could cause severe reactions if ingested.
While proper use of bleach can help reduce negative health effects, like wearing a mask and gloves when handling bleach, not all risks can be mitigated. Those with asthma or other respiratory conditions should be especially cautious when using bleach.
Bleach refers to a large class of compounds used to whiten or color-lighten materials, and is often made with sodium hypochlorite.
Bleach escapes into the environment through water treatment plants and individual residential sewer systems, which are left untreated.
Bleach can have long-term environmental impacts and human health impacts, which are of concern.