No Chlorine Bleach for My Cloth Diapers, Thanks

Last week I wrote about the glorious sunshine as safe alternative to bleach. Let’s talk more about bleach.

Beyond knowing that a diaper washed in chlorine bleach wears out more quickly, what do you need to know about bleach before you wash your cloth diapers?

Chlorine bleach is a solution of sodium hypochlorite. Putting bleach into our water systems is a concern both for the chemicals it breaks down into, organochlorines, as well as for the damage it does as chlorine bleach before it breaks down.

Because chlorine bleach is a strong oxidizing agent, it attacks proteins. It would dissolve a wool diaper cover, for example. Cellulose is more resistant to degradation by chlorine bleach than protein fibers, but your cotton diapers will break down as well.

Despite rumors to the contrary, washing cloth diapers in hot water and chlorine bleach will not create dioxons. Chlorine does, however, react with organic matter to create other chlorine by-products, organochlorines.

Manufacturers of chlorine cleaning products will tell you that chlorine by-products are treated by wastewater treatment systems. Wastewater treatment officials will tell you that wastewater systems are not designed to treat chlorine by-products. The reactions between human waste and chlorine create chemicals that are not treated and are discharged to waterways, making their way into ground water. Because wastewater systems are not designed to treat these chemicals, they are often ignored in wastewater sampling. Little study has been made of the impact of these chemicals in our waterways but please follow the resources listed below for more information on the chemical body burden created by these organochlorines. Wastewater treatments systems are designed to treat human waste not chemicals, medicines, or even pulp and polymers from disposable diapers.

What are the effects of chlorine bleach?

  • Chlorine bleach is stabilized with sodium hydroxide, which is highly alkaline and damaging to wildlife in our waterways.
  • Chlorine bleach produces chlorine gas when mixed with acids (such as vinegar, which is often used in cloth diaper washing).
  • Chlorine gas is lethal in an enclosed space, dissolves readily in water, and contaminates the water supply.
  • Chlorine bleach produces chloramines when mixed with ammonia or URINE. Chloramines produce carcinogens in the water supply.
  • Chlorine bleach reacts with other chemicals present in household products (such as fragrances and surfactants) producing other poisonous and carcinogenic byproducts.

Even if the overall contribution of each of these effects is small, it makes sense to avoid chlorine bleach if other methods give the same outcome. Just because it’s been ubiquitous for so long doesn’t make it the best choice.

You do have choices, and you do not have to use chlorine bleach to wash your cloth diapers. The Real Diaper Industry Association, a cloth diaper industry trade association, recommends using oxygen bleach on cloth diapers when whitening is necessary.

Oxygen bleach contains hydrogen peroxide or other peroxide-releasing compounds. Low concentrations of hydrogen-peroxide, like those used in laundry products, decompose into oxygen and water.

Given the issues with the body burden of organochlorines, the natural choice is to use the sun to bleach your diapers. The next best choice is to use hydrogen-peroxide-based oxygen bleach, which breaks down harmlessly.

Resources on Organochlorines

  • Chemical Body Burden.
  • Executive Summary, Body Burden: The Pollution in People, Environmental Working Group.

UPDATE: August 1, 2009

I don’t suppose it will surprise you that a publicist from a large PR firm working for a well-known brand of chlorine-derived bleach noticed this post.

I made it very clear above that “Chlorine bleach is a solution of sodium hypochlorite.” It is only incorrect to call sodium hypochlorite solutions “chlorine bleach” because the manufacturers would like it be so—because their brand name creates a publicity issue for them as people learn the impact of chlorine on the environment in the production of bleach and in the wastewater stream. Clearly, chlorine bleach manufacturers would like to recast their products and their reputations.

Chlorine bleach is so called not because it contains chlorine, but because chlorine is used in its manufacture (as chlorine gas is bubbled through a caustic soda solution). No other type of bleach is manufactured using chlorine, so the name makes sense for that reason. The description has probably lasted for so long because chlorine is synonymous with chemicals that kill things—which, of course, is also the problem with chlorine bleach. When the name was first chosen, doubtless it carried implications of a powerful disinfectant, back in the days when those sorts of harsh chemicals were viewed by consumers as a good thing. The branding worked in the beginning but not so much now.

Times have changed, and it’s tough to cast chlorine gas bubbled through caustic soda solution (sodium hyppochlorite) as a friendly household cleaner.

If anyone tries to tell you that chlorine bleach “just degrades to table salt,” tell them that using chlorine in the manufacture of chlorine bleach puts workers in that industry at risk, and, when mixed with common household chemicals, produces chlorine gas and other harmful compounds in the wastewater system—compounds that are not treated but just discharged into waterways. There is much more to the issue of wastewater than that, since the chlorine gas and other harmful compounds can even inhibit the wastewater treatment process, effecting the water that comes back to you in your house. There are many issues that should preclude the use of chlorine bleach. So much more could and should be said on this subject.

Using the word “household” to describe chlorine bleach is an effort to make it seem harmless. That’s what publicists do.

Nice to know the indexing is working.

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