Friday, April 22, 2011

Happy Earth Day: I got an email from Clorox Bleach!

As you may recall, last week I blogged a book review of Ellen Sandbeck's awesome book Green Housekeeping. Her book suggests many simple changes that you can make to green your home and lessen your cleaning load, but I listed just a few that we have adopted. One change I've made, based on the advice of Ms. Sandbeck and others, is to strictly limit my use of chlorine bleach in everyday household cleaning, because it is especially harmful to the environment.

Now, I'm not an ecologist, biologist, chemist, or any other kind of "ist." My statement about bleach was based entirely on the recommendations of others, who do have credentials. But I didn't think it was a particularly controversial statement, since I have never heard that bleach is good for the environment.

So you can imagine my surprise, when I received the following email on Wednesday morning:

Dear Inder,

We saw your post “Book Review: Green Housekeeping” and wanted to follow up with information about the safety of cleaning with bleach. On behalf of The Clorox Company, we certainly understand your concern for the environment, so we’d like to address some common misconceptions about bleach.

In your post, you talked about how bleach is detrimental to the environment. However, everyday consumer and commercial use of bleach as directed in laundering clothes or in disinfecting surfaces around the home or public places, such as schools and hospitals, is not harmful to the environment because bleach breaks down into salt and water.

In addition to being safe when used as directed, EPA-registered bleach products actually have health benefits. Here are some of benefits of using bleach:
·         Some EPA-registered bleach products, like Clorox® Regular Bleach, kill the pathogens most commonly found at home including E. coli, Salmonella and Influenza viruses.
·         Clorox® Regular-Bleach plays a critical role in your home, the hospital, child care centers, and other places throughout your community where killing germs that may cause deadly infections like MRSA is critical.
·         Bleach is one of the most widely available and affordable disinfectants on earth with a variety of uses that range from its role in helping to protect public health to preserving endangered species of frogs to cleaning up spacecrafts upon their return to earth. 

I hope you find this information to be helpful. Please feel free to pass this information on to your readers. To learn more about the common misconceptions about bleach, please visit and don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

Thank you for your time.

On behalf of Clorox

My first reaction to this email was "OMG! Someone reads my blog!!" (Even if it is just a bot, seeking out the word "Comet" on the internet.)

My second reaction was whoa, this must be part of a major marketing effort, if Clorox is going to take the trouble to email me, a small-time personal blogger with only a couple dozen regular readers.

Third. I need to blog about this issue! Too bad I'm not a scientist!

So, what the heck? I emailed Ms. Ellen Sandbeck herself. (She has a blog, of course. I love the modern world.) I forwarded the email from Clorox, and asked her if she would like to respond to their claims regarding the environmental safety of their product. Also, what's this about protecting endangered frogs?

I was delighted when she responded almost immediately and very thoroughly! Here is Ellen Sandbeck's response:

Hello Inder!

I am so pleased that you like Green Housekeeping! And frankly, it is a little scary that the Clorox Company is hunting down everyone who mentions bleach online. WOW!

I just looked up chlorine bleach in relation to preserving endangered frogs, and I believe the Clorox Company is referring to the fact that scientists who are monitoring endangered frog populations that are threatened by fungal diseases, use chlorine bleach to disinfect equipment so they don't transport frog diseases from one body of water to another. According to the Lake Monitoring Equipment Disinfection Protocol published by the Sierra Nevada Network: "We elected to use a chlorine bleach disinfection procedure. The alternative disinfectant is Quat-128. Quat 128 is not used in this protocol because it is a source of nitrogen contamination. We recognize that chlorine bleach is a source of sodium and chloride ion contamination. However, disinfecting is a necessary step, and, given our objectives, potential sodium and chloride contamination was the better of the two options." From other reading I have done about this topic, I gather that the one real hope for frogs seems to reside in beneficial bacteria--apparently some frog populations are naturally resistant to fungal diseases, and researchers have traced that immunity to these frogs' endemic bacteria. There is now a program to culture these beneficial frog-skin bacteria in order to inoculate vulnerable frog populations--the hope is that these beneficial bacteria will protect the inoculated frogs from the fungal diseases.

The frog researchers  are using miniscule quantities of bleach to clean out their equipment.
[In response to the contention that chlorine bleach breaks down into salt and water,] of course for millennia, armies have used sodium chloride as a very effective weapon of conquest: invade a country, salt the fields, and the populace starves. And even though chlorine bleach eventually breaks down to salt and water, along the way it reacts with every bit of organic material it encounters, and the product of these reactions are quite frequently carcinogenic. This is why the USDA was working to figure out a way to disinfect beef carcasses without using chlorine bleach.
The fastest effects, of course, are the chlorine gases that are produced when chlorine bleach combines with almost any other household cleaner. Chlorine gas and chloramine gas can both be deadly when they are produced in small, badly ventilated room, for instance a bathroom
in the winter...

The "Safe when used as directed" is all very well, but as far as I can tell, I may be the only person on the planet who always reads warning labels every time I use a potentially hazardous product. (Which frankly, isn't often, since I avoid all discretionary use of dangerous chemicals.) [Here is the MSDS for Regular Clorox Bleach.] Chemical producers know very well that approximately zero percent of customers actually read warning labels. Because the truth of the matter is, that if consumers actually read the warning labels on dangerous products, most people would be too terrified to use those

Methinks the Clorox Company protests too much. They must really be running scared.  There are lots of much safer ways to disinfect hospitals than by using chlorine bleach!

Thank you again for writing to me!


Thank you Ellen!

Readers, I hope this got you thinking about the everyday use of bleach in your home. You can do your own research, and make up your own minds.

Now, I understand that when it comes to living as "green" as possible, we all have to make compromises. Like the researchers who are studying those endangered frogs, we may sometimes choose to use a product because it is the best product  for the job, and in certain circumstances, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. And of course, there are different schools of thought on the environmental safety of particular chemicals in particular circumstances.

I think it's important to remember, however, that infections like MRSA are generally understood to be the product of overzealous use of antibiotics and disinfectants, which kill all but the strongest and nastiest of bacteria, leaving a breed of super-bad-bacteria in their wake. Furthermore, when we use bleach and other strong disinfectants, we may indiscriminately kill bacteria that is beneficial to humans and other wildlife and actually protects us from illness. Not all germs are bad. In fact, I was just enjoying a few of the yogurt-making variety this morning.

Let it be known, I am a big fan of modern medicine, antibiotics, and disinfectants (I've read too many Victorian novels to have any false nostalgia about life before the development of the germ theory) - these tools literally save lives every day. In my non-expert opinion, the key is to use these wonderful tools judiciously.

Which brings us back to everyday cleaning of our homes. I'm not an expert, I'm just a regular person trying to reduce her environmental footprint just a teensy bit. One thing I know: Chlorine bleach is poisonous, and I wouldn't want my very curious almost-two-year-old getting into a bottle of it. And I don't need bleach. For everyday cleaning, I can use other less poisonous products, with less scary warning labels.

It's as simple as that. I will continue to avoid using chlorine bleach in my home.

Happy Earth Day!


  1. well written response!

  2. Agree! Thanks for the very thoughtful and balanced post. Of course there's lots of other nasty things we pour down our pipes like detergent, etc., in much larger quantities than bleach, but being a fellow parent of a small child (and not much of a neat freak, conveniently in keeping with the hygiene hypothesis), not having bleach in the house is just fine with me.

    (Signed, a biologist)

  3. Shoot, are the green detergents any better?

  4. That is so freaky that the bleach people wrote to you!
    I am definitely in the vinegar-and-bicarb-soda cleaning camp, and even just bought 'soap nuts' (actual nuts off trees) to do the laundry. Jury out on effectiveness since I have only done two load so far. Our house is full of spiders because I am way more scared of chemicals that kill bugs, than the bugs themselves.
    Hmm, couldn't the frog people just boil equipment instead of bleaching, to sterilise? Maybe not practical out in the field.

  5. I'm found of dressing my children in pristine white clothing and then romping around in the grass and the dirt with them. And I always get the whites white again. And people sometimes tell me, "I bet you use a lot of bleach."

    And I say, "NEVER." I don't. Never bought a bottle in my life. Hate the shit.

    I hang whites in the sunshine and they always get whitey-white again.

    Facinating post.

  6. I got an email from the Clorox company after mentioning bleach on my blog, too--they really are desperate to maintain their image, aren't they? It goes to show that the choices we make as consumers do make a difference!

  7. Bravo Mama!!! That email is just scary! Goes to show the power in women supporting women! It is sad that these people are more interested in protecting their image than the environment and the health of our children. Or are they really so brainwashed the believe this stuff is good for their families?

  8. Amy: Wow.

    Nena: I'll give the woman who emailed me the benefit of the doubt and say I bet she does believe in her products. But also, I couldn't help but notice the many "qualified" statements she made. The letter carefully avoids making any completely unsupportable claims. To me, that is telling.

  9. Very nice post!!! Many people I know believe Bleach is safe and use it daily. My 2 yr old break out from head to toes if he comes in contact with bleach. Also someone dear to me was hospitalized after they used bleach and comit to clean the bathroom and fainted. It is very dangerous and yes the avergae consumer does not read the labels. Or maybe cant read the labels!!

  10. Um Aldulkarim, thank you! Yes, one of the points that Ellen Sandbeck makes in her book is that combining bleach with ammonia-based cleaning products can be very toxic and cause problems worse than fainting! Customers generally think, "They sell it at the grocery store, how poisonous could it be?" Answer: Pretty darn poisonous!


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