Today is house cleaning day. Joan plans to scrub the bathroom floor. She fills a bucket with water and pours in the floor cleaner. "Might as well brighten the floor," she thinks as she adds the bleach. Uh oh! A strange-smelling gas comes out of the bucket and fills the room. She feels a scratchy sensation in her chest and begins to cough. What is happening to Joan?
Joan made a common house cleaning mistake when she combined ammonia with bleach. This combination results in an irritating fume called chloramine gas. Exposure to chloramine causes irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and airways. Symptoms include teary eyes, runny nose, sore throat, coughing and chest congestion. These symptoms may develop after only a few whiffs of chloramine and may last up to 24 hours. Some ammonia-containing products include floor, glass, and jewelry cleaners.
Another toxic fume can develop when bleach is added to a product containing acid. This combination produces chlorine gas which, like chloramine gas, causes irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Chlorine gas, however, causes more severe and long-lasting effects than chloramine. Some exposures to chlorine gas may require medical treatment. Common products containing acids include drain openers, toilet bowl cleaners, oven cleaners, and vinegar.
Susan is going to clean the shower tile. She sprays a mildew stain remover and begins to scrub. After a few minutes she experiences irritation in her throat, coughing, and sneezing; but she holds her breath and continues to clean. A short while later she is overcome by the fumes and runs out of the room to get fresh air. What has Susan done wrong?
Some products do not have to be mixed with other chemicals to cause irritating effects. Strong alkalis or acids such as drain openers, oven cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, or as in Susan's case — mildew stain removers — are strong enough on their own to make Susan feel "overwhelmed by the fumes." Inhalation of these substances may produce symptoms similar to those caused by chloramine and chlorine gases.
Susan should have opened the windows while cleaning and taken a break immediately after feeling uncomfortable. Potentially serious exposures usually occur when strong alkalis or acids are used in an enclosed, poorly ventilated area for a prolonged period of time.
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