Use Care When Mixing Cleaning Chemicals

When you’re young, you look at television and think, there’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought.

— Steve Jobs

Figure 1:  British Soldeirs Blinded By Chemical Weapons During WW1.

Figure 1: British Soldiers Blinded By Chemical Weapons During WW1.

I sat down tonight and watched the History Channel, which was showing a documentary called "WW1: The First Modern War". This is an excellent multi-part series, with tonight's topic being called "Clouds of Death" and it was about the first use of chemical agents as weapons.

The show reminded me of a man I met when I was a boy (early 1970s) and I worked in a nursing home as a night janitor. At the home, we had many WW1 veterans. I will never forget one WW1 veteran who had been permanently disabled during a chemical attack. I do not know what gas he was exposed to (he mentioned chlorine gas, mustard gas, and phosgene), but I do know he had a bad case of emphysema that made his life miserable.

I learned about this gentleman's history after we had a chemical poisoning incident at the nursing home. The incident involved a nurse who mixed cleaning chemicals together, which I would argue NEVER should be done. The nurse had decided that a shower needed to be cleaned really well and it seemed like a good idea to mix  chlorine bleach and an ammonia-based cleaner. Unfortunately, this mixture created a gas that sickened the nurse. The chemical reaction is rather complex, so I will refer to Ann Marie Helmenstine's excellent discussion of the topic. Some folks have inadvertently hurt themselves by mixing bleach with toilet bowl cleaner, which can generate chlorine gas (reference). Chlorine gas is also generated when mixing vinegar and bleach, another common source of cleaning agony. For the details on the chemistry behind these safety hazards, see another of Ann Marie's posts.

The nurse recovered, but it was a talk of the nursing home for days. Occasionally, you will read an article about someone dying because of their mixing of cleaning chemicals, but this is rare.

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4 Responses to Use Care When Mixing Cleaning Chemicals

  1. CC says:

    I generally take the stance that no cleaning chemical should be mixed with anything other than water. Not because there are no safe combinations, but because the chemistry knowledge required to find those safe combinations is more than the vast majority of people have. (I don't say that in a disparaging way; a lot of people don't take high school chemistry and of those who did, most haven't used it and thus don't remember most of it. It's a huge field and I certainly don't pretend to know everything about it even though my job is in the area.)

    • mathscinotes says:

      I have to agree with you. I have seen SO many issues with people mixing chemicals unknowingly. To this day, I will never forget the sight of that nurse running out of that bathroom gagging. I thought she was dying.

      While this does not involve mixing chemicals, another nasty situation I have seen is when plumbers are called into a house for a stuck drain and the homeowner has tried some sort of chemical to clear the obstruction, but doesn't tell the plumber what they did. I have seen plumbers get burned in that situation.

  2. Faith says:

    Some chemicals shouldn't be mixed together. In fact, these chemicals shouldn't even be stored near each other on the chance that an accident could occur and the chemicals could react. Be sure to keep incompatibilities in mind when reusing containers to store other chemicals

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