Chlorine in Your Bleach?

By: Lizzie Caldwell

Through consistent pressuring from environmental watchdogs such as Greenpeace, Clorox has made plans to stop using chlorine in their bleach. This could be a good thing and a bad thing. Think of a swimming pool. Chlorine is extremely reactive, which makes it a really effective chemical to use against bacteria and other organic waste that can make us sick.  This is why we chlorinate pools every day. However, because chlorine is extremely reactive, it can be dangerous to our bodies and to the environment when it gets thrown into the ocean. This is why we are told not to swim in pools shortly after chlorine is thrown in. After a few hours, chlorine reacts with organic molecules that come from everyone’s mouths, feet, hair and skin to produce neutralized compounds that will not make us sick, and we can swim in the pools again. For the same reasons, chlorine in laundry detergent is good because it gets rid of those food and grass stains, but bad because it can be potentially harmful to us and the surrounding environment (after the waste with chlorine gets dumped into oceans).
Chlorine is strongly electronegative, which is what makes it reactive. Electronegativity is when an atom doesn’t have enough (or has too many) electrons to make it stable. If you look at the periodic table of elements, you can see the row of helium, neon, and argon is the last row on the right. These elements aren’t reactive because their “outer shell of electrons” are completely filled. Each outer shell, except for hydrogen and helium, has space for 8 electrons. The element directly before or directly after this last row has 1 too many electrons for stability or 1 too few electrons for stability.

Being so close to a stable state makes the element VERY eager to gain an electron or give away an electron. Chlorine in particular is very eager to gain an electron, and becomes attracted to other elements that are very eager to lose an electron. This trend holds true for any element in row 1 and 17. Row 18 is for the most stable elements, which is where neon and argon lie.

Chlorine is particularly bad for oceans because of this reactivity. When chlorine comes into contact with water (which consists of 2 hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen atom, thus H20), chlorine rips apart the bonds between those elements and can turn into various acids: hydrochloric acid (HCl), chloric acid (HClO3), perchloric acid (HClO4) and more. When we wash our clothes and our laundry detergent goes down the drains into the ocean, we are literally making the ocean more acidic.

Whether your background in chemistry is strong or weak, many people know that acid is bad! Luckily, the acid isn’t strong enough to harm humans, but fish and plants that live in the ocean are much more sensitive to the acid. Increasing the acidity of the ocean literally deteriorates ocean organisms. This is good for our swimming pools since we don’t want our swimming pools full of animals and wildlife – but do we want our oceans looking like our swimming pools? Lifeless and sterile? Where would our sushi and our crab cakes come from? Who would want to scuba dive anymore?

Of course, there is another portion to every argument. In this case people are concerned about how effective bleach without chlorine can be at removing stains we don’t want. One company, BleachTech, can make bleach directly from salt without isolating chlorine (table salt is made up of sodium molecules and chlorine molecules). Since the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2868, which requires high-risk chemical plants and water-treatment facilities to use safer processes or chemicals, other bleach and laundry detergent companies will follow suit to find safer and more eco-friendly alternatives instead of chlorine. Clorox has also made a statement that the new bleach will not be different in color, smell or quality. Thus, Clorox’s decision to remove chlorine from their bleach is a very good thing because it will prevent the environment from suffering further damage, while the quality is not compromised.

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Filed under Chemistry, Policy

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