This was an essay I wrote in 2013 after a rainy day art project involving bleach and several pairs of leggings. My sister and I had nothing else to do so we decided to beck out a couple pairs with bleached designs and patterns. I was fasinated with how the chemical interacted with dyes differently and I wanted to know more... and this essay is the result!
Bleach: A Memoir
A bottle of bleach falls on a pile of laundry, but not all of the fabrics that it splashes on are ruined. Why doesn’t bleach have the same affect on everything it meets? If it is caustic enough to burn holes through some fabrics, why isn’t the plastic container that it’s sold in affected? The chemical properties of bleach make it particularly harsh when interacting with organic compounds. How does this affect our environment when it is manufactured and used in industrial applications? Bleach and the bleaching process is part of our historical focus on cleanliness. From about the turn of the century, this has become a run-away freight train in the history of modern life and we will be forced to grapple with many issues – large and small – regarding our use of chemicals that eventually affect our environment. Do we need our toilet paper to be white? When we are staying for a week in a hotel, should the sheets on our beds be changed every day (and laundered using bleach that is dumped in the public sewer systems.) What is the environmental cost of this entire fixation on cleanliness? Are we prepared to change our preferences involving potable water, paper, PVC plastics, solvents, paints, insecticides and medicines? Bleach is a part of all those everyday items and many more. All these questions loom important as we grapple with the way our cultural expectations must change in order to preserve our planet by limiting the use and the toxic waste involved in making chemicals like bleach.
First some basic background on Chlorine, the key ingredient in bleach: Chlorine is a gas at room temperature - a green gas to be exact, hence the name from the Greek word meaning greenish-yellow, “chloros” – never found free in nature because it combines fervently with almost every other element. As you might know, this is because (as its group name – halogen – and atomic number of 17 suggests) it has a powerful drive to fill that outer valence shell that is missing one electron to be complete. Its electron shell configuration is: 1s2 , 2s2 2p6 , 3s2 3p5, so when a chlorine atom comes in contact with most other molecules, it usually strips that molecule of an electron and changes it forever. The process makes colored dyes fade, organisms die, wood changed to paper and highly reactive medicines can be created. Chlorine in its gaseous or liquid state is a very dangerous material to have to transport through our modern world during all phases of the manufacturing processes. It so severely irritates mucous membranes (by unraveling the proteins on the surface of the lungs) that a few breaths can be fatal. Because chlorine is 2 ½ times heavier than air, it stays near the ground when released. This property in combination with its disastrous affect on the lungs made it a perfect chemical weapon in WWI. Despite its hazards, two of the most common uses of chlorine are in hydrogen chloride (our subject in question: bleach) and sodium chloride (common Table salt).
Modern bleaches came out of the work of 18th century scientists, who discovered chlorine and then recognized that it could be used to bleach fabrics. The first scientists to make sodium hypochlorite (Eau de Javel, or Javel water) quickly discovered the disinfecting ability of hypochlorites. (1820-1910) It is not a coincidence that the whole concept of “disinfection” with bleach came right along with key discoveries in microbiology. The ground breaking work on microbes as the source of infection was done by scientists like Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, largely from 1840 to the turn of the century. We can trace our cultures’ fervency for disinfection back to the containment of some of the humanity’s most horrible diseases: Small Pox, Anthrax, Cholera, Rabies and Tuberculosis in that same time period. Once pathways of infection were understood, bleach was discovered to be an easily produced chemical that could break cycle of transmission of diseases that killed almost everyone who contracted them. That kind of success leaves a cultural memory that is self-reinforcing. If we are to replace the toxic chemicals used in the process of infection control with less noxious agents, they will have to prove near perfect efficacy from the outset before they will be widely accepted as a replacement for bleach.
The kind of bleach used in cleaning laundry (and the spill that I described in the opening sentence of this research paper) is a hydrochloric acid. This means it is a liquid solution made up of Hydrogen chloride and water. Hydrochloric acid is a very strong acid on its own, which is why it is in a solution of water to make bleach transportable, otherwise the acid would “burn” everything it touches, even at low concentrations. Bleach “bleaches” organic molecules by adding chlorine to the compound which removes the carbon bonds and breaks up the molecule. The molecules that make clothes “dirty” are quite large (organic stains, blood, sweat, body fluid, and soil). Bleach breaks up these big molecules into smaller ones that are easily rinsed away. Bleach “whitens” the substances it contacts because the color of a substance or organism is a physical property caused by the chemical structure of the molecules that it is made of. When an oxidizing agent removes electrons, or oxidizes, a molecule, the chemical structure of the molecule is changed and the physical property of color is altered. In the reaction that bleach has with organic compounds, chlorine acts as an oxidizer, which corrodes the structure of dye molecules in natural dyes, turning them white. “Oxidation” is simply the process of subtracting an electron. In a chemical formula, if a compound or element loses electrons it is be “oxidized”: It donates an electron. Rusting metal is the most commonly seen type of oxidation , but oxidation can take place in living organisms too. The molecules that make vital proteins in living organisms can be oxidized by bleach, killing pathogens when we want to disinfect surfaces or public water systems, but the process is not selective. Eventually these chlorine compounds enter waterways in our environment and they indiscriminately kill and disable many beneficial organisms, leaving our environment measurably of poorer.
When it comes to using bleach for our primary “ - because of the property of color-stability - Commercial dyes are almost completely inorganic, and they are rated by how easily they will break down, manufacturers want maximum color stability. Typically, they are much more stable than typical organic dyes, so although the bleach attacks everything, they often survive because their large molecules do not break apart easily. The main reason some of the laundry was ruined and some seemed untouched from our bleach spill is also because some fabrics are over-dyed to create very heavily saturated colors. In such cloth, the excess dye is fixed to the fabric using a bonding agent. Almost all completely synthetic fabrics are double protected this way. This is why the splashing of laundry bleach did not ruin all the clothes. That said, we must remember that the foundations of our existence are still organic – the air we breathe, the water that supports the food depend on stable molecules that are not disrupted by coming up against a highly reactive chemical like chlorine. Everyone knows this, yet manufacturers using chlorine bleach often release it into local water bodies. Once there, it has an effect on the metabolic processes of almost all life forms. Chlorine’s insatiable reactive properties interact with other minerals and elements to form a host of toxins like dioxins. In industry and environmental communities, they are referred to as, POP’s - "persistent organic pollutants" because they linger in the water or soil and take decades or centuries to disappear. Greenpeace calls dioxin “one of the most dangerous chemicals known to science”, and warns that it can contribute to cancer, endocrine disorders and other grave health problems. The West Virginia University Extension also links chlorine-based compounds, like dioxins, with low sperm count, testicular cancer and breast cancer due to their ability to mimic human hormones. The World Wildlife Fund also warns that these chlorine by-products can cause mutations, sterility and even extinction in wildlife species. The biggest threats being magnified by “bio-magnification”: initially microorganisms consume chlorine by-products in soil or water, then these organisms serve as food for larger species, and as the chemicals travel up the food chain this way, each species is subject to an increasingly higher accumulation of toxins and the ensuing mutations, disease, and often death.
In nature, the only place we find chlorine, is in combination with other elements and primarily sodium in the form of saltwater. 1.9% of the mass of seawater is chlorine ions. When it is found in soils, it can be inert or disastrous. In fact, plants contain various amounts of chlorine as micronutrients essential for chloroplast development and soils with less than two parts per million are not suitable for plant growth. Conversely, concentrations of chlorine in the soil of more than ten parts per million can cause catastrophic crop failures. This is one of the key problems with the threat of rising sea levels: It’s not necessarily that the ocean will rise daily by a fraction of a millimeter. It’s that ever rising storm surges will inundate more and more tillable land. And when the seawater recedes, the salt concentration left in the soil is often so high that crops can never be grown again to feed hungry populations.
Bleach is one of man’s most used, useful, and destructive inventions. Chlorine – the main component of bleach- is one of the most reactive elements on the planet, and in WWII as a weapon because of its ability to tear apart nearly any molecule it meets. In history, bleach was used as a disinfectant, and launched medical science into a new age of cleaner procedures and better treatments. Unfortunately bleach can be very harmful to the environment, in high concentrations it can have terrible effects on food production, even though it is the main component of slat and, of course salt water in the oceans. Despite the negative affects of bleach, this substance has been an integral part of human societal evolution and without its amazing chemical affects on organic matter, human medicine, marketing, chemistry, or society would not be at the point it is today.