This article is not so much a health reform post as it is perhaps a public service announcement–or a warning. Two weeks ago I found myself sitting in an Emergency Room hooked up to a steady stream of oxygen; the recipient of various and sundry breathing treatments. My follow-up visit to the doctors’ brought more breathing treatments, a steroid prescription, and the assurance that the x-rays showed that my lungs had suffered no permanent damage and that my breathing would return to normal in a week or two to a month. For the most part, it has.
The culprit? Drain cleaners–specifically: two kinds inadvertently mixed. I heaved and coughed and choked as though my lungs were on fire for almost an hour before I made my way to the hospital. I simply could not breathe, and breathing itself was (and remained for almost a week) painful. But I kept my head, and remembered to bring the offending chemicals with me.
To make a long story short, the sink upstairs in my old house was clogged. I purchased a nondescript drain cleaner which contained hydrochloric acid. Unbeknownst to me, my upstairs tenant had already poured drain cleaner in the sink but did not tell anyone. When I made my way to the sink, it was filled with a pool of blue liquid. On the sink counter was a bottle of blue liquid hand soap. I assumed that the liquid filling the the sink was the blue hand soap mixed with water which would not drain. I was wrong, and dangerously so. The blue liquid was another kind of drain cleaner; it contained sodium hypochlorite–which is bleach.
Apparently, the combination of hydrochloric acid and sodium hypochlorite (bleach) creates chlorine gas–which was used for chemical warfare early in World War I, a precursor to mustard gas. The following passage, culled from a few different sources will relay the pertinents better than I can:
Concentrated hydrochloric acid (fuming hydrochloric acid) forms acidic mists. Both the mist and the solution have a corrosive effect on human tissue, with the potential to damage respiratory organs, eyes, skin, and intestines. Upon mixing hydrochloric acid with common oxidizing chemicals, such as sodium hypochlorite (bleach, NaClO) or potassium permanganate (KMnO4), the toxic gas chlorine is produced.
Chlorine is a toxic gas that irritates the respiratory system. Chlorine is detectable in concentrations of as low as 0.2 ppm. Coughing and vomiting may occur at 30 ppm and lung damage at 60 ppm. About 1000 ppm can be fatal after a few deep breaths of the gas. Breathing lower concentrations can aggravate the respiratory system, and exposure to the gas can irritate the eyes.
Chlorine’s toxicity comes from its oxidizing power. When chlorine is inhaled at concentrations above 30ppm it begins to react with water and cells which change it into hydrochloric acid (HCl) and hypochlorous acid (HClO).
Chlorine gas, also known as bertholite, was first used as a weapon in World War I by Germany on April 22, 1915 in the Second Battle of Ypres. As described by the soldiers it had a distinctive smell of a mixture between pepper and pineapple. It also tasted metallic and stung the back of the throat and chest. Chlorine can react with water in the mucosa of the lungs to form hydrochloric acid, an irritant which can be lethal. The damage done by chlorine gas can be prevented by a gas mask, or other filtration method, which makes the overall chance of death by chlorine gas much lower than those of other chemical weapons. It was pioneered by a German scientist later to be a Nobel laureate, Fritz Haber of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, in collaboration with the German chemical conglomerate IG Farben, who developed methods for discharging chlorine gas against an entrenched enemy. It is alleged that Haber’s role in the use of chlorine as a deadly weapon drove his wife, Clara Immerwahr, to suicide. After its first use, chlorine was utilized by both sides as a chemical weapon, but it was soon replaced by the more deadly gases phosgene and mustard gas.
I was exposed to the blue pool of gas for about ten minutes all told as I attempted to clear the sink in various ways. At first I believed that the irritation and coughing was being caused by the drain cleaner merely doing its work, and that I had just gotten an untoward whiff. Later, when I saw the offending bottle of drain cleaner tucked away in the corner and realized I had mixed two kinds of poison together I got air but had to go back to bail out the liquid so it would not continue to emit the gas and endanger others. I warned my son, gave him both bottles of drain cleaner and told him I had inhaled the gas from them, that I had to go back upstairs to clear the sink, and that if something were to happen to me he was to call 911, tell them what happened and give them the bottles of drain cleaner. I didn’t pass out.
The vicious coughing, inability to breathe, and pain got considerably worse in the next half hour. The oxygen and breathing treatments at the hospital helped a great deal, as did those I received at the doctors’ next day. The worst of it lasted about 4 days, though now I’m almost entirely back to snuff.
The truth is, I know to not mix two kinds of drain cleaner together, but made an incorrect and costly assumption regarding the origin of the blue liquid. But as I’ve told this story over the last two weeks, I was surprised at how many people did not know. Thus this post.
Having said that, although I did know that one wasn’t supposed to mix these common household products together, I certainly didn’t know that doing so could create a gas so toxic it was once used for chemical warfare. And having said that, not to let the J.D. at the end of my name take over, but the warnings on the labels of these two products which are sold right next to each other come nowhere close to expressing the magnitude of the harm of which they are capable of in combination. The small type letters on the back of the bottle would do far better service as large letters highlighted by a skull and crossbones on the front. More effective labeling could, I believe, without significant cost have a significant impact on health and safety.