Toxicity Hazards of Household Drain Cleaners
By: Tony Burda and Irene Hong
The title of this piece is a common question asked by students, residents, and new employees undergoing training at the Illinois Poison Center (IPC). I could come up with several things that are pretty scary for kids and pets to get into, such as charcoal lighter fluid or antifreeze. But, in my opinion, the most dangerous chemicals that can be found in the average household are those used to open or clean drains and sewers.
Tony: This lesson was made crystal clear to me in a very tangible way shortly after starting to work in the poison center. I had moved into an older home and discovered that the second floor bathroom sink drained slowly. I tried using bleach and plunging with no improvement in the problem. So I purchased some crystal drain opener, tossed in a spoonful into the drain, added water, and waited for the magic to happen. Within minutes, I could hear the water literally boiling in the gooseneck of the drainpipe. Strange smells emanated from the sink drain. I became curious so I touched the drainpipe just to see how hot it got. To my amazement, the pipe was so hot I could have burned myself if I latched onto it for even a short period of time. I stood in amazement and thought to myself – “Good heavens! Now I know the horrendous injury and pain a kid must go through just from taking a mouthful of this wicked stuff.” That day, I really learned to respect and fear drain openers to the extent that I didn’t even want to keep a container of them in my house anymore. Even under lock and key, I couldn’t be sure that my two explorative toddler princesses wouldn’t find their way into a locked cabinet and potentially suffer serious damage to their eyes, skin, or internal organs.
Drain openers are usually chemicals which are strongly alkaline (basic) or acidic. For all of you who swore to never have anything to do with inorganic chemistry since graduating high school, this means chemicals with pH measurements of 13 or greater and 2 or less, respectively. Examples of drain openers which are alkaline are those which contain sodium or potassium hydroxide, possibly in combination with bleach, while acidic formulations contain concentrated sulfuric or hydrochloric acid.
These chemical poisons are termed “caustics” or “corrosives” because of their potential to cause significant burn injury to any body tissue they come in contact with (eyes, skin, mouth, gastrointestinal tract, or lungs). The extent of injury will depend on factors such as amount and concentration of the product, duration of exposure, surface area involved, whether any protective clothing or safety glasses were worn, and how quickly decontamination procedures are undertaken.
There a several things you should do and just as many things you should NOT do after a caustic exposure, therefore if you ever get these toxic chemicals in your mouth, eyes, or on your skin, etc., ALWAYS call the IPC at 1800-222-1222.
And remember: Regardless of the route of exposure, NEVER, NEVER try to be a home chemist, (i.e. do not attempt to neutralize acids with things like baking soda or antacids, or give vinegar or citrus juice to a patient exposed to alkali). Neutralization reactions release heat, further damaging tissues.
Here are some tips on safe use of chemical drain openers or safer alternative techniques:
- Wear protective gloves, clothing, and eyewear. Avoid any direct contact with the products and inhalation of their vapors.
- Read and heed all labeled instructions and warnings.
- When using these chemicals, keep children and pets far away. Allow for ventilation of any harmful vapors.
- An alternative technique is to pour 1 cup of baking soda into the clogged drain, followed by 3 cups of boiling water. If the drain is still clogged, pour 1 cup of vinegar into the drain. This procedure may be attempted several times over 2 days.
- Products are available which work by releasing gas under pressure. Never use these products on drains previously treated with caustics as there may be splash backs of residual chemicals.
- Enzymatic drain openers are sold which contain enzymes derived from cultured bacteria. These work by chemical and biological mechanisms and may work more slowly than caustics. Although less dangerous than caustic products, enzymatic products may cause irritation to eyes and skin.
- Store the chemicals in a safe place, preferably a locked cabinet.
In any poisoning exposure, call the IPC on its national toll-free hotline: 1-800-222-1222. Be safe!