Thursday, March 1, 2012

Adventures in Household Chemistry

Better living through chemistry, they said. Sure, some of those plastic-wrapped chemical concoctions you pick up at the drugstore can make things a bit easier around the home, but just as often they won't do the job any better than ordinary spit and vinegar and elbow grease. What's more, those are all common, innocuous, generally harmless things. The stuff you'll find in household cleaners? Not so much. The danger of mixing ammonia and bleach is big enough that it should be taught in the schools, but there's plenty else hiding inside those spray cans. Plenty else that can take the form of hard lessons.

The other night I was motivated to clean up my apartment a bit, the washroom in particular. I'd picked up some Clorox tile cleaner for just such an occasion and so I started with that, spraying it over the tiles and leaving it for five or ten minutes to do its work. When I came back the air had a sharpness to it and a harsh chemical smell that took me back to the swimming pools of the Allandale Rec Centre circa 1993, and I cleaned it off the tiles as well as I could - though it didn't end up doing as good of a job as I'd hoped it would do. A bit later, I took my less caustic, general cleaner and used it to get rid of what had been building up on the bathtub - not on the tiles, mind you. After a couple of minutes it was all sparkles and things were looking pretty good, the way I saw it.

I made an egg sandwich for near-midnight dinner (yeah, yeah), and while I was hanging around the microwave I noticed an odd smell at the edge of my perception. Scratchy, acrid, almost hollow... were the eggs off? I checked the rest of the dozen and they were fine, good well into March, and while the smell seemed oddly localized it persisted. Come to that, the harsh, sharp tang of the tile cleaner seemed still strongly present in the washroom. Had I run into this issue fifteen years ago I might have been sunk, but a search for "rotten egg smell" took me straight to the Wikipedia page on hydrogen sulfide.

"It is a colorless, very poisonous, flammable gas," quoth the Wiki, "with the characteristic foul odor of rotten eggs."

Well then, that's... encouraging? I went over the tile cleaner's label and instructions carefully, and found a note stating "DANGEROUS GAS FORMED WHEN MIXED WITH ACID." I check over the ingredient list of the other cleaner, and what do you know... the fourth on the list is lactic acid.


Sure, look unthreatening now.

But "dangerous gas?" There are lots of dangerous gases, buddy. Aside from a few inert ones that don't really make a difference this way or that should they get into your lungs, generally it's bad news to be breathing anything other than the standard oxygen-nitrogen mix. The Tilex website was singularly unhelpful in telling me whether or not I was dealing with hydrogen sulfide; while it did put to rest any lingering doubts that I'd stumbled into mixing ammonia and bleach to create a nice big billowing of cyanide gas, I couldn't really know what I was dealing with. Tilex doesn't list its ingredients; they can only be inferred from what the bottle says to not mix it with.

I didn't figure much of whatever it was had been created; while I was spraying, a small bit of the tile cleaner must've ended up on parts of the bathtub I later spritzed with the other cleaner, and that was what had reacted. I wasn't really interested in taking a chance, so I ventilated my apartment to the best of my abilities - from opening all the windows, even though it was only two or three degrees and raining outside, to turning on the oven fan. After more than two hours of this there were no traces of rotten eggs and the smell in the bathroom had lost much of its bite, so I closed the main room window - though I left the one in my bedroom open a crack through the night. Better safe than sorry, and so on. When I woke up, everything was normal.

Lucky me.

I know I was an idiot. I know in the future I'll pay even closer attention to cleaning product labels. Hell, I'll use different cleaners in the same room on separate days. What really got my goat about this was Tilex's singular unhelpfulness when I was attempting to figure out what "dangerous gas" I was dealing with. "Yep, dangerous gas," the website seemed to say, smugly. "Good luck with that, buddy." And for what - for the protection of trade secrets?

I can't help but think that the corporation's right to keep its ingredients secret should end where my nose begins; the nose that would be inhaling the dangerous gases those secret ingredients can potentially create.

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