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The hidden hazards of drain cleaners

The hidden hazards of drain cleaners

Most people don’t think twice about pouring chemicals into a clogged sink. They should!

Marvelene Heim was fed up with her perpetually clogged kitchen sink. One February morning in 1999, the 72-year old great-grandmother poured commercial drain cleaner into the brackish water in the sink. Frustrated when that didn’t work, the Logan, Iowa resident decided to use something more powerful-an industrial-strength product that was 85 percent sulfuric acid and normally used by professionals. Instantly, a poisonous chlorine gas formed, scalding Heim’s lungs.

An hour later Heim died from respiratory failure. The retired schoolteacher had made the fatal mistake of mixing two chemically incompatible drain cleaners. The chlorine gas she had unwittingly concocted was so toxic-it was used as a chemical weapon in World War I-that her neighborhood was evacuated. Although Heim’s death was shocking, it was just one of the nearly 2,000 injuries that occur each year due to drain cleaners. Despite that figure, which includes everything from minor burns to total blindness, few consumers are aware of the cleaner’s potential dangers.

Chemical drain cleaners are one of the most hazardous household products you can buy. The two basic types, lyes and acids, are similar. Both work by dissolving and burning through hair, grease, and food particles. Highly corrosive, either type can cause severe damage to the skin after only brief contact. To avoid injuries:

  • Don’t peer into a drain after you’ve added a chemical cleaner. Acids cause water in the pipe to boil, sometimes sending a geyser of steam and acid out of drain.
  • Never use a plunger on a sink or tub that has been unsuccessfully treated with a drain cleaner-you could be splashed with caustic water. Call a plumber instead.
  • Never combine drain cleaners with any other products. Mixing cleaners with ammonia, bleach, or another drain cleaner-as Heim did-can be fatal.
  • Avoid using industrial-strength products, or those labeled for professionals only. The risk of injury is too high.

Decrease your chances of needing a drain cleaner by performing some preventative maintenance: Once a month, pour a half cup of baking soda followed by a half cup of vinegar down drains, then flush with cold water. At the first sign of slow-draining water, try using a plunger, or consider biological maintainers: microorganisms, sold in most hardware stores, that devour clog-causing organic material, then get flushed down the drain.

Read labels carefully
If a drain cleaner’s label says it’s not for use on fully clogged drains, believe it. Cleaners that state they are only for partial clogs, such as the latest foam products, usually can’t handle a totally blocked pipe.
And don’t be temped to ignore the label and use a drain cleaner in a backed-up toilet: If there’s residue from toilet-cleaning products in the bowl, and then you add a drain cleaner, you may create a toxic gas.



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  • Sarah Smith
    February 11, 2019, 10:03 pm REPLY

    I really appreciate your information that chemical drain cleaners can cause acidic steam to billow up from the drain. It sounds like it would be better to have the sewer drain cleaned professionally. We’ll start looking into a sewer drain cleaning specialist to help us before we have our guests over.

  • Braden Bills
    March 4, 2019, 4:24 pm REPLY

    I didn’t know that using chemicals to clean drains could be dangerous! Maybe it would be a good idea for me to get a professional to clean out my drains for me. They would be able to ensure that it gets drained properly.

  • Daphne Gilpin
    April 12, 2019, 5:28 pm REPLY

    I’m glad you mentioned that chemical drain cleaners are some of the most hazardous products you can buy, so it’s much better to leave the job to a plumber. My husband and I have been having a problem with a slow drain in our home’s bathtub. I’m glad I read your article because I was thinking about buying a chemical drain cleaner soon.

  • Braden Bills
    April 17, 2019, 3:00 pm REPLY

    I want to make sure that my drains are cleaned out properly. It makes sense that using drain cleaners might not be the best way to go about that! Maybe I should get a professional to help me out with this, since they would know the best methods to handle it without causing any damage.

  • Spencer Jordan
    February 25, 2020, 5:01 pm REPLY

    I agree that it’s always a good idea for regular maintenance so that it doesn’t get to the point that you need to hire a professional. Unfortunately, my kids have been letting the hair down their shower for a long time and it seems like it’s starting to back up. It’s time to call a plumber that has a lot of experience with clearing drains like ours.

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