Aargh, accidentally mixed bleach and ammonia in washing machine -- help?
February 26, 2016 9:35 AM   Subscribe

I did something stupid. I had some laundry that I needed to whiten and disinfect, so I put in some powdered bleach. And then, just to top it off, I added in some sanitizing liquid (Dettol Sensitive) into the same compartment. Only after I ran the wash (on hottest temperature) did I realize that I had accidentally mixed ammonium and bleach. (The Dettol appears to be ammonium based.) Now what?

So after this happened, I opened the washing machine -- no crazy smells, but I did sneeze a few times. I took the laundry out, thought better of it, and put them back in (washing my hands afterwards.) I ran the wash a few times on cold, and it's still in the washing machine. I feel really bad about it.

So my question is: how much damage have I done? Do I need to throw out the laundry? Is there anything else I can do to clean out the washing machine (i.e., will it cause problems in later washes?) What more can I do?

posted by heavenknows to Home & Garden (22 answers total)
I don't have a concrete answer for you, but I bet you can get one from your local poison control center if you're in the US. The national hotline number to get connected to one is 1-800-222-1222.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:41 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

I expect that unless you see holes in your laundry that you are OK. The chlorine that was liberated by the reaction was washed away by the rinses you did, and the gas that made you sneeze has been diluted away. Open the windows if you think you need to, but dry your laundry and look it over.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 9:44 AM on February 26, 2016 [12 favorites]

Powdered bleach- you mean like clorox2? I don't think you can get chlorine based powdered bleach, so you are probably fine. Even if you had mixed ammonia and bleach, the danger is when they are first mixed(exothermic reaction and chlorine gas) not after everything has gone through the wash multiple times.
posted by rockindata at 9:45 AM on February 26, 2016 [15 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmmm, rockindata, I'm intrigued. This is the powdered laundry bleach I used and it says no chlorine . . .
posted by heavenknows at 9:48 AM on February 26, 2016

No expert here, but get some windows open and ventilate, fast! Get pets and kids somewhere away while you deal with this. If you have a portable fan and a window in your laundry area, use it to pull contaminated air outside.

. I would set washer to spin out, and run a water only cycle to rinse everything. Maybe do this a couple of times. I have done this very thing and the fumes from the chemical reaction are dangerously caustic!! Once I drained the washer and refilled with just water, the fumes susided quickly, and my laundry was OK. I can't comment on what happens when the chemicals go down the drain. We have a septic tank and nothing bad occurred.
posted by LaBellaStella at 9:52 AM on February 26, 2016

Nothing to worry about. The concentration of ammonia (actually, didecyldimethylammonium chloride) in your particular brand of Dettol is so low to begin with, and you used a really tiny amount too, relatively speaking. That particular flavor of ammonia isn't as reactive as ammonia itself, and won't produce the dreaded chloramine gas but rather probably something like didecylmethylchloramine which stays in the wash water since it's a huge molecule and thus not as volatile. Any other products (chlorine gas, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid) of that reaction are very likely long gone by now - they'd have been formed in relatively small quantities, and they're water-soluble, so they'll have come out in the rinse.

Bottom line: your clothes are safe to wear, and your washing machine is fine. There's nothing more to do. This particular worry is more of a bigger deal in chemistry labs where people leave tubs of highly concentrated ammonia or bleach about, and don't label them. Then someone goes and inadvertently dumps one tub into the other, possibly when cleaning them out - now that could be a huge deal.
posted by un petit cadeau at 9:52 AM on February 26, 2016 [35 favorites]

just to confirm unpetit cadeau, here's a thread with some science including
Reaction between ammonia and sodium percarbonate will make some ammonium nitrite but it will rapidly break down to form nitrogen and water.
(your bleach is sodium percarbonate and the dettol contains ammonia; nitrogen is basically air and water is, well, water).
posted by andrewcooke at 9:57 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you had created chlorine gas you would know by the smell. If you did create chlorine gas it will dissipate pretty quickly. I'd run the wash again just with water, and maybe open the windows.
posted by gregr at 9:59 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, taking a look at your bleach, it's got sodium percarbonate in it. While it's still an oxidizer like bleach, it's a super weak one, so it reacts really, really slowly (much slower than bleach, in fact) with ammonia and other ammonia-based compounds. (Which is also why it doesn't work as well as bleach - it doesn't react as much) You're 100% safe ๐Ÿ˜Š
posted by un petit cadeau at 9:59 AM on February 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

So after this happened, I opened the washing machine -- no crazy smells, but I did sneeze a few times.

My dad used to work in a chemical plant that handled large amounts of chlorine, and on more of one occasion was exposed to non-trivial amounts of chlorine gas. If you accidentally created chlorine gas, you would know by now, I assure you.

Open the windows for a while if you're concerned.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 10:02 AM on February 26, 2016 [3 favorites]

Chlorine gas is, chemically, very similar to freshly cut onions. At low concentrations you would start crying and coughing, higher and all your mucous membranes would be melting and your skin burning due to the strong acids. It's basically a chemical weapon, and as others said, you would know if you made chlorine gas, it is not something to play around with.
posted by wnissen at 10:07 AM on February 26, 2016

Just to be clear, you've not made chlorine gas in either quantity or concentration to warrant being concerned about.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:11 AM on February 26, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you had done something bad, you would know. Lesson learned, bullet dodged.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:20 AM on February 26, 2016

Dettol is phenol based.
posted by w0mbat at 10:23 AM on February 26, 2016

Take a look at the formula: Sodium percarbonate + ammonia (2Na2CO3 ยท 3H2O2 + NH3)
No chlorine anywhere in this reaction. No chlorine gas.
posted by chevyvan at 10:24 AM on February 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, if you'd made chlorine gas, you'd know about it. I've worked with it a couple times. I've not smelled it, but it is a really obvious ugly green colour, so you'd see it pretty quickly.

As others have said, there is no chlorine there, and only a weak oxidizing agent, so you got lucky.
posted by Canageek at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Mixing traditional bleach (Sodium Hypochlorite, NaOCl) with ammonia doesn't release chlorine gas. What it creates is Chloramine, which isn't great but isn't as nasty as chlorine.

In small quantities Chloramine isn't poisonous. It's used by most water systems these days instead of chlorine to sterilize drinking water, so it's in every glass of water you drink from the tap.

In large quantities it isn't great, of course, but it also happens to be extremely soluble in water so it isn't likely to boil off much. You can tell you've created it because the water turns green.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:46 AM on February 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone -- I'm really reassured by this! I was definitely lucky, and lesson learned indeed.
posted by heavenknows at 11:02 AM on February 26, 2016

In small quantities Chloramine isn't poisonous. It's used by most water systems these days instead of chlorine to sterilize drinking water, so it's in every glass of water you drink from the tap.

I don't happen to know whether chloramine or chlorine is nastier in large amounts in the gas phase but both can be and conversely it's not like other sources of chlorine - which may also be used to sterilize water - in solution at low concentration are going to be very acutely toxic. (Also I was under the impression that there was some controversy over the use of chloramine in tap water now because of the potential to form carcinogenic nitrosamines and such. But that's not relevant to this situation anyway.)
posted by atoxyl at 12:03 PM on February 26, 2016

And yeah, it's mixing hypochlorite bleach with acid that will give you straight chlorine gas.
posted by atoxyl at 12:07 PM on February 26, 2016

Dettol is phenol based.

Their old-school household disinfectant is. This one has a quaternary ammonium compound.
posted by atoxyl at 12:10 PM on February 26, 2016

Quadruple comment but as far as I know there are actually cleaning products sold that contain a mixture of quaternary ammonium antimicrobials - which are very, very common and not the same as ammonia/ammonium hydroxide - and chlorine bleach. Though I can't personally guarantee that all of them are safe to mix.
posted by atoxyl at 12:22 PM on February 26, 2016

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