Bleached to Death (Again)

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In light of the current “Bleachgate” scandal- the peddling of a “Miracle Mineral Solution” which claims to cure intractable illnesses but basically doses users withindustrial bleach, I am partly reprising, partly revising an earlier post on the homicidal use of bleach.

Why? Because apparently there can’t be too many reminders that bleach is, gasp, a poison. In fact, in the United States, household bleach is the number one cause of accidental poisonings, with more than 50,000 cases (including eight deaths) reported to poison control centers in a single year.

Certain, killers and would-be killers know this very well. This July, for instance, a Missouri man became angry with his girlfriend and mixed bleach into a pitcher of lemonade for the woman and her children. Added a little bleach to the ice cubes too. Alerted by the noxious smell, they didn’t drink it. He was arrested anyway.

The same month, a (former) cook at a Denny’s restaurant in Virginia put bleach into the drinks of two co-workers. Both men were sickened but survived. The bleach poisoner was, of course, arrested.

Was July just a good month for stupid poisoning attempts? Or so I wondered. After all, bleach smells awful, tastes awful (or so I assume) and would send all kinds of chemical warning signals to the would-be victim. But when I did a little more research, I realized that I’d underestimated how often people actually try to poison others with bleach.

The bleach, of course, I mean the chlorine-based liquid whitening agent that most of us keep in our laundry rooms. The key chemical compound in this mix is called sodium hypochlorite and the chemical formula for it is NaOCl (one atom of sodium, one of oxygen, and one of chlorine).

It was first produced in the 18th century, by Claude Louis Berthollet, Napoleon’s scientific expert (although only widely available for domestic use starting in the 19th century.) These days, it’s probably hard to appreciate what a liberating discovery this must have been for those engaged in domestic labor. In the 1750s, for instance, the fastest way to whiten clothes involved a mix of sour milk and lye and took 12 hours.

Where as anyone who has ever used – or in my case, spilled – a sodium hypochlorite solution knows how quickly it takes the color out of fabric. In fact, most household bleaches only contain 3-6 percent of the compound in a water solution. In waste-water treatment plants, it rises to a 15 percent solution, used to aggressively kill infectious organisms in water.

This simple combination of oxygen, chlorine, and sodium makes a great disinfecting agent because it will poison just about anything, from viruses to human beings. Why? Because at its most basic, sodium hypochlorite is beautifully made to destroy living cells by efficiently corroding them into slush.
One toxicology analysis I found simply described the results as “liquid necrosis”. Or for an outstandingly good look at the chemistry of bleach – and the MMS scandal, I wholly recommend this Alice in Galaxyland post.

It’s fortunate for those served bleach-spiked lemonade or soda that the taste is so strong. They tend to reject the drink entirely or to swallow too little to cause much of that liquid necrosis. Take for instance, the 2008 case of a Fort Worth, Texas high school student who tried to eliminate her competitor for the lead in a play by putting bleach into a soda. The intended victim took one sniff and refused that Mountain Dew entirely.

To draw another parallel with MMS, its developer Jim Humble recommends that his chemical formula be mixed into orange juice. As it turns out one of the primary compounds in the miracle formula is sodium chlorite (closely related to our friend, household bleach, but with one additional oxygen atom). In very small doses, sodium chlorite is a nifty little disinfectant used in mouthwash. But when it mixes with the acids in fruit juice, it produces a stronger form of bleach, chlorine dioxide, used in industrial wastewater treatment. And also, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will tell you, toxic enough to destroy anthrax spores.

There is actually no evidence that swallowing bleach means that it will seep into the blood stream and somehow disinfect us. Rather – as survivors of household accidents will tell you – it burns and corrodes tissue on its way down to being dismantled by stomach acids. The warning taste – the evil whiff that kept that Mountain Dew untouched – is so standard to medication that it’s understandable that people would be likely to just wince and swallow their MMS potion. And plenty of them, unfortunately do so; for instance, a good 100,000 people in Africa have taken the solution as a malaria treatment, according to the Kenya-based Nation.

This is not to draw a direct comparison between MMS and bleach murders. As the U.S. poison control numbers tell us, most people survive a low level bleach exposure, which MMS appears to be. People are not dying in visible agony and – trust me – they do in a bleach homicide. These are brutal murders and they don’t take long.

Last year, a nurse in Texas was charged with injecting 10 dialysis center patients with bleach – and killing five of them. And earlier this year, a British mother – and I really hate this story – was charged with killing her autistic 12-year-old son by forcing him to drink bleach or, as the hospital report put it , “a caustic liquid.”

Bleach is not a subtle weapon. People who use it to kill get caught and their stories are sad and crazy. I found one such tale out of Oregon, in which the mother just kept trying to poison her one-year-old daughter with household chemicals, first bleach, then cleaners. The little girl survived and the mother, clearly mentally ill, went to prison.

As for the Medical Miracles Solution story (#bleachgate on Twitter), other science bloggers have done an extraordinary job of tracking it and exposing the risks. Some of the best include my fellow PLoS blogger, David Kroll, at Take as Directed, and Liz Ditz at I Speak of Dreams. and Martin Robbins at The Guardian.

And now I would like to close here by refining a point I made earlier – that it would be inaccurate to describe MMS as a source of acute, homicidal bleach poisoning. True, in a technical sense. But that doesn’t make it necessarily less dangerous.

Let’s consider this very real possibility – that a malaria patient drinks MMS, believing in its curative properties, forgoing more proven remedies. That the result is what we politely call a sub-acute case of bleach poisoning and – a worsening of the disease. That our patient dies of malaria. In that sense – and very real risk – this becomes a very poisonous – problem. So, spread the word, okay?

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