How to Use Bleach Safely

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Heather says:

I received a concerning email, yesterday, that made me realize it was time to send this post out again as a reminder.

This is the first in our series on household chemicals.

Over the past few years, I have gotten the impression that many people are using chlorine bleach¹ in an unsafe manner. Chlorine bleach aka sodium hypochlorite is a powerful disinfectant and is one of only a few widely available, inexpensive sanitizing agents. It is so powerful in fact that it should only be used in fairly low concentrations.

How to Use Bleach Safely

 

Chlorine bleach should always be used in a well-ventilated area.

If your eyes are watering. You are using too much bleach. If your skin is peeling: A) you should have worn gloves and B) you are using too much bleach. If you use hot, rather than warm water, chlorine gas can be released and this isn’t recommended. Never mix bleach with other household chemicals such as ammonia or vinegar, both can cause dangerous chemical reactions.

There is a difference between clean, sanitary, and sterile

Don’t waste the power of your bleach on cleaning; reduce your use and save it only for sanitizing.

Chlorine bleach works both as a cleaning and a disinfecting agent. However many less corrosive and dangerous household items also work as highly effective cleaning agents: hot water, scrub brushes, and dish detergents are but a few examples.

Chlorine bleach is a highly effective sanitizing agent, but it needs to be used properly. Repeat after me:

Clean, rinse, sanitize.

When sanitizing food preparation areas: counters, tables, sinks, knives, and cutting boards. All surfaces should be washed to remove organic materials (food bits) and rinsed. It is only at this point that the items should be sanitized with a bleach solution of approximately 200ppm. This is about 1 TBSP of chlorine bleach per gallon of water. Did you catch that? Let me repeat it.

The proper dilution of chlorine bleach for sanitizing food preparation surfaces is 200ppm or 1 TBSP per gallon of warm water.

Get yourself a spray bottle and mix up a batch whenever you’re going to need sanitizing agent. Be aware that chlorine evaporates so only mix a small amount at a time. If you’re making 1 quart of sanitizing solution estimate ¾ teaspoon per quart, and that will get you in the neighborhood of 200 ppm. Just rinse after use.

Bleach and stainless steel are not good playmates. However dilute bleach solutions are still usable. Rinse the surface after sanitizing to avoid the corrosive effects.

Allow the 200ppm bleach solution to sit on the surface for at least a full minute to give the bleach time to work. With a 200ppm dilution rinsing is not necessary and it’s actually best to allow most surfaces to air dry rather than re-contaminating with a towel.

Chlorine bleach is an effective sanitizing agent outside of the kitchen.

When sanitizing other surfaces, such as in the bathroom, bleach may be used in a 500ppm dilution.

A 500ppm dilution is 2½ tablespoons of 5.25% chlorine bleach per 1 gallon of warm water.

While bleach is a cleaning agent, milder methods are highly recommended. Save the bleach for the final, sanitizing step, just as you would in the kitchen.

If you weren’t aware, urine evaporates leaving behind ammonium salts. Always clean and rinse any area that may have urine: near toilets, cat boxes, dog kennels, etc before sanitizing.

How to use chlorine bleach in the laundry

When bleaching a load of whites, use 3/4 cup of liquid bleach in a standard washer and those with high efficiency washers should consult their appliance manuals or call the manufacturer. Typically the amount of bleach per load in a high efficiency washer is equivalent to the maximum fill line of the bleach dispenser, but check to be sure.

When pre-soaking laundry bleach safe fabrics, first  remove as much soil as possible, then use 1/4 cup per gallon of warm water. Anything stronger can damage the fabric.

So for the TL:DR crowd here’s the quick summary:

  • Clean, rinse, sanitize, wait 1 – 5 minutes. Rinse again if it’s stainless steel
  • Food prep surfaces require a 200ppm or 1 TBSP chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Other surfaces may use a 500ppm dilution or 2½ TBSP chlorine bleach per gallon of warm water.
  • Laundry pre-soaks 1/4 cup per gallon or 3/4 cup for a full load in a standard, top loading washer.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

¹♪♫Let’s talk about bleach baby, let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and all the bad things bleach may be. ♪♫ Yeah, I woke up with a song in my head.

References:

guide to chemical cleaners

Click this picture to read more about household chemicals.

Garage Refrigerator / Freezers, Winter, and Your Food

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Dear Home-Ec 101,
I have a refrigerator in my garage and for the last few weeks I have noticed the freezer isn’t as cold as it should be.
Should I be worried?
More importantly, is the food safe? The vegetables seem a little soft.
Sincerely,
It’s Frickin’ Freezin’ , Mr. Bigglesworth

Heather says

Garage refrigerators can be very useful for food storage, if you have a bunch of kids, they are also useful to keep the kids from running in and out every time they want a drink.

Unfortunately when the temperature drops below 40°F or 4°C the freezer may not maintain the proper temperature.

Why?

Refrigerators are designed for typical household use. The “average” house is expected to be in the general vicinity of 70°F or 21°C or “room temperature.”

Unless you have a high-end refrigerator freezer combo, which is unlikely in a garage refrigerator scenario, the freezer does not have its own thermostat.

The thermostat in the refrigerator portion of the appliance controls the temperature of the entire unit with the logic being, if the refrigerator portion is 40°F the freezer will be at 30°F or below.

In the winter your garage may be much closer to 40°F. Over time the thermostat in the refrigerator tells the motor, hey, we don’t have to run so often. All is well in the refrigerator portion of the appliance, but that freezer is going to slowly approach the temperature of the garage. There is no thermostat back up in the freezer to say, “Hey, we have a problem here, we should be running more often!”

If the garage temperature is only close to 40°F to 30°F for a day or two, it’s really not going to matter. Refrigerators are very well insulated to keep the cold air inside.

The food in your freezer has been beginning to thaw. If it has been over a short period, this won’t matter food safety-wise. If the freezer has time to thaw completely, you’ll need to follow the guidelines in The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What. (Observing whether or not there are ice crystals etc)

Food that is safe is not always good.

Repeated thaws and freezes will destroy the cells walls of the food destroying the integrity and texture of the food. While it may be perfectly okay to eat, I would understand calling it a loss and starting over with the most compromised ingredients, unless you have recipes where the ingredients are cooked to the point that texture is not an issue.

Sometimes life is a series of annoying lessons; I hope that this one wasn’t too expensive.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com

Is Vinegar an Acceptably Safe Alternative for Chlorine Bleach when Disinfecting

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Dear Home Ec 101,

Can one substitute vinegar -lots of it- for the bleach when cleaning and disinfecting?
I can’t be around bleach, it triggers SEVERE migraines.

Signed,
Pickled in Pickens

home ec logoHeather says:

There are certain times where I am reluctant to give a hard answer. In our litigious climate, I’m sure you can understand my concern. The CDC says the use of vinegar is inconclusive and needs to be studied further and I only found this after using a multitude of search terms to try and weed out the 934462 sites on the web that basically say, “Vinegar is the Greatest Cleaning Agent Ever!!! I don’t have any evidence, so you’ll just have to trust me because I say so”.

Bleach v Vinegar

Do you know how vinegar is made?

Vinegar is the byproduct of ethanol fermentation. Basically, a specific kind of bacteria -genus Acetobacter metabolize (think of it as their equivalent of eating) alcohol and produce acetic acid as their waste. You’re just craving some french fries with malt vinegar, now aren’t you?

Distilled vinegar is the only type of vinegar that should be used for disinfecting. Why? You need to know the acidity of your cleaning agent. Aside from that, you certainly aren’t going to save money by cleaning your toilet with aged balsamic vinegar, even if it does smell nicer.

So here is my advice, given with the understanding that if you have any type of condition that may compromise your immune system, you follow your health care provider’s advice and not mine. Got it?

In most cases, distilled vinegar is acceptable as a disinfectant for hard surfaces in a home.

It is not safe to use as a disinfectant for any medical equipment. If you are looking for information on cleaning home healthcare items, you must follow your physician’s advice.

There’s a whole genus of bacteria Pseudomonas out there that really don’t give a hoot about vinegar. Is Pseudomonas an issue? Well, for some people, it certainly is. If you have anyone in your home with Cystic Fibrosis, it can cause pneumonia, in patients on chemotherapy it can cause skin infections, etc. Ever heard of hot tub rash? Pseudomonas is the likely culprit. So there are cases where vinegar really isn’t the smart choice. In hospitals, Pseudomonas can be particularly devastating, it’s the cause of Necrotising Entercolitis in NICU patients and devastating skin infections in burn patients.

Dilute solutions of chlorine bleach applied properly is the only agent I feel comfortable recommending when disinfection truly matters. If you use chlorine bleach properly, there should not be a significant source of fumes.

Your home is not a hospital.

As humans we actually need some exposure to pathogens (disease causing agents). Encounters with small amounts of some bacteria may actually be good for our body’s ability to recognize and fend off disease. Think of it this way, influenza is especially problematic because of the way it changes. It’s still the flu, but each season new strains of it show up. Because they are just different enough that our immune systems may not have defenses, they cause people to get sick. If the virus did not change, most healthy individuals would pick up a natural immunity to the virus through exposure and it wouldn’t tear through populations each year. It would be more like the chicken pox or other one-time diseases that can be miserable -or worse in cases like polio, but it wouldn’t really have the potential for a pandemic.

Those of us who have healthy immune systems should be exposed to some bacteria. On a related note, there are some really interesting studies that suggest allergies are the result of our lack of exposure to parasites. -I know when I’m sneezing, itchy-eyed, and snot-nosed for days on end, that a low-grade case of hookworms sounds like a fabulous alternative. I am not an advocate of keeping a hyper-sterile home. Despite all this there are times where disinfection matters, in those cases vinegar is a good choice for most of us, but dilute chlorine bleach is the better alternative for those at risk.

Please use your best judgement when making these decisions.

Also? Wash your hands.

Send your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

ref: http://www.cdc.gov/hicpac/Disinfection_Sterilization/3_3inactivBioAgents.html

Learn Your Refrigerator’s Zones for Optimal Food Storage

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

I need help!  I like my milk very, very cold, so the temperature in my fridge is very low (38 degrees), but my produce keeps freezing.  I do keep some produce in the produce drawers, and some I put on the top shelf to see if that worked better, and the jury is still out on that one.  Some things did better and some did not.  How can I have my milk cold and my produce crisp?

Signed,
Limpy Lettuce

Heather says:

38 is actually a great temperature for your refrigerator, but my theory is the cooling space of your appliance isn’t all sitting at 38F.

Get to know your refrigerator’s zones.

Your refrigerator may have very distinct zones and these zones may be much colder (or warmer) than the temperature indicated, depending on the location of the sensor. Get yourself a thermometer for your refrigerator, they are quite inexpensive –$5 on Amazon¹, significantly cheaper than a service call, no?

Over the course of a day or several days, set the thermometer in different locations in your fridge. Shut the door and allow the refrigerator to do its thing undisturbed for a couple of hours. Please don’t just pop the thermometer on a shelf, and stand there waiting for the needle to stop moving. You won’t get accurate results. The door needs to be shut long enough for the refrigerator to cycle and the temperature to return to normal. Write down the temperature of each zone and create yourself a map of your refrigerator.

How do I know where my refrigerator’s zones are?

Well, it’s going to depend a lot on the layout of your particular appliance, but generally the upper area is cooler than the bottom. In general drawers are more about either organization or humidity than temperature, unless there is a drawer at the bottom of the appliance for holding meat. This drawer may have a small vent from the freezer that keeps this portion of the refrigerator extra cold.

You may find that the temperature of your refrigerator is different from the one indicated. Adjust your refrigerator’s thermostat accordingly or simply change your storage habits. If it’s wildly different, it may be time for a service call.

Ivy, my former partner here, once wrote about How to Minimize Food Waste by Thinking Like a Kitchen Manager. It’s a great post explaining the first in first out concept and other ways to reduce the amount of food waste in a home kitchen.

Additionally know that storing produce in a refrigerator isn’t as simple as just opening the door and plunking it on a shelf. Produce is very persnickety about silly things like humidity. Aside from cooling food one of your refrigerator’s most important jobs is removing excess humidity. The slider on your refrigerator’s produce drawer is more than just a nifty little decoration, it opens and closes a vent to allow or prevent the circulation of moisture from the drawer.

The Unclutterer has an old, but highly useful guide to storing produce in a refrigerator.

Have fun getting to know your appliance.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.

¹Affiliate link

The Freezer Was Left Open, Now What?

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Dear Home-Ec 101,

My youngest decided to get a popsicle from my deep freezer and didn’t bother to make sure the door was closed. I know not to eat the meat products since I am not sure if they thawed and refroze, but what about the veggies? Must I throw out the ten tons of french fries and corn on the cob?

(And yes, I’ve invested in a freezer door lock with a padlock to guard against future booboos)

Signed,

Thawing in Thermopylae

Heather says:

I have good news and bad news, depending on whether or not you’ve already thrown everything out.

 

Was the freezer door left open? All may not be lost.

All of the food in your freezer is fine to cook or refreeze as long as there were ice crystals still in it. If your meat hasn’t reached more than 40°F it is still safe to cook and eat. Same with your vegetables. If there are still ice crystals it’s perfectly fine to refreeze them as well. What you don’t want to do is reach a point where bacteria can multiply quickly, freeze and not kill off all of those bacteria and then thaw again where the bacteria again have a good chance to multiply.

Just as an FYI, vegetables can also harbor bacteria. Have you seen the news from Europe? However, do not freak out contamination like that is much LESS likely in frozen foods that have to be blanched before freezing. I’m just noting this after someone was rather smug about not being affected by a beef recall.

If your freezer door was left ajar for a few hours and some foods partially thawed, not fully, they are safe to use. I’m actually more concerned about the motor of your freezer. I hope the freezer is the type that shuts off while the door is ajar so there wasn’t a lot of unnecessary wear on the unit. If your deep freeze was left ajar for several days, you are correct, most of the food is a total loss.

If you have a lot of ground beef to use, simply brown it and store. You can season it if you like, just be sure to label it for its intended future use.

If you have stew beef, go ahead and brown and stew the beef.

Poultry toss into your slow cooker and then separate from the bones to use in a bunch of different recipes. Then use the bones to make chicken stock.

Good luck, I hope this doesn’t prove to be too major of a loss.

Submit your questions to helpme@home-ec101.com.