Are chemical drain cleaners putting your family at risk?

Chemical drain cleaners come in a range of forms including liquids, gels and powders. They work by creating a chemical reaction, either taking or giving electrons to the clogging substance, in order to generate heat and clear the blockage.

While they are a cheap option for unclogging drains, they have mixed reviews in terms of how well they work. Most of the ones you find on store shelves are also made from harsh ingredients such as caustic potassium, bleach, sulfuric acid and hydrochloric acid. They come with strict safety guidelines and are labelled as “poison” meaning they are dangerous to people and horrible for the environment.

Chemical drain cleaners are dangerous for your health

Anyone who has ever been splashed with drain cleaner can understand why they come with strict warning labels. They can burn skin, eyes and mucous membranes and even eat through clothing. Drain cleaning chemicals are also extremely toxic if swallowed. This is why you should never use a plunger in conjunction with chemicals as plunging can lead to back-splash.

It’s also important not to mix different drain cleaners. If one doesn’t work, don’t pour a different one down there to see if it’s more effective. Combining several chemical solutions can cause noxious fumes or even lead to an explosion. In 2015, The Daily Mail reported on an explosion that killed a plumber and sent a family to hospital suffering from the effects of the fumes. The plumber had poured drain cleaning acid down the sink to clear a blockage, which allegedly led to the explosion.

In another UK incident, a five-year-old boy was left scarred for life after an acidic drain cleaner leaked through his bedroom ceiling as he slept. The residents in the flat above had poured drain cleaner down the sink in an attempt to clear a clog. However, the chemicals were so strong that they burned through the pipes and floor before dripping onto the child’s face causing severe burns.

Closer to home, an 11-month-old Australian boy had to undergo skin graft surgery on his legs after coming into contact with drain chemicals. The child suffered serious burns, reported the Sydney Morning Herald, after he managed to unscrew a child-resistant cap, splashing the solution over himself.

If you do decide to use chemical drain cleaners, make sure you read the directions carefully and adhere to any warning labels. Use the product in a well-ventilated area, wear rubber gloves and keep children and pets away from the drain.

Dangerous to the environment

Drain cleaning chemicals aren’t just dangerous to humans, they are also bad for our waterways and the environment. When we attempt to unclog drains with these chemicals, we are essentially pouring caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) or sulphuric acid into our waterways, both of which are highly corrosive chemicals.

According to an article in The Guardian, some environmental agencies around the world do not classify sodium hydroxide as a cause of water pollution as it breaks down once in contact with water and greasy fats. However, the EU's European Chemicals Bureau describes its eco-toxicity rating for aquatic organisms as being of "chronic toxicity". This is what it says its effects are on common freshwater fish, such as brown trout: "Burns on external skin of gills and abundant formation of mucus. Fishes die by suffocation because of the slow destruction of the respiratory organs."                                         

Healthier drain-cleaning alternatives

The good news is there are many other ways to unclog a drain that are both DIY and cost effective. Most of these will have some success is clearing minor blockages, although for stubborn clogs it’s best to call in the experts.

  1. Clogs that occur above the S bend can often be cleared by hand. What you pull out is never pleasant so it’s best to put on some rubber gloves before attempting to remove the gunk. Once you’re kitted up, simply remove the drain cover and clean out whatever debris you can reach, using your hand or pliers. This method is particularly useful for cleaning hair out of the shower waste.
  2. There are also a few DIY drain cleaning recipes that are 100% safer and less abrasive than store bought chemicals. The effectiveness is questionable, but it’s worth a try, particularly if you already have the ingredients in your home. Most recipes you’ll find online are a combination of vinegar, baking soda and boiling water. In some cases, boiling water is enough on its own to loosen very minor clogs.
  3. Another option is eco-drain cleaning products such as Bio Clean or ACTIZYME Pellets. Both are enzyme and bacteria based decloggers that are capable of dissolving minor build-ups of organic waste such as sewerage, toilet paper and food scraps. However, these drain cleaners do have their disadvantages. They take a long time to work and are ineffective on clogs caused by non-organic matter such as wet-wipes and tampons.
  4. If it’s a sink that’s blocked, you might want to try cleaning out the s-shaped pipe underneath the sink. This can get pretty messy so it’s important to place a bucket underneath before taking it apart.
  5. A plunger is another simple DIY method of cleaning minor blockages. Make sure you are using the right type of plunger: a cup plunger is effective for sinks, bathtubs and showers, but you will need to invest in a flange plunger for clogged toilets.

If none of the above DIY methods are working, the clog is probably located further down the pipes, possibly in the main sewer lines. Some blockages are much tougher to clear because they are caused by buildups of non-organic matter such wet-wipes that are bound together by fats and grease. Known as fatbergs, these large lumps of congealed fat and wipes are very difficult to clear

In these situations, the drain will need to be cleaned by a licensed professional. Some plumbers still use drain eels or snakes, but most plumbers would agree that high-pressured water jetters provide the best solution on the market. Jetters are fast acting, environmentally friendly, better for your health and they also clean out the entire pipe, in addition to removing the blockage.

JAB Plumbing Solutions: Call Sydney blocked drain experts on 1800 225 552

JAB Plumbing Solutions are professional and licensed Sydney plumbers who are committed to providing the best drainage solutions to Sydney residents. All our vehicles are fitted with the latest high-pressured water jetters and we offer same-day-response for all emergency blocked drains. Our team is committed to providing long-term and affordable drainage solutions, for your piece of mind and convenience.