Chemical drain cleaners make big promises of providing quick, simple solutions to household clogs. However, as with most things, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. While chemical clog removers can prove effective sometimes, the reality is that you’re taking some risks every time you pour one of these mixtures down the drain.
Let’s take a closer look at how chemical drain cleaners work and the problems they can cause.
HOW CHEMICAL DRAIN CLEANERS WORK
There are two main types of chemical drain cleaners available in stores: caustic and oxidizing. You might see them sold as liquids, gels, or powders. Many of these cleaners contain the active ingredient sodium hydroxide, which is used to decompose grease, hair, and other organic matter. Others contain concentrated sulfuric acid, which is a highly corrosive substance that can dissolve cellulose and organic proteins.
Caustic Drain Cleaners
Caustic drain cleaners use a two-pronged approach to dissolve a clog. Alkaline chemicals and hydroxide ions work together to create a lot of heat and turn the clog into a soapy substance that can be washed away.
Oxidizing Drain Cleaners
Oxidizing drain cleaners take a similar approach to caustic drain cleaners. Nitrates dissolve the clog’s organic material and simultaneously release heat and gas to remove the blockage.
THE RISKS OF USING CHEMICAL DRAIN CLEANERS
As you can guess, substances with ingredients powerful enough to melt clogs and eat through organic material come with some risks to both you and your home’s plumbing.
You don’t need to ingest drain cleaners to be seriously injured by them. A retrospective review revealed that drain cleaners cause an estimated 3,000 injuries annually in the U.S., and one-third involved heat burns. Sodium hydroxide, an active ingredient in many chemical drain cleaners, is highly corrosive. According to the CDC, it can irritate your skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, cause allergic reactions, and result in skin and eye burns and temporary hair loss.
Sulfuric acid, another common drain cleaner ingredient, is also dangerous. Sulfuric acid can become hot enough to burn your skin once it comes into contact with water. If this substance were to splash in your eyes, you could experience severe watering, burning, and even blindness.
Inhaling Toxic Fumes
The fumes from drain cleaners can have terrible short- and long-term effects on your health. Exposure to sulfuric acid fumes can irritate your respiratory tract and even erode your tooth enamel. Drain cleaners also off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause symptoms like headaches, nausea, dizziness, and damage to the kidneys, liver, and central nervous system.
Creating Corrosive Standing Water
Aside from the health and safety risks of using chemical drain cleaners, many times they simply aren’t effective at removing clogs deep down in your pipes. This creates an additional problem: not only do you have a clog, but now you have a chemical drain cleaner sitting on top of it, creating a lot of heat and some very corrosive liquid. If you repeatedly use chemical drain cleaners, they’ll weaken your pipes from the inside out, increasing the possibility of leaks.
SAFER ALTERNATIVES TO CHEMICAL DRAIN CLEANERS
Removing clogs does not require chemicals that put your health and your home’s plumbing at risk. Below are two effective methods of clearing a drain.
Cabling (or snaking) involves lowering a flexible, metal cable down your clogged drain. At the tip of the cable is a sharp corkscrew that can either break up the clog or hook onto it and remove it. If you have some DIY prowess, you might be able to do this yourself with a manual drain snake, but if the clog is in your toilet or if it requires an electric drain snake, we recommend letting a plumber perform the task.
This method is ideal if you have a lot of drains that clog frequently or if you want to prevent future clogs and keep your drains in tip-top shape. A plumber will feed a hose through your drain system, and the hose will blast away clogs and stubborn debris from your pipe walls with extremely high water pressure. This is definitely not a DIY job, as you’ll need a trained professional to handle the equipment and assess your pipes first to make sure that the jetter won’t damage them.