Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Toilet cleaners and curiosity: a toxic combination

Courtesy of Simon Howden at

I’m at an age when I occasionally engage in life reviews, reflecting on my 56 years of meandering while trying to make sense of it all. In particular, I’ve ruminated on those times – rather more than you might think – where my actions have endangered life, either my own or that of others. One example of the former took place in the bathroom of my parents’ home 46 years ago.

As a 10 years old, I displayed an inquisitive mind; “why?”, “how?” and “what if?” were recurrent questions when faced with new situations or novel snippets of information. The brightly coloured bottles of bleach and toilet cleaners that lurked behind our lavatory had long since attracted my attention, particular that skull-and- crossbones warning about toxicity. So one afternoon, while I was home alone, I decided to investigate what all the fuss was about.

I picked up the “Domestic Thick Bleach” and “Ajax Powder” and proceeded to read the warnings on the two toilet cleaners:
Do not ingest – I looked up “ingest” in my pocket dictionary. Eating or drinking toilet cleaner! Did they think we’re all stupid or something?

Avoid contact with the skin and eyes – Fair enough; even as a young boy, I assumed that spillage on bodily parts might sting.

If accidentally swallowed, contact a doctor as a matter of urgency – I did wonder whether anyone would still have the power of speech to call emergency services in such a scenario.

Do not, under any circumstances, mix with other toilet cleaners – This warning intrigued me, triggering all my “Why?” and “What if?” queries. Frustratingly, no explanation was offered on the bottles. The labels’ failure to inform, along with my emerging interest in science, conspired to motivate me to conduct an in-house chemistry experiment.

I inserted the plastic plug into the bathroom washbasin and sprinkled a few layers of Ajax powder into the porcelain bowl. As I reached for the Domestos, my pulse accelerated with the excitement of discovery. I removed the red cap (the child-proof variety had yet to be invented), dispensed a few generous splashes of the viscous liquid onto the powder in the washbasin, and leant over to observe.

At first nothing happened and I recall feeling a sense of anticlimax. But then the mixture started to hiss, spit and bubble, while emitting a vapour which spiralled upwards towards my overhanging nostrils. The initial snort knocked me backwards, and I had to steady myself on the side of the bath. The bathroom filled with a dense fog. My legs crumpled and my breathing became laboured. In a daze, I crawled out of the bathroom on my hands and knees to reach safety.

Subsequently, I learnt that the green-white vapour was chlorine, one of the first poisonous gases to be used in warfare. My ad-hoc chemistry experiment had inadvertently transformed the family bathroom into a trench in the midst of the battle of Ypres in 1914.

By the time my parents returned, the chemical reaction had fizzled out. They said they could detect a stale smell throughout the house and accused me of smoking. I claimed that one of our neighbours had been burning rubbish in their garden and that this must be the source of the pong. They seemed to believe me; after all, it was a more plausible tale than the idea of some lunatic mixing toilet cleaners in the bathroom washbasin!