Magical Miracle Elixir: “better than bleach”. Secret ingredient? Bleach.

The Los Angeles Times published a bewilderingly hyped article today about an electrolytic device that makes “miracle” liquid. The article describes what actually is a kind of nifty gadget that uses an electrical current and a couple of semi-permeable membranes to generate (separately but simultaneously) a “degreaser” and a “sanitizer” out of ordinary salt and tapwater. They say that not only can you use one output to clean your dishes, the other one is “10 times more effective than bleach in killing bacteria”(insert a long string of exclamation points there). I just have one thing to say about that:


Take a look at that graphic (shamelessly hotlinked to BoingBoing’s copy – click the graphic to go to BoingBoing’s own post on the subject). Okay, now, see what the label on the stuff coming out on the right says? Does that sound kind of familiar?

Okay, now go grab that bottle of bleach under the sink. Read the label. It’s got something pretty similar, doesn’t it – “Sodium Hypochlorite” (or, possibly, Calcium Hypochlorite…but that really makes no difference). For those who don’t remember their chemistry classes, here’s another hint: think of “hypochlorous acid” as “Hydrogen Hypochlorite”…

The active part of bleach is the “hypochlorite”. That’s right – this is a “dilute acidic bleach” generator. Some “miracle”…

One reason for grocery-store bleach to be a very basic (as opposed ot acidic) solution is stability. In an acidic solution, hypochlorite tends to readily decompose, generating chlorine gas, or so I’m told – this is why the label on your bottle of bleach warns about mixing it with acids. The thing is, it’s apparently this short-lived chlorine that makes bleach such a good disinfectant. This is presumably why they claim the stuff coming out of this device is better than Sodium Hypochlorite “bleach” – it’s already decomposing into the germ-killing stuff as it comes out, as opposed to bleach which has to be formulated to stay stable during packaging, shipping, sitting on the store shelf, then finally sitting under your sink for a year before you use it. This is also why I recall hearing someone suggest on one episode of Basic Brewing Radio that adding a small amount of acidic vinegar should improve the disinfectant capabilities of your dilute bleach sanitizer (though the solution will not remain good for very long).

But the article doesn’t mention this boring fact. They just go on and on about the miracle of “Electrolyzed water” (which, properly speaking, would really be hydrogen and oxygen gas, but you already knew that right?) – I guess a single paragraph about a “dilute bleach generator” wouldn’t have attracted so much attention.

When I am elected Supreme Overlord of the United States, I shall mandate that science writers express a competent understanding of the science they cover. Yes, even if that means they have to actually do some research – I’m just cruel that way.

Admittedly, I’d still like to have one of these generators for my home brewlab…

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The Author is (currently) an autodidactic student of Industrial and Environmental microbiology, who is sick of people assuming all microbiology should be medical in nature, and who would really like to be allowed to go to graduate school one of these days now that he's finished his BS in Microbiology (with a bonus AS in Chemistry). He also enjoys exploring the Big Room (the one with the really high blue ceiling and big light that tracks from one side to the other every day) and looking at its contents from unusual mental angles.

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