Feminism, Household Work, and Bleach

By Nicole

Feminism and environmentalism are at odds when you consider that many (most?) modern conveniences in household management also degrade our environment. Since research is pretty clear that females more likely to take on more hours of household upkeep even when working outside the home, stepping back from modernity puts a disproportionate burden on the female member of the household.

Our household, like many of our 30-something generation, does show a softening of both the disproportionate time split and strict gender roles in the actual chores performed. Whoever arrives home first cooks the evening meal, but I do the meal planning and shopping. I am actually more likely to install the dishwasher. My husband takes on the lion’s share of childcare during non-business hours; we almost split evenly during the workweek. He does more of the laundry but will not launder the bedding. I am not sure at what point it would occur to him to pick up a broom, vacuum, or dusting rag. I know for sure that he had never dusted his apartment in the 3 years prior to our marriage; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him dust regardless of the fact that he has less tolerance for ‘mess.’

This division of labor works for us, but it is tenuously balanced. So I am seriously torn when he finally takes on cleaning the bathroom. Why? Not because he doesn’t do as good of a job. Rather because he insists that a toilet is cleaned from all ‘nastiness’ better with bleach.

You see, while I know that it has its purposes in some settings, I long ago replaced bleach in regular household cleaning as chief shopper and ‘deep cleaner.’ It coincided with my time working as a researcher in a national lab where my duties included, among other things, analysis of the National Dioxin Monitoring Network (NDAMN) data. I’ll refer you to a FDA/EPA fact sheet on what dioxins are and why we should be concerned. Suffice to say that dioxins can cause skin lesions from high (generally purposeful) exposure and that cancer and reproduction concerns are also warranted. Amazingly enough, even though intentional production of such chemicals are banned and background levels in the environment and our bodies are declining, we continue pollute mother earth with dioxin compounds. How? The two most common cited reasons are unintentional byproducts from combustion/burning processes and industrial chlorine bleaching processes. (This is why you need to stop buying bleached paper products if you purchase them at all.)

Which brings me back to household bleach.

Bleach is also terrible for the environment and our health. It is a respiratory and skin irritant; this is particularly rough for people with asthma. It has the potential to react with remnants of other products to produce a whole host of other nasty chemicals including pure chloride gas and dioxins – both of these things are probably even worse than the bleach itself. Production of bleach is also problematic, creating dioxins as an unintentional byproduct.

Have I convinced you that you should rethink bleach?

Well, we re-thought it too and went a long time without it. And then, being the prepared Mormon I am, I decided I needed some to disinfect our emergency water when living in San Francisco. Since it is almost impossible to buy a tiny bottle of bleach, we had extra. Once in the house, my husband cannot resist that ‘extra something’ when cleaning the toilet. He even bought a NEW bottled the other day. And now I’m in the obnoxious position of choosing between inhaling bleach and rocking the household division of labor.

Do you have bleach in your house? Do you relax your environmental standards to encourage certain family members to help?


11 responses to “Feminism, Household Work, and Bleach

  1. Nicole May 3, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Here is the link to the Dioxin Fact Sheet that didn’t come through in the formatting.


  2. ajbc May 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

    I only use vinegar, baking soda, and eco-friendly dish soap for all household cleaning–windows to floors. Since we moved cross-country after we got married and needed to buy everything fresh, I decided to go this route and have never regretted it. (I understand that it’s not for everyone, though.) At one point, we inherited a 1/3 bottle of bleach from my sister-in-law and used it up slowly on clothes and for some deep cleaning, but we likely won’t be buying any in the foreseeable future, since it just isn’t worth the smell and damage to the clothing for relatively minimal whitening.

    Some of our household work fall on gender-lines, but not because of gender roles; we just have divided work by preference. I cook, he does the dishes, he carries the laundry, I sort and start the laundry, he takes out the trash, and on and on… Sometimes I don’t fuss about his throwing out cans, etc. that can be recycled, which is a concession to encourage him to do his part.

    I believe that in a cooperative household, you have to respect the independence of others in accomplishing their tasks and work towards establishing higher-level goals (like being bleach-free, or recycling all cans) jointly, which may take time. Every member must own the goal in order for it to be successful. ….but just because I believe that a household should work that way doesn’t mean I successfully implement mine so. Heaven knows, I can be a nag. 🙂

  3. margie May 3, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Do you have bleach in your house? Yes, but for the past couple of decades my heightened awareness of it’s problems to the environment has made me use it less and less. There are alternatives to it’s use, but they are more expensive and I fear that I will hear any day that they too are a problem.

    Do you relax your environmental standards to encouragecertain family members to help? Yeah, I do Sigh.

  4. Jessica May 3, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Of course I relax my standards- environmental & hygienic- to get a family member to help with chores. Establishing the habit of helping is the first priority, whether for a spouse or child. Once the habit is firmly in place, then there is time for improving standards.

  5. ErinAnn May 4, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    If it stinks or gives me a headache it leaves the house. Sadly, I’m in fume central anyhow because we just had the carpet replaced and right now the shower floor is being recoated. We’re outside on this beautiful day, but I’m afraid the fumes won’t be gone by tonight.

    We share the household duties, but I do the cooking. I’m such the better cook at this point that we both prefer me to do it.

  6. Alliegator May 4, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    My Mister does most of the laundry, and he likes to bleach the whites every third or fourth time they come through.

    What would be a good thing to replace the bleach (something to ease him off of it). 🙂

  7. Nicole May 5, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Alligator – I am hoping to do a post on alternatives in many different applications soon. Until then, in laundry applications, a lot of people use a peroxide based products as a substitute. You can put peroxide in directly (1/2 cup into the bleach slot) or use a product such as oxiclean (or generic equivalent) which essentially turns to peroxide when water is added. Others have a lot of luck with 1-2 tablespoons of borax. If you water is really hard, the lack of white might actually be a build up of minerals – if that is the case, softening with a little bit of baking soda (or borax) in the cleaning cylce and putting in vinegar instead of fabric softener which helps intensify the rinse can help.

  8. Corktree May 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    We’ve been using hydrogen peroxide to disinfect certain things and vinegar and baking soda for deep cleaning. Once I got over my OCD need to disinfect EVERYthing, I’ve been much happier with the state of the house. But I’m still not at the point where I can transfer cleaning duties 😉 Even sweeping doesn’t get done all the way. Does no one else see the crumbs under the cabinets and in the corners?!

    I’m okay with the division of labor as it stands, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be teaching my son to clean the house thoroughly and healthfully! 🙂

  9. CatherineWO May 11, 2011 at 9:56 am

    We stopped using bleach about ten years ago, when my chemical sensitivities became worse (trying to lighten the chemical load in our household for everyone’s sake). A good alternative for freshening the laundry is grapefruit seed extract (sold as GSE in small bottles at health food stores). A small bottle is expensive but will last you for a year or two, as you dispense by drops (I use 10-12 drops for a full load of laundry). It can also be mixed with water in a spray bottle to be used as an air freshener. It is a natural anti-fungal. I use it in the batches of towels, underwear and socks (the smelly stuff). Also, tea tree oil is a natural anti-bacterial that I have found to be every bit as effective as bleach. I don’t use it in the laundry because I don’t like the smell. Vinegar, borax and laundry soda are also great.

  10. margie May 11, 2011 at 12:44 pm

    Good idea, CatherineWo. I think I will try the GSE.

  11. Alliegator May 11, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    We just bought a box of borax to make up some ant bait/traps, so we’ll try that.


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