The pain was like nothing Charley Howson had ever experienced. It started with a burning sensation in her chest, then rose up her right shoulder and down her back.
‘I’ve had three children, and I’d rather give birth than go through anything like that again,’ says 34-year-old Charley, from Sheffield. ‘It was sharp, as if I had swallowed acid, and I couldn’t breathe.
‘I was gasping, but just couldn’t fill my lungs. I thought I was going to die.’
But what struck Charley down last month wasn’t an undiagnosed medical condition or even a heart attack — but a simple oversight she’d made while mopping her kitchen floor. And, alarmingly, it could so easily happen to any one of us.
Charley Howson (pictured), 34, inadvertently created chlorine gas whilst mopping her kitchen floor from combining a cocktail of chemical cleaners
Inadvertently, Charley had created chlorine gas, a highly noxious substance, by mixing easily available, cheap chemical cleaners most of us are likely to have in our homes: bleach, Dettol and the concentrated disinfectant Zoflora.
‘I feel so stupid, but I had no idea that mixing chemicals like this could create something so dangerous,’ says Charley.
‘I poured the bleach and disinfectants in a bucket together, then added boiling hot water from the kettle. Almost instantly, a strange smell filled the kitchen. Then the pain started and I collapsed.
‘Luckily, my quick-thinking son called for an ambulance. When I arrived at the hospital, I was rushed off for a chest X-ray — it came back clear, so the doctors were at a loss to understand what had happened.
‘It was only when the paramedics mentioned there had been a strong smell of bleach in the house and I told the doctor what I’d done that he said: “You created chlorine gas.” It was so careless. It took me a good three days to feel normal again.’
Charley’s story illustrates just how easy it is to create a toxic cocktail from the strong chemicals we use every day. While cleaning products warn in small print on the bottle that they should never be mixed with other chemicals, this is easy to overlook — as Charley did.
She warns others to read the small print on their household cleaning products
Most of us will be familiar with chlorine as a disinfectant that keeps swimming pools free of bacteria, but it’s also the basis of many disinfectants and a key ingredient of bleach which contains the safe form of the chemical known as sodium hypochlorite.
But when this is mixed with an acid — also found in many cleaning products (though obviously not ones that contain sodium hypochlorite) — a poisonous gas can be created.
Sodium hypochlorite can also react with ammonia or other substances made with ammonia, such as window cleaner.
Gareth Cave, a lecturer in chemistry at Nottingham Trent University, says: ‘Mixing chlorine with other chemicals can cause a reaction, changing the stable form of chlorine into a dangerous gas. Adding heat makes the chemical reaction faster.
‘It causes skin and eye irritation and can burn the lungs when breathed in.’
In August, four people were taken to hospital after an incident involving chlorine gas at a trampoline centre in Warrington, Cheshire. It emerged that cleaning chemicals had been mixed together in a container in the centre’s kitchen.
Gemma Hughes, a nursing assistant at an A&E department near Manchester, says: ‘I’ve seen people with windpipe burns, eye irritation, mouth blisters and lung damage.’ The effects can be agonisingly painful. ‘Gas getting into the lungs will cause temporary damage to the lung lining,’ says Dr Stephen Rose, a consultant at Spire Parkway Hospital, Solihull. ‘Some people have been left with permanent breathing problems.’
Nicki Rodrigues, 41, a company director from Brentwood, Essex, admits she ‘wasn’t thinking’ when she gassed herself while renovating her Victorian roll-top bath. She says: ‘I thought mixing bathroom cleaner, bicarb and bleach would get it sparkling.’
But Nicki, a mother of two children aged 15 and six, created a lethal concoction, made worse by added steaming hot water.
She says: ‘As the steam hit me in the face, I started choking and my throat was on fire. I thought I would die. It was such a stupid thing to do.’
Now, Charley Howson wants to warn others: ‘Everything I used were normal cleaning products. I just didn’t read the small print. I don’t want anyone else to suffer like I did.’