View Full Version : Hazardous Cleaning Products

10-14-2005, 01:58 PM
I am writing a cozy mystery where a janitor is poisoned by the killer who mixes cleaning products. The killer has no experience with this, and can just as easily use cleaning products that are not found in the janitorís cart.

What are some products that produce harmful vapors?

How long would it take to kill a person by covering their nose and mouth with a cloth soaked in these chemicals?

Thank you,


"Write something every day. It doesn't mater what you write, it matters that you write."

10-14-2005, 04:42 PM
You might want to read the warning labels on some cleaning products to get an idea about what elements should not be mixed. I know a lot of the cleansers on the market have long warning lists that might offer some information.

In my long ago college days, I worked one summer as a work/study janitor with other students. One day I had put some bleach into a commode to clean some stains and another student added a heavy duty liquid cleanser. Almost immediately the air became foul and noxious. We could actually see a vapor cloud and so we exited, choking all the way. We reported it to our supervisor who advised us to stay outside until the air cleared and we did. Within seconds, we were affected and I wouldn't doubt that if we had been foolish enough to stay around, we would have suffered more adverse effects, possibly even death.

10-14-2005, 04:58 PM
I did something similar all by myself, so I can't even blame miscommunication. At the time we lived in a house with a single bathroom, and the toilet was clogged. I tried a product, which didn't work. I tried another product, which reacted with the first, still in solution with the water. Although I saw nothing, I remember a pungent chemical odor in the seconds before I became light-headed, staggered out, and shut the door.

Sometimes you should just call a plumber! (Ours actually carried a gas mask in the truck--this wasn't the first time he'd dealt with such situations.)

Anyway, one place to start is with products that clear drains or toilets which are sluggish or clogged, if exposure to newly-created fumes would serve your plot.

I doubt if anything you could mix up from commercially-available products is toxic enough that a soaked rag held over the mouth and nose would cause death. Manufacturers are acutely aware that people will misuse their product and the courts could hold them liable despite clear label warnings. (Mr. Maryn used to work products liability, where case law suggested that juries weighed sympathy over facts in many instances.) If they sold something that dangerous, sooner or later someone would pour it on a rag and scrub, peer close to see if it was working, and die. (Probably me!)

Maybe something stronger is available for professional use? A field trip to a janitorial company won't be exciting, but it might be worthwhile.

Maryn, who could use a good janitor around this place

10-14-2005, 05:19 PM
I doubt if anything you could mix up from commercially-available products is toxic enough that a soaked rag held over the mouth and nose would cause death.
I'm pretty sure that combining bleach and ammonia would do it, as that releases the toxic gas noted above, which is why you never never never do that--of course, the killer would be breathing the same thing unless precautions were taken, and lurking around with a gas mask tends to get you noticed. And many OTC drain cleaners are nearly pure lye. I don't know about inhaling that--touching it would be a problem, certainly, as the stuff will eat flesh through to the bone and beyond--but I doubt breathing it would do your lungs any good.

Your better bet may be to have your killer mix the chemicals in a bathroom or other unventilated place and trap your janitor there, rather than holding something over his face.

10-14-2005, 05:24 PM
One of my favorites was a way we used to start a large bonfire in Boy Scouts...Yes, you read that right...
If you dump pine-sol or pine-o-pine on a coffee can full of HTH pool chlorinator, what results is first a column of flame followed by a large cloud of chlorine gas. We were young and stupid...

10-14-2005, 05:51 PM
Yeah, mixing chlorine bleach and ammonia creates mustard gas.

My mom always had a habit of cleaning the toilets w/ bleach--I mean, dumping a bunch in, and letting it just sit in there. We had an upstairs toilet that we rarely used, and she decided to clean it a few weeks after she'd cleaned it before. Problem was, no one had used it in the last few weeks, and the bleach (a good quarter-to half-gallon) was still in the bowl. She used a different cleaner (ammonia-based) to add to the bowl. The result was she got a raging case of instant chemical pneumonia. Fortunately, she'd already opened the house up, and that probably saved her. When I came home, the entire house still smelled of the toxic fumes. I rushed her to the ER, and the dr. treated her w/ epinephrine and a breathing treatment (albuterol), and sent her home. But he said that she was pretty lucky--I still had to stay up all night and watch to make sure her breathing was stable.

Anyhoo, that might be a good way to kill someone, I guess. You could go ahead and have one of the chemicals already in place in the toilet or sink the guy is cleaning, and make certain the room he's in isn't well-ventilated, and maybe have the door lock malfunction so he can't get out. And if that isn't enough to knock him off, give him some sort of illness (maybe asthma) that already compromises his airway.

10-14-2005, 06:18 PM
Chlorine, actually. Mustard gas is a somewhat more complicated chemical that really does come from mustard.

10-14-2005, 06:59 PM
Thanks for the correction, Matt!

Hmm. I have some mustard in my fridge . . . is there a powerful condiment poison I don't know about?

Sorry, my mind went off again--it's now thinking of warning labels that should be on condiments. :)