Saturday, July 2, 2011

How I almost killed myself while cleaning the cat box

I have huge litter boxes for my cats. The sides are high, and they rarely miss the box when peeing. I keep the cat boxes in the unused shower, the one with broken tiles and a leaking drain pan. This handy setup is one of the benefits of living in a 60-year-old house.

My cat Whisper © Terry Albert
This morning when I went to sweep up some litter they had tracked on the shower floor, I realized it was wet. I carried the litter box outside, and saw that the underside was wet, and it smelled awful. I washed the box and left it outside to air-dry while I went in to clean up the shower.

The shower clearly could use disinfecting, so I grabbed the cleaner-with-bleach and headed down the hall with a roll of paper towels. I couldn’t rinse out the shower because of the leaks, so I needed to clean up the mess and wipe it out.

As soon as the cleaning spray hit the shower floor, I knew I was in trouble. The fumes of the bleach cleaner mixed with the ammonia in the urine and IMMEDIATELY created an extremely toxic chloramine gas. My nose, eyes and throat burned. My lungs felt like I’d swallowed a torch. I dropped everything and ran from the room.

Now, a couple hours later, my chest still hurts, and I realize how much danger I was in. If I hadn’t left the room, I would have quickly lost consciousness, and could have even died.

A search on the Internet confirmed my suspicions. Here’s what I found on
  • If you find someone who you think has mixed bleach and ammonia, chances are he or she will be unconscious. If you can, remove the person to fresh air, preferably outdoors. Call 911 for emergency assistance.
  • Thoroughly ventilate the area before returning to dispose of the liquid. Seek specific instructions from Poison Control so that you don't hurt yourself. You're most likely to make this mistake in a bathroom or kitchen, so leave and seek assistance, return later to open a window, allow time for the fumes to dissipate, and then go back to clean up. Dilute the chemical mixture with plenty of water. Wear gloves, just as you would for either bleach or ammonia.
Just to be sure, I called poison control 800-222-1222. They told me as long as I was breathing okay, to just drink something cold or eat some ice cream to soothe my throat. If I had trouble breathing, I would need to go to the hospital for oxygen and supportive care.

I knew not to mix household cleaners, but didn’t stop to think about the ammonia in urine. There’s no reason to create chemical weapons in your home and release them on yourself. Good God, it’s hard to imagine such a silly thing could kill me. 

Note: Another toxic mixture is bleach and vinegar, which releases chlorine gas.
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© 2011 Terry Albert. All Rights Reserved.


Debbie Hill said...

What a *valuable* lesson you have shared with us, Terry, WOW!! I must say that I was stunned to know that a professional such as yourself made such an unsuspecting and easy mistake. This is a noteworthy lesson which serves as a reminder to ALL of us pet sitters how easily we can put ourselves in harm's way.

I solely sit dogs but intend to share your story with my client base, as so many doggie owners own kitties too.

Enjoy this holiday, Terry, the one you almost didn't get to have! So glad to know you are okay.

Debbie Hill
Long Beach, Washington

Terry Albert said...

Thanks for your nice comments--I must say, I never stop learning. And I certainly don't want anyone to get hurt, so I'm glad you are able to pass the story along.