Anyone who has, perhaps too eagerly, used chlorine bleach to crucify the germs living on a countertop, a cutting board, bathroom grout, or anywhere else probably knows that the harsh cleaner can singe your nose hairs, if not leave you gasping for breath. However, food-safety experts insist that it's the only material that should be used as a disinfectant solution against foodborne illnesses, and many bathroom-grout scrubbers are convinced that it's the only cleaner that will remove tough mildew stains. Could they be missing an equally effective alternative? Or is vinegar disinfectant best used as a second-string solution?
This: Chlorine Bleach
Pros: Chlorine bleach is an extremely effective germ killer. It's one of the only household cleaning materials regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which means that it's been tested and shown to kill microorganisms, such as the E. coli, responsible for many cases of foodborne illness. And it takes just a small amount to do this—1 part bleach to 4 parts water—so you can stretch a bottle for quite some time.
Cons: The production process for chlorine bleach is pretty nasty; it releases cancer-causing dioxin as well as brain-damaging mercury into the air surrounding chlorine plants. If you have kids in the house, you need to take precautions: According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, chlorine bleach poisoned 14,400 children under age 6 in 2007 (the last year for which data is available).
Pros: The vinegar you buy in stores, whether apple cider, balsamic, white, or another kind, contains 5 percent acetic acid, which does have antimicrobial properties. Various studies have found that vinegar, usually in combination with table salt or hydrogen peroxide, can inhibit the growth of some strains of E. coli. It's also an effective mold killer. Its production doesn't take such a toll on the environment, and while it can be pungent, a whiff of vinegar cleaning mix won't sear your airways.
Cons:So does vinegar kill germs? The exact science is a little murky. When it comes to food safety, vinegar hasn't been as thoroughly tested as chlorine bleach. Studies that find it kills germs are generally vague in terms of how much of the germs are killed and how much are left behind. While we often recommend it for general cleaning, it would be great to have more specifics on its germ-killing capabilities, especially for people who have someone with a compromised immune system in their home, or some other reason to be extra concerned about germs. Also, some people do have a problem with the smell (though it's odorless once it dries).