General Question

finkelitis's avatar

Is Drano actually bad for the environment?

Asked by finkelitis (1907 points ) April 14th, 2011

I had always assumed Drano was horribly toxic, but I recently happened across an article that said that the chemicals in Drano break down into harmless components once they reach soil or water, and that the main danger in using it was to yourself (the burn photos are pretty horrible). Can any chemist confirm that this is true? I haven’t been able to find a second verification online.

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16 Answers

josie's avatar

Not a chemist. But I took chemistry in college. Close enough.
The major ingredient in Drano is Sodium Hydroxide. When it comes in contact with acids in solution (present in soil and ground water) it turns into water and a salt, depending on the acid. Both harmless.

gailcalled's avatar

Hey there; we need some chemists’ views.

One of these ingredients is lye. I’d stick to vinegar and water, to be safe.

Ingredients from MSDS/Label

Chemical CAS No / Unique ID Percent
Sodium hydroxide 001310–73-2 <2.0
Sodium hypochlorite 007681–52-9 <10
Water 007732–18-5 85–95

cazzie's avatar

I use Sodium hydroxide all the time. It’s lye. When initially blended in a certain concentration with water, it has an exothermic reaction… it gets really hot.. that helps dissolve fats that may be in the drain. The other way it works is that it’s highly caustic, which means it will dissolve hair and other natural fibres in the drain. After its initial contact with water, it will cool and when it is further diluted with more water, its base pH drops to more harmless levels until it is so diluted as to pose no threat. If it reacts with fats, it actually saponifies.

Oh,,, and Sodium hypochlorite is commonly known as bleach. I don’t like bleach. It’s old fashioned and not so harmless. There doesn’t seem to be much reason for this ingredient in drain cleaner, other than to add some feeling of ‘disinfecting’ which is pointless.

If you don’t want to use these very caustic chemicals and prefer to use something a bit less harmful… use vinegar and baking soda. This reaction releases CO2 and if you cover the drain, with even just your hand, the gas pressure may be enough to unblock it. Another quite harmless pH reaction to unblock drains is citric acid and baking soda. The difference of the pH levels in the two compounds, when blended with water, releases CO2.

Mamradpivo's avatar

I’m certainly no chemist but I’m not really sure what good dumping a liquid that deteriorates hair and dirt into the drain can possibly do. It obviously dissolves into the water it’s flushed out in, but if it can basically dissolve everything it touches at high potency, it must have some lingering effect further down the line.

tedd's avatar

I wouldn’t go around dumping it in your yard for no reason, but no it is not really that bad for the environment because as stated it breaks down rather easily to harmless components.

(I’m an analytical chemist btw)

cazzie's avatar

@tedd…. what do you think of the needless addition of bleach to the Draino recipe?

tedd's avatar

@cazzie I’m not really up on the way Draino works, or what it dissolves exactly even. So I really couldn’t comment without more research…. which for the sake of a fluther thread I am far too lazy to do :).

If they put it into the formula I would imagine it has some purpose. Being a business it of course may not necessarily be a good reason (it wouldn’t shock me if they include it just so customers see “bleach” on the side and think higher of it), but still I can’t see them wasting money on bleach with no reason.

finkelitis's avatar

Thanks for these responses. This confirms my sense that Drano isn’t too bad, environmentally. @cazzie: thanks for the suggestion of vinegar and baking soda. I’ve done this many times before, but never covered the drain (and it never worked, either). That seems worth trying again before I go back to Drano.

cazzie's avatar

@tedd, I’m sure the bleach cleans the surface look of the drain and adds to the base pH of the resulting fluid that works on the blockage. It probably also leaves a lingering ‘bleach’ scent that will, in the mind of the average consumer, make them think they ‘cleaned the drain’.

Doesn’t anyone use a plunger anymore?

tedd's avatar

@cazzie I do…. but I don’t think mine would fit on my sink…. lol

millie2312's avatar

Here is some information:
The active ingredient in Drano and other conventional drain cleaners is sodium hydroxide, otherwise known as caustic soda or lye. It is a man-made chemical used for its corrosive properties. According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the substance is not considered a pollutant per se, as it separates into relatively harmless component elements once released into water or moist soil.

once the lye has reacted with the plant fats and oils, their chemical structures are changed and there’s no harmful residue. This chemical reaction is called saponification.

and for those who know Spanish: from
La lejía y el medio ambiente
Uno de los mitos extendidos sobre el uso de la lejía es la cantidad de cloroformo que se genera cuando actúa sobre una bacteria. Sin embargo, la cantidad de cloroformo generada por la reacción de la lejía se encuentra muy por debajo de los límites permisibles de exposición, y esa mínima cantidad se degrada con facilidad en los alcantarillados o en las plantas de tratamiento de aguas residuales, no llegando a acumularse en el medio ambiente.
Además, la lejía no es más que sal común activada. Por ello, y aunque es extremadamente eficaz recién salida del envase, una vez ha hecho su efecto sobre las bacterias o el moho se convierte otra vez en sal común en el mismo alcantarillado.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

@millie2312 saponificationthe hydrolysis of a carboxylic acid ester under basic conditions; Saponification is a process that produces soap, usually from fats and lye

Lye was used to turn tallow into soap. The lye can be obtained by soaking wood ashes in water, like this.

Some formulations of Drano® have aluminum shards, supposedly to help remove the clogs.

Drano is usually used to dissolve clogs in drains. Any plumber can tell you most clogs are some form of grease or fat. The lye in Drano dissolves these fats, turning them to soap and out to the sewer or septic system

cazzie's avatar

The lye is used in drain cleaner not for its saponification but for its immediate and dramatic exothermic reaction and aluminum adds to that reaction. It is more eco friendly to use 100% lye than using Draino.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

@cazzie True that; A less caustic suggestion is to use vinegar and baking soda. I’m no chemist, and I’m not sure if the reaction between vinegar and baking soda would be considered exothermic. In a closed area it would probably be somewhat explosive, causing enough pressure to physically dislodge the clog. The kicker is that with lye, the saponification process will turn the fat mass into soap, which will add to the lubrication of the drain pipe so that what’s left of the clog will just “slide” on out of there.

cazzie's avatar

I know a great deal about saponification and it takes a damn site more than for the lye to briefly come into contact with the fat dam so it will not make soap instantly like that. Vinegar and baking soda is not exothermic, but could dislodge a blockage due to the CO2 given off with the reaction. To take full advantage of this, pressure needs to build up so placing something over the drain and any overflow to block the escaping gas will help. Lye is so caustic and hot it helps break down hair in the clog too.

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