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Just how safe is Borax?

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There is a lot of confusion online about the safety of Borax in natural cleaning recipes, pest control applications and children's crafts recipes. Proponents claim that it is safe and natural, while others consider it a toxin to avoid.

Part of the debate stems from people who are confused about the relationship between Borax and boric acid. The terms Borax and boric acid are often used interchangeably, though they are technically different. As you'll see, however, the differences are ultimately slight.

Wikipedia defines Borax as:

Borax, also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate, is an important boron compound, a mineral, and a salt of boric acid.

Borax is commonly sold under the brand name "20 Mule Team" as a laundry aid, though it is also available from chemical companies for its uses as a pesticide, fungicide and cleaner, among other uses.

Its chemical name is Sodium Tetraborate Pentahydrate and its Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) notes, "Sodium Tetraborate Pentahydrate is chemically and toxicologically related to Boric Acid" and "Sodium Tetraborate Pentahydrate is converted to Boric Acid in biological systems."

Borax is often touted as safe and natural. While it is a naturally occurring mineral, that doesn't mean it is without dangers. It is officially classified as a poison. Government sites recommend that people who work with Borax use gloves and handle it with caution. Studies have linked it to reproductive problems in some lab animals, as well as a host of serious disorders (and death) at higher levels.

Green Footsteps points out:

Borax needs to be stored carefully because it is toxic if ingested. While this may be unlikely to happen, even by accident, anyone using it should be aware because of the dangers of very young children playing with it - as with any household compounds.

Even as little as a teaspoonful could prove fatal if swallowed by a young child. For this reason, be very careful if using it anywhere near food and wipe up spills immediately.

Many people online are quick to point out that Borax is technically different from boric acid, and they seem to believe that this somehow makes it safe. It is important to note that not only are the two substances extremely similar to begin with, but when Borax is exposed to an acid (such as stomach acid), it converts to boric acid.

The 20 Mule Team's MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Borax specifically says:

Nonetheless, the following effects have been reported for a component, sodium borate, and boric acid. Sodium borate upon entry into the body becomes boric acid.

They further say:

May cause gastrointestinal disturbances such as headache, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, with delayed effects of skin redness and peeling.

The National Library of Medicine's TOXNET, the national database on toxicology, hazardous chemicals, environmental health, and toxic releases, says of Borax:

Ingestion of 5 to 10 g by young children can cause severe vomiting, diarrhea, shock and death.

Note that this is the lethal dose for Borax, which is supposedly so much safer than boric acid.

They further say:

Effects from ingestion include abdominal pain, diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, weakness, convulsions.

Wikipedia lists more concerns:

Sufficient exposure to borax dust can cause respiratory and skin irritation. Ingestion may cause gastrointestinal distress including nausea, persistent vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Effects on the vascular system and brain include headaches and lethargy, but are less frequent. "In severe poisonings, a beefy red skin rash affecting palms, soles, buttocks and scrotum has been described. With severe poisoning, erythematous and exfoliative rash, unconsciousness, respiratory depression, and renal failure."[24]

Borax was added to the Substance of Very High Concern (SVHC) candidate list on 16 December 2010. The SVHC candidate list is part of the EU Regulations on the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals 2006 (REACH), and the addition was based on the revised classification of Borax as toxic for reproduction category 1B under the CLP Regulations. Substances and mixtures imported into the EU which contain Borax are now required to be labelled with the warnings "May damage fertility" and "May damage the unborn child".[25]

It is important to note that many of the products we regularly use around our homes are as dangerous or more. Even table salt and water are deadly in high enough doses. That said, Borax is not a harmless material and it's important to understand the dangers if you use it in your home -- especially around children.

If you do use Borax in your home, follow these safety guidelines:

  • Keep it clearly labeled, and out of reach of children and pets.
  • Wear gloves when handling it, especially if you have damaged or broken skin.
  • Keep Borax away from eyes; use eye protection if necessary.
  • Take special precautions about inhaling it if you have asthma.
  • Do not use it in craft recipes if your children are likely to put the concoctions in their mouths or if they have broken or damaged skin on their hands.
  • Use special care when handling Borax if you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant.
  • Use caution using it in areas used by children and pets, such as carpets where babies crawl.
  • Wipe up spills carefully.
  • In case of accidental ingestion (one teaspoon or more for adults, much less for children), give water and seek medical attention.

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