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.
But sodium hydroxide is an irritant that can burn skin and aggravate nose, throat and respiratory airways, so contact with it is best avoided. If ingested outright it will likely induce vomiting, as well as cause chest or abdominal pain and make swallowing difficult--so keep it well out of the reach of children.
For those who would rather avoid such chemicals entirely, safer alternatives do exist. A plunger or mechanical drain snake--along with a little elbow grease--can often free up clogs as well or better than sodium hydroxide compounds. One home remedy with a proven track record is to pour a handful of baking soda mixed with a half cup of vinegar down the drain, and follow it quickly with boiling water.
Another option is to choose any number of enzymatic biological drain cleaners on the market today, such as Earth Friendly Products Enzyme Drain Cleaner or Bi-O-Kleens BacOut. These make use of a natural bacterial and enzyme mixture to open and keep drains clear. And unlike sodium hydroxide they are non-caustic and will not facilitate combustion.
As any plumber will tell you, a good maintenance regimen is the best way to prevent clogged drains. Flushing drains weekly with boiling water can help keep them clear. Also, installing small screens atop drains will help keep hair, lint and other clogging elements out of the pipeline in the first place.
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