Household Chemical Products and Their Health Risk

Common household items such as cleaners, detergent, auto supplies and paint may contain dangerous chemicals. Here are tips for storing and handling these substances safely.


What potentially dangerous chemicals can be found in the typical home?

Potentially dangerous chemicals can be found in every room in your home. If not properly stored or used, these products could cause minor to serious and even life-threatening health problems for you or your children.

What are these every day household chemicals? Let’s take a tour of the rooms of your home and discover what some of these chemicals are and what health harms they may cause.

Keep in mind that most household cleaning products and pesticides are reasonably safe when used as directed, and that the level of toxicity of a product is dependent on the dose of the product used (never use more than the amount listed on the label) and the length of exposure to the product.

1) In the garage

a) Antifreeze. Ethylene glycol, the main hazardous ingredient of antifreeze, is extremely poisonous. Though inhalation of the fumes can causes dizziness, swallowing antifreeze will cause severe damage to the heart, kidneys and brain. Antifreeze can be fatal if swallowed.

i) Safety tips: If you need to clean up antifreeze – the bright green or yellow liquid you find in your garage or driveway – make sure you wear gloves because ethylene glycol is absorbed through the skin. Also, keep your pets away from spilled antifreeze. Pets are attracted to antifreeze because of its sweet smell, but licking or drinking the fluid can kill your pet. A much safer alternative to ethylene glycol is propylene glycol. Before purchasing antifreeze, look at the label to identify products containing the less toxic chemical, propylene glycol.

b) Motor oil. Used oil or waste motor oil may be contaminated with magnesium, copper, zinc and other heavy metals deposited from your vehicle’s engine. Oil contains chemicals that can cause nerve and kidney damage and that are suspected of causing cancer.

c) Latex paint. Unless ingested in large quantities, water-soluble latex paints are not highly toxic. However, some latex paints emit formaldehyde when drying. High levels of formaldehyde can give you a headache and irritate your eyes, nose and throat.

d) Oil-based paint. Oil-based paint contains organic solvents that can be irritating to eyes and skin, and can cause cracking of skin. Inhaling paint fumes can result in headaches, nausea, dizziness and fatigue. Most of these symptoms go away once you go out into fresh air. However, frequent exposure to these chemicals in the presence of poor air circulation can cause kidney, liver and blood problems.

i) Safety tips: When painting, keep windows and doors fully open. Place a box fan in a window to direct air and fumes outdoors. Keep the fan on while painting and for 48 hours thereafter. Keep small children away from the room being painted and away from open paint cans.

e) Batteries. Most wet-cell batteries in use in today’s cars, SUVs and trucks are sealed so you cannot be exposed to the batteries’ contents, which include sulfuric acid and lead. However, when activated, the electrolyte solution in the battery produces explosive gases that can be easily ignited. Batteries that contain sulfuric acid must be labeled. Sulfuric acid fumes are strongly irritating and contact can cause burning and charring of the skin, or blindness if you get it in your eyes. Lead is poisonous in all forms and accumulates in our bodies and in the environment.

i) Safety tips: Never break the seal of wet-cell batteries. If the seal is accidentally broken, keep children and pets away from the area until the battery’s acid is cleaned up. Wash your hands after any contact with wet-cell batteries.

f) Windshield washer fluid. Common chemicals in windshield washer fluid are methanol, ethylene glycol, and isopropanol. Collectively, these products can irritate the lining of your nose, mouth and throat and can cause damage to the nervous system, liver, kidneys, heart and brain. Ingestion can result in drowsiness, unconsciousness and death.

2) In the laundry room/utility room

a) Laundry detergents. These products contain enzymes (as noted by the names “cationic,” “anionic” or “non-ionic” on the label) to loosen stains and ground-in dirt. Cationic detergents are the most toxic when taken internally. Ingestion can result in nausea, vomiting, shock, convulsions and coma. “Non-ionic” detergents are less toxic but can irritate skin and eyes or make you more sensitive to other chemicals. Asthma can develop if a person is exposed to large quantities of detergent. Detergents are also responsible for many household poisonings from accidental swallowing.

b) All-purpose cleaners. There are numerous “all-purpose” cleaning products on the market. These products usually contain detergents, grease-cutting agents, solvents and/or disinfectants. The specific chemicals in these ingredients include ammonia, ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate, sodium hypochlorite and/or trisodium phosphate. Depending on the ingredients used, all-purpose cleaners can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. They can be highly poisonous to both humans and animals if swallowed.

i) Safety tips: When working with an all-purpose cleaner, always wear rubber gloves to protect your skin. Also, be sure that there is good air circulation in the room. Open several windows or keep a fan running. Most importantly, NEVER mix two cleaners of different kinds together, especially products containing ammonia and chlorine (bleach). This mixture can result in the production of a gas called chloramine, which can cause serious breathing problems and be potentially fatal if inhaled in great quantities.

c) Bleach. Household bleach contains the chemical sodium hypochlorite in different concentrations ranging from 0.7 percent to 5.25 percent. These percentages are the amount of the chemical in the liquid; the rest of the liquid is mostly water. Chlorine bleach liquid and vapors can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Dermatitis may result from direct skin contact. Ingestion can cause esophageal injury, stomach irritation and prolonged nausea and vomiting.

i) Never mix chlorine bleach with any other household cleaning products and especially not with ammonia. Doing so can result in different types of poisonous gases being released, which can cause very serious breathing problems.

d) Pet flea and tick treatments. Many of the pet flea and tick treatment products contain pesticides that consist of the chemicals imidacloprid, fipronil, pyrethrins, permethrin and methoprene. These chemicals can cause headache, dizziness, twitching and nausea.

i) Safety tips: When using these products on your dog or cat, be sure not to pet them for at least 24 hours. If you forget and do pet them, wash your hands and skin immediately with a lot of soap and water.

e) Insecticides. Insecticides contain some of the same pesticides found in pet flea and tick treatments. In addition to permethrin, other pesticide chemicals commonly found in insecticides are diazinon, propoxur and chlorpyrifos. These chemicals can cause headache, dizziness, twitching and nausea.

i) Safety tips: When using an insecticide in the home, make sure it doesn’t get on food or substances that come in contact with food, like dish towels, dishes, silverware or counter tops.

3) In the kitchen

a) Dishwashing detergents. The main ingredient in automatic and hand dishwashing detergents is phosphate. Automatic dishwashing detergents are known to produce skin irritations or burns and may be poisonous if swallowed. Hand dishwashing detergents are milder than automatic dishwashing detergents. If swallowed, they may cause irritation to the mouth and throat, nausea, but they are not fatal if swallow

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