When we think about being in our homes, we might not think of all the things in our homes that can cause us harm. Home is often associated with feelings of safety and security. However, many common household items can cause us harm or pose health risks. This article highlights some of the common household products that contain toxic chemicals, their risks, and ways to prevent harm from using them.
Our homes contain many chemicals that we use regularly that can be toxic.
We can prevent harm or injury with basic safety measures to prevent adverse health effects from the use of everyday products found in our homes.
Always keep products that contain hazardous chemicals out of reach of children and pets.
Household chemicals and their health risks:
Our homes can contain a variety of potentially dangerous chemicals that are considered toxic or can be toxic, and can cause adverse health effects such as reproductive and endocrine toxicity. These exposures can come from various sources, including outdoor air, water, diet, and consumer products.
Cleaning products often include agents that cut through grease and disinfect. Products that contain ammonia, ethylene glycol monobutyl acetate, sodium hypochlorite, and trisodium phosphate can be harmful if used incorrectly. These products may irritate the skin, eyes, nose, and throat and can be poisonous if accidentally swallowed.
If you inhale too much household cleaning fumes, you should do the following:
- Ventilation. Ventilate the area and turn on a fan.
- Relocate. Leave the affected area and move into an area where you can get fresh air.
- Irrigate. If your eyes are irritated from the fume, irrigate them with water for 15–20 minutes. If the symptoms persist beyond that, notify your healthcare provider.
- Hydrate. If your throat is irritated, drink cool, non-alcoholic fluids like water or milk.
- Steam inhalation. If you are experiencing coughing and chest congestion from the fumes, you can run hot water in the bathroom, close the door, and inhale the steam.
If you are experiencing any shortness of breath, or chest pain, have a history of respiratory disease (like asthma, emphysema, or bronchitis), your symptoms persist for over 24 hours, or you are concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning in your home, you should seek medical attention right away.
Many laundry detergents contain enzymes to lift stains and dirt. If laundry detergent that is a cationic is ingested, it can result in nausea, vomiting, shock, and convulsions and can lead to a coma. Asthma may also develop if exposed in large quantities.
Laundry detergent pods can also be very dangerous for young children. Young children may think the laundry pods are a toy or treat. If these are put in the child's mouth and ingested, they can be poisonous.
When ingested, laundry pods can cause LDC poisoning. It can cause conjunctivitis and eye pain if it gets in the eye and has also been shown to cause damage to the eye due to causing increases in calcium within the eye and due to the acid found in the laundry pod.
If the laundry pod breaks onto the surface of the skin, a rash may develop. In some cases, this can cause a chemical burn. If you or your child ingests laundry detergent or a laundry pod, you should contact your local poison control and/or seek medical treatment right away. Eyes should be irrigated right away with water if the detergent or pod got into the eye. The detergent should be washed off of the skin and any contaminated clothing should also be removed to prevent a chemical burn.
Air fresheners contain chemicals that may cause brain damage and cancer such as formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, and p-dichlorobenzene. Air fresheners can irritate the eyes, skin, and throat and can cause death if eaten by people or pets.
Many air fresheners contain toxic chemicals. While they may smell good, the can actually be really bad for our health. People that have sensitivities or allergies to scents may experience headaches and sudden respiratory problems from air fresheners.
Some of the chemicals used in air fresheners, like phthalates, disrupt our endocrine system by mimicking our body’s hormones. The chemical found in some air fresheners and mothballs has been linked to some cancers at elevated levels.
If you experience an adverse reaction from an air freshener, remove yourself from that room right away and go to an area with fresh air. If your symptoms persist, you should seek medical attention. It is recommended to remove all air fresheners from your home to avoid their toxic effects that may not present with immediate symptoms. When the weather allows, open up the windows to help rid the house of any unwanted smells.
Many cans are used to preserve food and some plastic containers are lined with BPA. This is a chemical that keeps metal or plastic intact to protect the food. However, this can leach into our food over time and occurs faster if the container is heated. BPA has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, obesity, early puberty, and heart disease.
The side effects of BPA may not show up right away. Due to the numerous health conditions BPA has been linked to, it is recommended to minimize your contact with BPA. There are several ways you can do this:
- Choose BPA-free packaging and products.
- Avoid heating plastic food containers.
- Use glass bottles.
- Avoid canned goods.
- Choose BPA-free toys and toiletries.
Treating BPA toxicity depends on the health condition that has developed due to ingesting too much BPA.
Some items and containers used for cooking may be lined with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that stop food from sticking. If these start to chip or scrape off, they can get into our food. These chemicals have been linked to decreased sperm counts, kidney and thyroid problems, and high cholesterol.
Similar to food containers that contain BPA, you may not notice the negative health effects of PFCs until you’ve developed a health condition that it contributed to.
There are many chemicals that can contaminate our water sources and get into our tap water. Pesticides used on crops soak into the earth and waterways which can then get into our water supply. The chemicals used in pesticides have been linked to delayed puberty and prostate problems. Chemicals found in rocket fuel, fireworks, batteries, car parts, and fertilizers can cause thyroid problems. If you live in an old house with lead pipes, these may contain lead which can contaminate your water source.
Drinking water may also contain harmful bacteria that can cause health problems. Drinking contaminated water can cause a variety of health problems including:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Stomach cramping
- Stomach aches and pains
- Dehydration and even death
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should switch to bottled water only. You may also want to consider drinking an electrolyte replacement drink to replace any electrolytes that you lost if you experienced vomiting or diarrhea. You can rest your bowel by only drinking clear liquids until your symptoms improve. Then gradually increase your diet to bland foods before reintroducing your regular foods back into your diet.
If your symptoms do not resolve within a couple of days, you should seek medical advice. It should also be noted that public health departments will periodically test the water in the city to make sure that it is safe to drink. They are also able to go to homes to perform tests on well water if you are concerned about your water being contaminated.
Lotions, shampoo, and shaving creams may contain numerous toxic chemicals, but the most harmful one is phthalates. Phthalates have been linked to low sperm counts and thyroid irregularities. Triclosan can be found in antibacterial products used in hand soaps, deodorants, and toothpaste which can cause low testosterone levels.
You may not experience any side effects from these products right away. The treatment will depend on the health condition that you develop from the product containing phthalates.
Paints are not considered toxic unless they are ingested or inhaled in large quantities. Some latex paints emit formaldehyde when drying which can cause headaches, and irritate the eyes, nose, and throat.
Oil-based paints can irritate the eyes and skin and can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue if inhaled. If frequently exposed to oil-based paints it can cause kidney, liver, and blood problems.
If you experience any of these symptoms while painting, ventilate the room and turn on a fan. Remove yourself from the room to get fresh air. If your symptoms do not resolve on their own, seek medical advice.
Items found in the garage
Many items in the garage can be harmful. For example:
- Antifreeze. Antifreeze is poisonous. Inhaling this can cause dizziness. If swallowed, it can be fatal due to the severe damage it can cause to the heart, kidneys, and brain.
- Motor oil. Motor oil contains chemicals that can cause nerve and kidney damage and may cause cancer. Batteries that are used in today’s vehicles are sealed to prevent exposure to the chemicals inside of them but can be harmful if that seal breaks.
If any of these items are ingested, it can be life-threatening and immediate medical treatment is needed. If these items get on the surface of your skin, you should wash the area thoroughly with soap and water and remove any contaminated clothing. Flush the eyes with water immediately if the product gets into your eye and seek further medical attention if symptoms persist.
Weed killers can irritate the eyes and skin and can be very harmful if they are inhaled or swallowed in large doses. Insect repellents that contain DEET can cause burning to the eyes, skin, and throat. DEET may also cause anxiety, behavioral changes, confusion, and loss of coordination.
If weed killer or products containing DEET are swallowed, you should rinse your mouth immediately, drink water, contact poison control, and seek medical attention immediately.
Pet flea and tick treatments contain pesticides that can cause headaches, dizziness, twitching, and nausea if exposed to your skin or ingested.
If you get your pet's liquid tick treatment on your skin, you should wash that area immediately with soap and water. Rinse out your mouth immediately if this gets into your mouth and you ingest it and contact poison control for further advice.
Some pets may be on oral medication to treat ticks and fleas. According to the World Health Organization, the tick and flea medication, Lufenuron, has had no intentional human overdoses. When humans have been exposed to this, it has caused symptoms of GI upset and drowsiness. If you accidentally take your pet's medication, you should contact poison control for further advice.
To make homes safer, chemical fire retardants may have been added to our furniture. Some of these have been known to cause issues with thyroid function and brain development.
To prevent inhaling the toxins from your furniture, you can consider buying an air purifier to remove any dangerous chemicals. Cleaning your furniture with baking soda can also help absorb toxins found in it. Doing these things can help prevent developing health complications that develop later due to continued inhalation of the toxins.
It is important to keep in mind that most household cleaning products and pesticides are usually safe when used as directed. To reduce the risk of harmful effects from these products, it is essential to never use more than the product recommends and never to mix chemical products without guidance.
Preventing toxicity from household items
There are many things you can do to prevent exposure to potentially harmful chemicals found in your home.
- Use protection. Protective equipment like rubber gloves when cleaning with any all-purpose, oven, and antibacterial cleaners can help protect your skin.
- Ventilate. Open windows or turn a fan on during and after use to allow for better air circulation, or even use a respirator.
- Don't mix. Never mix different cleaners, especially those that contain bleach or ammonia as those two chemicals mixed can create a gas called chloramine which can cause severe respiratory problems and can be fatal if large quantities are inhaled.
- One product only. When using a toilet bowl cleaner, never mix it with any other household cleaner as this can create a poisonous gas that can cause serious breathing problems. Make sure your bathroom has good ventilation and use the exhaust fan while cleaning your bathroom. You should also wear rubber gloves to prevent any bathroom cleaning products from getting on your hand. If they do get on your hands or skin, wash them off immediately with soap and water.
- Use wisely. Only use air fresheners in well-ventilated areas and never spray them near an open flame. Baking soda can absorb odors and can be used as an alternative to air fresheners.
- Find alternatives. If you want to avoid BPA, avoid canned foods when possible, or choose companies that offer BPA-free cans. Food packaged in plastic with a recycling code 7 usually indicates that it contains BPA, so avoid these foods. To prevent exposure to PFC, get rid of any nonstick pots and pans in your house. Instead, use stainless steel or cast-iron pots and pans.
- Check with authorities. If you’re concerned about the safety of your tap water, check with your local utility company to determine which chemicals may be present. You may also want to consider installing a water filter for your drinking water.
- Use fans. When painting, keep the windows and doors open if you can to allow for better ventilation. You can also place a fan facing out of a window to blow any paint fumes out of the house. Make sure you keep small children away from any rooms being painted or any open paint cans.
- Clean up. If you spill antifreeze, make sure to keep pets and children away from the spill. Wear gloves to clean up the spill because chemicals in antifreeze can be absorbed by your skin. There are safer chemicals in some antifreeze. For example, propylene glycol is a less toxic alternative to ethylene glycol found in antifreeze.
- Keep seals intact. Make sure you don’t break the seal of the batteries. If the seal is accidentally broken, keep any pets and children away from the area until it can be properly cleaned up. If you encounter any broken batteries, wash your hands well after contact.
- Avoid contamination. If you use any pesticides or insecticides in or around your home, make sure they do not come in contact with any food or items that may come in contact with food like dishes or dish towels.
- Don't touch. When applying tick or flea treatments to your pet, do not pet them for at least 24 hours. If you do pet them, wash your hands with soap and water immediately.
- Clean regularly. Chemical exposure from furniture usually occurs because the chemicals can accumulate on household dust. To prevent this from happening, vacuum and dust regularly.
- Store safely. If you use any items in your home that contain toxins, make sure you store them in a safe place out of reach of children and pets.
When in doubt, check the product label for more information or phone numbers for support and poison control specialists.
- Canadian family physician. Laundry detergent capsules and pediatric poisoning.
- Journal of epidemiology and community health. Reducing chemical exposures at home: opportunities for action.
- New Jersey Department of Health. Best practices for health child care centers.
- National Capital Poison Center. Is my pet's flea medication poisonous to humans?