You wouldn’t normally use the words “toxic” and “home” together. “Home” is all about refuge, comfort, and safety. Sensible people don’t just buy poisons and bring them home. Right?
You may need to re-think that. Those products you’re using and storing in your kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedrooms may already be health risks that you’ve invited into your home.
Here are five of the most common household product categories that carry potential risks to human health.
Pesticides are formulated to kill living things that are considered “pests.” Products under this category are rat poisons, insecticides, fungicides, flea collars, mothballs, wood preservatives, and disinfectants. Some of the chemicals found in these products are boric acid, chlorpyrifos, DEET, diazinon, naphthalene, p-dichlorobenzene, pyrethrins, trichlorfon, warfarin.
Depending on the ingredients they contain and the amount of exposure one might have to them, pesticides carry health risks ranging from skin or eye irritation, to more serious systemic conditions and cancer.
Because pesticides are clearly poisons, pesticide manufacturers are required to indicate the products’ levels of toxicity in their labels and packaging.
This category covers latex or oil-based paints, paint thinners, varnishes, stains, furniture strippers, and rust proofers.
Lead and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are among the hazardous ingredients in these products. Exposure to lead has been known for some time to cause learning disabilities in children. Long-term exposure to VOCs at certain levels of concentration can adversely affect the lungs, liver, kidneys, and/or the central nervous system, or cause cancer.
All-purpose and special-purpose cleaners; laundry and dishwashing detergents; disinfectants; deodorizers; and waxes and polishes for the floor, furniture, shoes, and metals fall under this category.
You’ll find any number of chemicals like the following in these products: ammonia, chlorine bleach, isopropanol, hydrochloric acid, lye, phenol, sodium bisulfate, sodium hypochlorite, and sulfuric acid.
Depending on the chemicals involved, and the length and intensity of exposure, these products can irritate eyes, skin, or throat; cause breathing problems, nausea, or vomiting; or lead to serious systemic disorders and cancer.
This category includes bedding, foam pillows, and nap mats; car seats; baby shampoos, soaps, and colognes; baby bottles, sippy cups and other food containers; baby teethers and other toys. All are designed and packaged to score high on the scale of cuteness. But how do they do on the scale of safety?
With so many toxic chemicals in them, not so well.
Flame retardants are applied to baby bedding, pillows, nap mats, and car seats.
Phthalates, which help dissolve other materials and make plastics more flexible and durable, are present in the fragrance in cleaning and baby care products, and in plastic toys.
Bisphenol A (BPA) and its substitutes (BPS,BPE, BPF, etc.), used in making hard plastic items, are present in baby bottles, sippy cups, and plastic food containers.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers are preservatives directly added to baby shampoos and liquid soaps, or released by other preservatives in these products.
Flame retardants, phthalates, and BPA and its substitutes are endocrine disruptors. They interfere with the proper functioning of the hormone systems, leading to potentially serious medical problems such as breast cancer, obesity, and diabetes. Formaldehyde and other preservatives are known to be carcinogenic.
This is particularly concerning because babies’ bodily systems are not yet fully developed and are therefore more vulnerable to toxins. If even a slight exposure to toxins occurs at a critical point in babies’ development, they can suffer from learning disabilities and other serious health issues later in life.
This category includes perfumes, colognes, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, antiperspirants, hair dyes, and sunscreens.
Among the potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products are formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasers, mercury, phthalates, parabens, long-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and m- and o-phenylenediamine.
As mentioned earlier, formaldehyde and other preservatives are carcinogens; phthalates are endocrine disruptors. The other chemicals are no less dangerous.
Mercury can cause kidney damage and nervous system disorders. Parabens are also endocrine disruptors and potentially harmful to the reproductive system. PFAs are carcinogenic. Phenylenediamines can irritate the skin and make it more sensitive to allergens, and with longer exposure, cause DNA damage and cancer.
Because cosmetics and personal care products are applied on the skin almost daily, they are as potentially harmful as the other product categories listed here. Yet cosmetics are not as well regulated as food, drugs, or pesticides.
Are we all doomed? Not if we make informed choices about the products we purchase and use. Simple steps like the following can spell the difference between “toxic home” and “safe home.”
Before buying any product, read the label. Check for signal words like danger, warning, caution, and precautions. Check the list of ingredients or chemicals. Know also that there are safe substitutes for many household and personal care products, so go for safety whenever you can.
If you have no choice but to use a potentially hazardous product, buy only enough for your needs, handle it with care, and store it beyond the reach of children and pets. Keep exposure within safe levels by following all directions on the label, and using only the specified amounts.
If you want to get rid of the toxics already in your home, use safe disposal methods like the following for hazardous household wastes.
If the product label contains disposal recommendations, follow those.
Use up the product you already have but strictly as directed by the manufacturer. If you can’t use it up, give it (in its original container and with the label intact) to individuals or groups in your community who could use it.
Recycle what can be recycled. Look up the recycling methods for the particular product.
Rinse empty hazardous product containers several times, put them in a bag with other recyclable containers, and dispose of them in the trash.
If the waste can be neutralized by water and you are connected to a sewer system rather than a septic system, you can flush a tiny amount, just one cup or less, with plenty of water, down your drain.
If your community has a waste collection system in place, dispose of your hazardous wastes through that system.
It may not be possible to completely rid our homes of toxic products. But we can avoid harm by using them only when needed and as directed. We can also minimize their use by opting for safer alternatives. In the end, our lifestyle choices determine whether or not we live in a safe home.