Household Chemicals: Whats in my House
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.
In the garage
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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 so 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.
- 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.
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.
In the laundry room/utility room
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
In the kitchen
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 swallowed.
Oven cleaners. The basic ingredient in oven cleaners is lye (consisting of either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide). Lye is extremely corrosive and can burn your skin and eyes. It can cause severe tissue damage and may be fatal if swallowed.
- Safety tips: When working with oven cleaners, always wear an apron, gloves, and safety goggles. Do not breathe the fumes. Make sure the work area is well ventilated. The best tip: Non-toxic oven cleaners without lye are available. Look at the label and select a product that does not contain lye.
Antibacterial cleaner. Antibacterial cleaners usually contain water, a fragrance, a surfactant (to break up dirt), and a pesticide. The pesticides commonly used in antibacterial cleaners are quaternary ammonium or phenolic chemicals. Antibacterial cleaners can irritate your eyes and burn your skin and throat.
- Safety tips: To help protect your skin when using these cleaners, wear latex dishwashing gloves. If you get some on the cleaner on your skin or in your eyes, wash it off immediately.
Window and glass cleaner. The basic ingredients of window/glass cleaners are ammonia and isopropanol. These products may be irritating to the eyes, skin, nose, and throat. If swallowed, they may cause drowsiness, unconsciousness, or death.
- Safety tips: Always wear gloves to use these products and use in a well-ventilated area.
Bait traps for ants, cockroaches, crickets, and other insects. The insecticides commonly found in insect baits include abarmectin, propoxur, trichlorfon, sulfluramid, chlorpyrifos, and boric acid. Since most insect baits are enclosed in containers, it’s unlikely that you’ll come in contact with the pesticides within them. If you do, wash your hands with plenty of soap and water.
In the bathroom
Toilet bowl cleaners. Toilet cleaners contain the chemicals sodium hypochlorite or hydrochloric acid, or bleach. Most disinfectant cleaners are very irritating to your eyes and skin and will burn your throat.
Never mix a toilet bowl cleaner with any other household or cleaning products. Doing so can result in poisonous gases being released and can cause very serious breathing problems.
- Safety tips: Always be sure when cleaning your bathrooms that the room has plenty of ventilation. Leave the door open and use the exhaust fan, if you have one. Wear latex dishwashing gloves to help protect your skin from splashes when using toilet cleaners. If you splash some on your skin, wash it off immediately.
Mold and mildew removers. Chlorine and alkyl ammonium chlorides are the common fungicide chemicals found in mold and mildew removers. Cleaners with mold and mildew removers may cause breathing problems and if swallowed, can burn your throat.
- Safety tips: Wear latex dishwashing gloves to help protect your skin when using these products. If you get some on your skin, wash it off immediately.
Drain cleaners. Lye and sulfuric acid are the main ingredients used to unclog drains. Lye can cause burns to skin and eyes, and if swallowed, can damage the esophagus and stomach. Sulfuric acid can irritate the skin and eyes and can damage the kidneys, liver, and digestive tract. These chemicals produce dangerous fumes, can cause skin burns, and can cause blindness if they come in contact with your eyes. Drain cleaners can be fatal if swallowed.
- Safety tips: Always use protective gloves and wear goggles when using these products. Also, make sure there is good air circulation in the room when these cleaners are used.
In the living room
Rug, carpet, upholstery cleaners. These cleaning products can contain perchloroethylene (used in dry cleaning), naphthalene, and ammonium hydroxide. The fumes given off by these products can cause cancer and liver damage and have been known to cause dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, loss of appetite, and disorientation.
- Safety tips: Use these products in well-ventilated areas and try not to breathe the fumes.
Furniture polish. Furniture cleaners for wood may contain petroleum distillates and oil of cedar. Furniture polish typically contains one or more of the following substances: ammonia, naphtha, nitrobenzene, petroleum distillates, and phenol. These chemicals may irritate your skin, eyes, throat, lungs, and windpipe. If swallowed, furniture polish can cause nausea and vomiting; medical help should be sought.
Air fresheners. Air fresheners contain formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellants. These chemicals are thought to cause cancer and brain damage. They also are strong irritants to eyes, skin, and throat. These ingredients are usually highly flammable. Additionally, solid fresheners usually cause death if eaten by people or pets.
- Safety tips: Do not spray air fresheners around an open flame. Use them only in a well-ventilated areas. Baking soda, which is not toxic, can be used as an alternative to air freshener.
Household foggers. Like insecticide and pet flea and tick products, household foggers or "bug bombs" contain many of the same pesticide chemicals, such as pyrethrins, permethrin, and methoprene. Exposure to these chemicals could cause burning in your eyes or your skin or can result in breathing problems. The contents of foggers can be flammable.
- Safety tips: Proper use of foggers requires that all windows and doors to the specific room or entire house be closed. Therefore, all people and pets need to get out of the house – even if the specific room being "bug bombed" is closed off. The gas emitted from these foggers will seep under doors and through air vents. Toys, food, plates, cups, silverware and cookware should not be left out anywhere. After the fogger is finished, clean all table and counter tops before using them. The house or room also should be aired out. Turn on your air conditioner or open the windows. Use fans to help air out the house.
In the bedroom
Mothballs. The pesticides in mothballs are chemicals known as naphthalene and p-dichlorobenzene. Breathing the fumes from mothballs may cause headaches and dizziness and may irritate the skin, eyes, and throat. Extended exposure to the vapors may result in cataract formation and liver damage.
In the backyard, pool and garden shed
Swimming pool chloride tablets. Disinfectants containing chlorine for use in swimming pools are the chemicals calcium and sodium hypochlorite. These chemicals are the same but in a higher concentration than those found in other household disinfectant cleaners because they will be diluted in a very large amount of water. Coming in contact with these chemicals before they are diluted cause breathing problems and a burning sensation to eyes and skin. If swallowed, the chemicals can burn the throat and could be fatal.
Algicides for the pool. The chemicals in algicides for swimming pools commonly include alkyl ammonium chlorides. These chemicals can cause breathing problems. If swallowed, they can burn the throat.
Insect repellents. The pesticides commonly found in repellents are pyrethrins and a chemical more commonly known as DEET. The chemicals in repellents may cause a burning sensation to eyes, skin, and throat. The chemicals also may cause anxiety, behavioral changes, mental confusion, and a loss of coordination.
- Safety tips: If the label says that you can apply the repellent to skin or clothes, apply it only to your clothes. It will work just as well. Keep repellents away from the eyes and mouth and away from any cuts on the skin. Don’t spray the repellent on your face. When you come indoors, take a bath to wash off the chemicals and launder your clothes.
Weed killers. The common pesticides in weed killers are diquat, 2,4-D, and glyphosate. Some weed killers can irritate the eyes and skin. Some of these chemicals can be very harmful if swallowed or inhaled or if large amounts get on skin and are not immediately washed off.
Baits for rodent control. The pesticide commonly found in baits is known as warfarin. This chemical causes internal bleeding if ingested in large amounts.
- Environmental Working Group. Consumer Guides Accessed 3/5/2014.
- Beyond Pesticides. The Safer Choice: How to Avoid Hazardous Home, Garden, Community and Food Use Pesticides Accessed 3/5/2014.
- Robey WC, III, Meggs WJ. Chapter 195. Pesticides. In: Tintinalli JE, Stapczynski J, Ma O, Cline DM, Cydulka RK, Meckler GD, T. eds. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7e. New York: McGraw-Hill; 2011. library.ccf.org Accessed 3/5/2014.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health Studies Branch: Understanding Chemical Exposures Accessed 3/5/2014.
This article was reviewed by Melissa Young, MD. Dr. Young is an internist and integrative medicine specialist at the Center For Integrative Medicine, part of Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 3/3/2014...#11397