Hazardous Household Substances: Alternatives That are Relatively Free of Toxic Effects
Constance Kratzer, Family ResourcesManagement Specialist
College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences New Mexico State University. (Print Friendly PDF)
Many people believe that hazardous or toxic chemicals are found only in industries that manufacture plastics, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, or automobiles. However, a wide range of products that we use in our homes contain chemicals that fit the definition of hazardous or toxic. Hazardous products line our kitchen, bath, utility and garage shelves. In most cases the concentration of the chemical products found in the home are much lower than the concentration of those in the work-place. However, the potential for exposure to chemicals from household products in the home does exist.
What Can We Do?
Misuse or improper disposal of these hazardous products can pose a threat to your health. Long term or cumulative problems, such as contamination of drain fields, septic systems, and surface and ground-water can also occur.
To decrease exposure to pollutants, and produce less hazardous household waste, consideration should be given to using alternatives that contain chemicals that are relatively free of toxic effects.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a substance as hazardous if it is flammable, can react or explode when mixed with other substances, is corrosive, or is toxic.
Why do we use potentially hazardous products? Time and convenience are the primary reasons. In days past, sinks were scrubbed with baking soda. Extra effort was needed to maintain a stain free sink. Wood floors were cleaned with oil and vinegar or just mineral oil. This eliminated the need for wax, but required more work. Today, most households contain substances relatively free of toxic effects that can be combined to do the job currently being done by a hazardous product.
Is it Hazardous?
Check the label. Many household products used for household cleaning, car care, or yard care can be toxic, corrosive, flammable, or reactive. All of the designations are considered hazardous. Signal words on the label are “CAUTION,” “WARNING,” or “DANGER.” “CAUTION” indicates the lowest level of toxicity and “DANGER” is the highest level of toxicity.
Figure 1: Alternatives to hazardous household products can be prepared by you.
Many common household cleaning products contain caustics or solvents, which when used, stored, or disposed of improperly, could threaten your family’s health or damage the environment. Caustic chemicals such as those found in oven cleaners (lye, sodium hydroxide), drain cleaners, scouring powders, or bleach can burn and severely damage the skin and eyes.
Solvents are fast-drying substances that dissolve another substance. Inhalation of these vapors or accidental ingestion can be harmful or even fatal. Long-term exposure to some solvents may cause liver and kidney problems, birth defects, central nervous system disorders, and cancer. Furniture polish, silver cleaner, paint remover, and wood floor wax contain solvents.
Figure 2: To avoid leftovers, share household products with a friend.
Be aware of the hazards indicated on the label before using the product. Carefully follow directions concerning use, storage, and disposal. In most cases there will be no specific directions for disposal of the “left over” product. The best disposal route for hazardous products is to use them up according to the directions, or share with a friend. If you need to separate any portion of the product from its original container, be sure to duplicate the label in its entirety and attach it to the new container.
You ran reduce handling, use, and disposal hazards associated with dangerous household products by substituting safer alternatives. Some of these alternatives are as simple as immediately mopping up spills with water or club soda. Full strength vinegar or lemon juice applied to rust stains or hard water deposits will fade and perhaps eliminate the stain. In some cases, using these alternatives may require more effort in order to get the desired results.
Reducing the amount of hazardous products you purchase not only saves money, but also eliminates the threat of accidental exposure and pollution of the environment. You may decide to use latex water base paint, scrub your sink with baking soda, or spray your plants with a mixture of pepper water and garlic. Once you understand the basic substitutes, formulas, and procedures, you can make your own decisions about tradeoffs. Fortunately, most households have the basic ingredients for safer substitutes for most of these hazardous household materials.
To help you get started, alternatives to hazardous household products have been provided. These alternatives are relatively free of toxic effects.
Figure 3: Hazardous household products can be found throughout a household.
Relatively Toxic-Free Household Alternatives
|Bathroom Cleaners/ Disinfectants||
|Brass and Copper Cleaners
|Carpet and Rug
|Ceramic Tile Cleaner||
To keep drains clean:
To unclog drains:
|General Purpose Cleaners||
|General Purpose Metal Polish
|Toilet Bowl Cleaner
|Window and Mirror Cleaner
Figure 4: Making your own household cleaning products can help the environment and save you money.
General Rules for Managing Toxic Household Products
- Select the least toxic products for your home.
- Buy only as much as you will use.
- Read the label. It will list ingredients; instructions for use, storage, and disposal; and hazards associated with use.
- Avoid aerosol spray cans whenever possible. Buy liquid, paste, or powder forms of products.
- Dispose of toxic waste as recommended. Call your county Department of Environmental Services for specific information about Amnesty Days and other disposal options.
- An aggressive home maintenance plan will reduce the amount of cleaning products and hazardous household products needed in the home. For example, roaches and other insects are discouraged by good housekeeping practices.
- Store food in sealed containers.
- Wipe up spills.
- Bathe pets frequently to eliminate fleas.
- Put a piece of screen over drains to catch food particles or hair.
- Avoid baked-on stains in the oven by wiping up after each use, and/or use liners to catch spills.
- Air out the house occasionally to avoid the use of chemical air fresheners.
- Never mix chlorine bleach with any other cleaning agent, such as ammonia or vinegar. It may create toxic fumes.
- Store all cleaning solutions out of reach of children.
- To avoid accidental poisoning, never transfer a product to a container that once held food or drink.
- Be sure that each container has a label.
- Mix cleaning solutions in a well-ventilated area.
- Clean up after using toxic substances.
- Never smoke or eat when handling hazardous materials.
- Keep the container closed. Harmful fumes may escape from an open container.
Where to Purchase Products Mentioned in This Publication
|Baking Soda (sodium bicarbonate)||Retail Supermarket/Pharmacy|
|Boiled linseed oil||Hardware Store|
|Cream of tartar||Retail Supermarket/Pharmacy|
|Denatured alcohol||Hardware Store/Pharmacy|
|Diatomaceous earth||Pool Chemical Supply Co.|
|Fuller’s earth||Ceramic Shop/Pharmacy|
|Gum turpentine||Hardware Store/Pharmacy|
|Salt (sodium chloride)||Retail Supermarket/Pharmacy|
|Trisodium phosphate||Hardware Store/Pharmacy|
|Washing soda (sodium carbonate)||Retail Supermarket|
Chemical Information Center, toll free, 1-800-262-8200, 8:00 AM–9:00 PM. Information about proper use and possible side effects of chemical ingredients in cleaners, household products, pesticides, and fuels.
Chemical Referral Center, c/o Chemical Manufacturers Association, 2501 M Street, N.W., Washington, DC. 20037 (202-887-1318). A brochure providing information on services provided free.
Gosselin, Robert, et al. Clinical Toxicology of Commercial Products. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore, MD, 1984.
Disposal: Do It Right—Managing Household Wastes. The Household Products Disposal Council, 1625 Eye Street, NW, Suite 500 Washington, DC 20006. This is an information service established through a trade association, the Chemical Specialties Manufacturers Association. Both an old pamphlet and a 16-page booklet are available free of charge.
Florida, State of the Environment. Florida Dept. of Environmental Regulation, 2600 Blair Stone Road, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2400 (904-488-9334) Free.
Household Hazardous Waste: Solving the Disposal Dilemma. Gina Purin, Golden Health Empire Health Planning Center, 2100 21st Street, Sacramento, CA 95818.
Hazardous Wastes from Homes. Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, 2600 Blair Stone Road, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2400; or order from Enterprise for Education, 1320A Santa Monica Mall, Santa Monica, CA 91401. Single copies are $2.75 plus $1.50 for postage and handling. Discounts available on quantity orders.
Hazardous Household Waste, What You Should and Shouldn’t Do. Water Pollution Control Federation, 601 Wyeth Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-1994 (703-684-2438). A colorful, easy-to-read chart that establishes the most effective means of disposing of household waste. $.05 per copy.
House Dangerous. Ellen J. Greenfield, Foreword by Ralph Nader, Vintage books, a division of Random House, New York, NY.
Know Your Chemicals, Alternatives and Precautions. Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, 2600 Blair Stone Road, Tallahassee, FL 32399-2400.
Making the Switch—Alternatives to Using Toxic Chemicals in the Home. Golden Empire Health Planning Center, 2100 21st Street, Sacramento, CA 95818 (916-731-5050).
Nontoxic and Natural: How to Avoid Dangerous Everyday Products and Buy or Make Safe Ones. Debra Lynn Dadd. Non-toxic Lifestyles, Inc., Box 210-019, San Francisco, CA 94121.
Why Your Home May Endanger Your Health. Alfred Zamin with Robert Gannon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980).
For more information contact the Department of Environmental Regulation, County health Department, or the county Cooperative Extension office. Your extension office can provide a variety of printed materials on managing hazardous household substances.
The University of Florida Cooperative Extension Services assumes no responsibility and disclaims any liability for any injury or damage resulting from the use or effect of any product or information appearing in this document. No endorsements are intended or implied.
Originally written by Marie S. Hammer, Home Economics Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville. This publications is reprinted with permission from University of Florida. First printing, June 1988.
To find more resources for your business, home, or family, visit the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences on the World Wide Web at aces.nmsu.edu.
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New Mexico State University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer and educator. NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating.
Reprinted and electronically distributed June 2003, Las Cruces, NM.