The Household Toxics Tour

This material was excerpted from: Safe Substitutes at Home: Non-toxic Household Products By Gary A. Davis and Em Turner University of Tennessee – Knoxville Waste Management Institute Working Paper

The Household Toxics Tour

Toxic chemicals in the home can be eliminated simply by making thoughtful choices after educating oneself about where the hazards are in common consumer products. How can you determine what toxics you have in your home?

Take this “toxics tour.” And then visit our NEW Simple Natural Cleaning products with Himalayan Salt to avoid any health risks that may be associated with the cleaning products you have in your home.

In the Kitchen

All-purpose cleaner, ammonia-based cleaners, bleach, brass or other metal polishes, dishwater detergent, disinfectant, drain cleaner, floor wax or polish, glass cleaner, dishwashing detergent, oven cleaner, and scouring powder contain dangerous chemicals.

Some examples are:

• sodium hypochlorite (in chlorine bleach): if mixed with ammonia, releases toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure may cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems;

• petroleum distillates (in metal polishes): short-term exposure can cause temporary eye clouding; longer exposure can damage the nervous system, skin, kidneys, and eyes;

• ammonia (in glass cleaner): eye irritant, can cause headaches and lung irritation;

• phenol and cresol (in disinfectants): corrosive; can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage;

• nitrobenzene (in furniture and floor polishes): can cause skin discoloration, shallow breathing, vomiting, and death; associated with cancer and birth defects;

• formaldehyde (a preservative in many products): suspected human carcinogen; strong irritant to eyes, throat, skin, and lungs.

In the Utility Closet

A number of products are likely to contain toxic ingredients: carpet cleaner, room deodorizer, laundry softener, laundry detergent, anti-cling sheets, mold and mildew cleaner, mothballs, and spot remover all usually contain irritant or toxic substances. Examples:

• perchloroethylene or 1-1-1 trichloroethane solvents (in spot removers and carpet cleaners): can cause liver and kidney damage if ingested; perchloroethylene is an animal carcinogen and suspected human carcinogen;

• naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene (in mothballs): naphthalene is a suspected human carcinogen that may damage eyes, blood, liver, kidneys, skin, and the central nervous system; paradichlorobenzene can harm the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys;

• hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate in toilet bowl cleaner; either can burn the skin or cause vomiting diarrhea and stomach burns if swallowed; also can cause blindness if inadvertently splashed in the eyes;

• residues from fabric softeners, as well as the fragrances commonly used in them, can be irritating to susceptible people;

• possible ingredients of spray starch (aside from the starch) include formaldehyde, phenol, and pentachlorophenol; in addition, any aerosolized particle, including cornstarch, may irritate the lungs.

In the Livingroom and Bedroom

Even the furnishings of the typical American home can be harmful. Fabrics that are labeled “wrinkle-resistant” are usually treated with a formaldehyde resin. These include no-iron sheets and bedding, curtains, sleep wear — any woven fabric, but especially polyester/cotton blends, marketed as “permanent press” or “easy care.”

More modern furniture is made of pressed wood products emits formaldehyde and other chemicals. Carpeting is usually made of synthetic fibers that have been treated with pesticides and fungicide. Many office carpets emit a chemical called 4-phenylcyclohexene, an inadvertent additive to the latex backing used in more commercial and home carpets, which is thought to be one of the chemicals responsible for “sick” office buildings.

In the Bath

Numerous cosmetics and personal hygiene products contain hazardous substances.


• cresol, formaldehyde, glycols, nitrates/nitrosamines and sulfur compounds in shampoos;

• butane propellants in hair spray (replacing carcinogenic methylene chloride), as well as formaldehyde resins;

• aerosol propellants, ammonia, formaldehyde, triclosan, aluminum chlorhydrate in antiperspirants and deodorants’

• glycols, phenol, fragrance, and colors in lotions, creams, and moisturizers.

In the Studio or Hobby Room

Although legislation controlling many of the dangerous ingredients in hobby materials has recently been passed, exposure to certain art materials remains a health risk. Dangerous chemicals and metals include:

• lead in ceramic glazes, stained-glass materials, and many pigments;

• cadmium in silver solders, pigments, ceramic glazes and fluxes;

• chromium in paint pigments and ceramic colores;

• manganese dioxide in ceramic colors and some brown oil and acrylic paint pigments;

• cobalt in some blue oil and acrylic paint pigments;

• formaldehyde as a preservation in many acrylic paints and photographic products;

• aromatic hydrocarbons in paint and varnish removers, aerosol sprays, permanent markers, etc.;

• chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents) in ink, varnish, and paint removers, rubber cement, aerosol sprays;

• petroleum distillates (solvents) in paint and rubber cement thinners, spray adhesives, silk-screen inks;

• glycol ethers and acetates in photography products, lacquer thinners, paints, and aerosol sprays.

In the Garage

A number of dangerous substances are frequently present, including paint, paint thinner, benzene, kerosene, mineral spirits, turpentine, lubricating/motor oils, and gasoline. Hazards among them include these chemicals:

• chlorinated aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons in paint thinner can cause liver and kidney damage;

• petroleum hydrocarbons, an ingredient of gasoline, motor oils, and benzene, are associated with skin and lung cancer;

• mineral spirits in oil-based paint are a skin, eye, nose throat, and lung irritant. High air concentrations can cause nervous system damage, unconsciousness and death;

• ketones in paint thinner may cause respiratory ailments; vary according to specific form of the chemical;

• ketones and toluene in wood putty; toluene in highly toxic, may cause skin, kidney, liver, central nervous system damage; may damage reproductive system.

In the Garden Shed

Pesticides, one of the most important single hazards in the home. Around 1,400 pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are ingredients in consumer products. Combined with other toxic substances such as solvents, pesticides are present in more than 34,000 different product formulations.

On the Patio

Charcoal lighter fluid contains petroleum distillates. Besides being flammable and imparting a chemical taste to food, some petroleum distillates contain benzene, a known human carcinogen.

Safe Substitutes for Household Toxics

Until World War II and the zenith of the Chemical Age that followed war-related research, householders used a limited number of simple substances to keep most objects in the house clean, order-free, and pest-free. Soap, salt, vinegar, baking soda, washing soda, ammonia, borax, alcohol, cornstarch, and certain food ingredients were used to lift out spots and stains, deodorize, polish wood or metal, disinfect, scrub, repel pests, clean pets, wash and starch clothes, and to perform countless other household tasks. Simple cosmetic preparations kept hair lustrous and skin supplied with the aid of ingredients such as eggs, oil, clay, vinegar, and herbs.

The garden was fertilized and pests were kept down with naturally occurring substances. Weeds were weeded by hand. Even though some natural pesticides, like nicotine and rotenone, were indeed toxic to humans, they were not persistent in the environment. They degrade soon after application. Pyrethrum, a pesticide derived from a variety of chrysanthemum which is nontoxic to mammals, controlled a wide spectrum of pests. Although it is till widely used, it is usually mixed with other chemicals to increase its potency.

Buildings of the past were made with wood, brick, stone, glass, plaster, and cement. Furniture was made of solid wood, oiled to keep it polished. Rugs or carpets were made of wool or cotton. Insulation was built in by making walls thick, and roofing was constructed from wood shingles or tiles of clay or stone. Walls were plastered. Windows were made to be opened, so at least in good weather there was plenty of natural ventilation. But toxic materials also were present in homes of the past. Not knowing enough about their hazards, housewives used such chemicals as arsenic, lead, and mercury to perform certain household chores. Interior and exterior paints were often made with lead; many American children are still living with the legacy of lead poisoning caused by eating chips of leaded paint. Asbestos, called a miracle mineral when its fire-resistant properties were discovered, is now known to be a cancer causer that contaminates hundreds of thousands of residences, schools, and other buildings in this country.

Safe Substitutes for Personal Hygiene and Cosmetic Products

We use cosmetics and hygiene products for a fairly narrow range of reasons: to keep skin moist and supple; to clean hair without stripping it of natural oils; to eliminate unpleasant body or mouth orders; to prevent skin oiliness and clogged skin pores; and simply for the pleasure of relaxing and pampering ourselves with body-care or facial-care treatments. The following ingredients can help achieve these purposes without the use of toxic additives, synthetic fragrances, or artificial colorings:

Moisturizers and conditioners: egg yolk, milk, yogurt, safflower oil (for light moisturizing), olive oil (for dry skin or hair), water, oatmeal, jojoba oil.

Astringents/after shaves: witch hazel, diluted isopropyl alcohol.

Deodorants: baking soda, white clay, deodorant crystals.

Toothpastes: baking soda, salt.

Soaps cleansing agents: castle soap, olive-oil based soap.

Perfumes: essential oils provide nontoxic fragrances that can be used to scent shampoo, bath soaks, or even, in the case of peppermint, to flavor toothpaste.