Most homes have shelves, closets and cupboards stocked with household products that make our lives easier. Stores carry hundreds of brands of cleaners, detergents, polishes, paints, pesticides and other products that promise to be fast, easy and effective. But how safe are they?
As a consumer, you may assume that a product is safe if it's offered for sale. Unfortunately, many household products contain hazardous ingredients that can be harmful when you use them or dispose of them improperly. By understanding what products are hazardous, how to handle them and what alternatives are available, you can make your home and environment a healthier place.
Dangers of hazardous household products
Health problems and injuries
- Mixtures of some hazardous products can produce dangerous vapors, explosions or fires.
- Products containing acid or lye can burn skin, eyes or respiratory passages.
- Exposure to some pesticides, paints and solvents can cause weakness, confusion, dizziness, irritability, headaches, nausea, sweating, tremor and convulsions.
- Repeated exposure to some chemicals can cause cancer or birth defects.
- Hazardous materials placed in the garbage can seriously injure sanitation workers.
Every day children and pets become ill or die from eating or drinking toxic products in the home. Though toxic, they may look or taste appealing.
Indoor air pollution
Because we spend 80 to 90 percent of our time inside, indoor air pollution can have significant effects on our health. Many household products we use can contribute to making indoor air two to five times more polluted than outside air. In some cases it can be as much as 100 times more polluted.
Accumulated aerosols and other flammable products can ignite or explode when exposed to high heat, flames or pressure, such as in a trash compactor. Burning toxic materials produces toxic fumes.
Pesticides can kill beneficial insects and birds, not just the destructive insects intended. Fertilizers and pesticides can run off into storm drains, polluting rivers, streams and lakes. Hazardous wastes can end up in our drinking water, rivers and lakes if buried, flushed down the drain or poured onto the ground or into storm drains. Many common household products contribute to air pollution as well. Many common household products contribute to air pollution as well.
Actions you can take
Reduce hazardous products at home
When shopping, read product labels carefully to learn about product uses and dangers before you buy it. If the label directions are unclear, ask the dealer or don't buy the product at all. Watch for the signal words danger, warning, and caution.
These federally mandated words indicate the degree of immediate hazard posed by the product. Generally, danger indicates that a product is extremely hazardous, either because it is poisonous, extremely flammable, or corrosive. Warning or caution indicate products that are somewhat less hazardous. Products listing no signal words are usually the least hazardous.
A product is hazardous when it contains one or more of the following properties:
Flammable/Combustible: Can easily be set on fire or ignited.
Explosive/Reactive: Can detonate or explode through exposure to heat, sudden shock or pressure.
Corrosive/Caustic: Can burn and destroy living tissue.
Toxic/Poisonous: Capable of causing injury or death through ingestion, inhalation or absorption.
Radioactive: Can damage and destroy cells and chromosomal material.
Be aware that some product ingredients can cause long-term or "chronic" health effects. "Chronic" effects take time to appear or be noticed, while "acute" effects are immediate. Products that are inhaled or absorbed through the skin may cause chronic health effects. Read labels carefully for warnings about breathing vapors or wearing gloves or safety equipment. You may wish to avoid using such products.
Reading labels before you buy a product will help you make the best choice for your health, your family's health and the environment. Choosing the product that's safest to use is usually the safest environmental choice, too.
Buy only what you need
If you must purchase products that are hazardous, buy only what you can use completely and you won't have to worry about storage or disposal. If you have leftovers, try to find someone who can use them. Do not, however, give away old pesticides. Old pesticides can contain chemicals that are now banned (e.g. DDT, Kelthane).
Follow safety precautions
Use proper safety equipment
The label should tell you what equipment you need when using a specific product, but if you're not sure, ask the dealer or call the manufacturer. Gloves help prevent chemicals from being absorbed through the skin. Nitrile gloves, available in safety supply stores, will protect your hands against most products, except strong acids or bases. Products that contain acids or bases require the use of heavy rubber gloves. Chemical splash goggles prevent splashes and vapors from getting in the eyes. Respirators and dust masks may prevent inhalation of particulates, mists, vapors and fumes. Be sure to use the right cartridge and filter for the job.
Work in a well-ventilated area
Many product labels say "use adequate ventilation." You'll find the best ventilation outdoors. Indoors, open as many windows and doors as possible, not just one, to provide maximum air circulation. Position a fan between your work area and an open door or window, with the fan pointed outward, to pull the product fumes or vapors away from the work area and circulate fresh air into the room. A kitchen or bathroom exhaust fan or one open window will not provide adequate ventilation.
Store products safely
When hazardous products are not in use, keep them tightly sealed and stored in a locked cabinet. Keep products in original containers, do not mix unless directed, and keep flammable products away from heat, open flames, or sparks. Some highly flammable products such as gasoline should be kept in a separate outbuilding if possible. Follow the recommendations on product labels.
Safety for you and your family
Avoid wearing soft contact lenses when working with hazardous products. They can absorb vapors and trap them against the eyes. Be sure to thoroughly wash all exposed body parts and clothing when you finish using a product. Wear old clothes, wash them separately and line-dry if possible. To avoid accidental ingestion, be sure to clean up before you eat or smoke, even if you've used gloves. Always wash your hands after using any product.
Put Mr. Yuk stickers on hazardous household products and teach children to leave them alone. These stickers are available from the Oregon Poison Control Center. Post the number of the Oregon Poison Center by your telephone. In Portland, the number is 503-494-8968. Outside Portland, the toll free number is 1-800-452-7165.
If you have unwanted hazardous products that you are not able to give away, dispose of them responsibly. Many take them to a household hazardous waste collection site. For information about collection sites in the Portland metropolitan area, call Metro Recycling Information at 503-234-3000. Outside the Portland area, call your garbage hauler or local government solid waste department. Visit our listings of locally-sponsored HHW programs and collection events or call the statewide HHW hotline at 1-800-732-9253.
Properly prepare household hazardous wastes for transport to a collection site.
- Keep products in original containers when possible. If a product does not have its original label, label it yourself if you are sure of the contents.
- Don't mix products together. Dangerous reactions can occur when some materials are mixed.
- Make sure products are properly sealed to prevent leaks and spills. If a container is leaking, secure it inside a second leak-proof container.
- Pack containers in sturdy boxes in the trunk of your vehicle, away from the driver, passengers and pets.
Where does household hazardous waste go?
Most household hazardous wastes are recycled, reused or burned for fuel recovery after they are collected at an event or facility. The remaining wastes are packaged and shipped to a hazardous waste landfill, such as the one at Arlington, Oregon, where they are buried.