Using household products safely

Household products may contain potentially hazardous chemicals that must be used and disposed of properly to be safe.

It has been estimated that the typical home today contains more chemicals than the average chemical lab of 100 years ago. The introduction of “new and improved” formulas has given rise to some new and potentially hazardous product ingredients – chemicals which the average consumer may know little about.

Used industrially, these chemicals are subject to many health and safety standards. Yet, these same substances are used freely and sometimes carelessly in homes.

The problem with household hazardous substances can be divided into two issues:

  1. Safe use
  2. Safe disposal

Although many illnesses or adverse health effects associated with chemicals found in household products are relatively benign – headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, eye and throat irritation – some chemicals are associated with more serious conditions, such as respiratory infections, skin rashes, burns and cardiac problems. In addition, consumers need to be aware that some chemicals produce delayed reactions. You may not realize that the headache you are experiencing is the result of a household cleaner used an hour or more earlier.

Most consumers rely on product labels for information about the safety of the product. Labels do not always provide complete and accurate information needed to balance the benefit against the potential risk when selecting a product for home use. Consumers should assume a product contains a potentially hazardous ingredient if the label bears any of the following signal words: Danger, Poison, Flammable, Caution, Warning, Acid or Pesticide. For a list of household hazardous product examples from Michigan State University Extension, see “Managing Hazardous Household Products” in their bookstore.

The Federal Hazardous Substances Act (HSA) is the law that establishes labeling requirements for consumer products containing hazardous ingredients (except pesticides). By definition, under this law, a hazardous substance is any substance or mixture of substances that is toxic, corrosive, an irritant, flammable or combustible, a strong sensitizer, generates pressure, is radioactive or can cause substantial personal injury or illness.

Ingredients on household cleaning product labels must be listed as “active” or “inert.” The term “active” applies to the ingredients that actually do what the product is intended to do. For example, in a pesticide, the active ingredients are the chemicals that actually kill the pests. The term “inert” refers to any other substances in the product. These substances usually form a “vehicle” to make the active ingredients easy to apply. The inert ingredients can be as dangerous as the active ingredients. Many household cleaning products may be as much as 97 percent inert ingredients.

When using a product containing potentially harmful chemicals, follow these precautions to reduce exposure:

  • Keep product in the original container. The label will indicate the product’s age and ingredients.
  • Don’t overuse a product. More is not always better.
  • Don’t leave containers open. Children and pets are curious and can spill or drink it.
  • Use products in a well-ventilated area to avoid breathing any fumes.
  • Don’t mix chemicals. Use one at a time to prevent potentially toxic gas from being produced when combined.
  • Avoid using aerosols if possible. The particles can be inhaled into the lungs and absorbed into the bloodstream
  • Wear protective clothing. Label recommendations are designed to prevent product from being absorbed into the skin.
  • Be sensitive to reactions that may occur after using a product.

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