Many products commonly found in and around your home may threaten your health, even when used and stored in a seemingly safe manner. Consider the variety of products in your home: paints, cleaners, oil, batteries, hobby materials, wood preservatives, adhesives, pesticides and more. These products may contain solvents, petroleum products, heavy metals or other toxic chemicals. Although they are helpful, products with these ingredients have the possibility to harm your health.
Proper use and storage of these products, often called hazardous household products, can reduce potential health risks. This fact sheet will help you minimize your risks by explaining how to safely use and store hazardous household products.
Are you at risk when using and storing household products?
When you don't read and heed product warnings and directions for proper use and storage, your health might be at risk. Health effects vary from minor problems, such as irritated skin or watery eyes, to major ones such as burns, poisoning, or increasing your cancer risk. To be safe, you not only need to use and store products properly, you must understand how you can be exposed to hazardous household products. It might be easier than you think for such a product to enter your body.
You can be exposed by 1) ingestion, including accidental ingestion by drinking, eating or smoking when a substance is on your hands or on the utensil being used; 2) breathing dust or fumes (inhalation); or 3) contact with skin or eyes. The potential for harm from exposure depends on the following factors:
the type and concentration of chemical in the product
how much of the chemical you are exposed to
how frequently you are exposed
your size, weight and health
Soon after exposure, some chemicals cause tell-tale symptoms. Common symptoms are nausea, skin irritation, burning eyes, dizziness and headaches. But, don't rely on symptoms to warn you that you have been exposed. Some other possible effects, like cancer or lung damage, take a long time to develop.
Similarly, the harmful effects of hazardous household products that have entered the environment may take a long time to be noticed. When products are not used and stored properly, some products can contaminate food, water and air, thereby threatening ecosystems and your health. Because not all chemicals break down in the environment without harmful effects, some chemicals travel from one plant or animal to another and gradually accumulate. Consequently, a chemical may eventually harm a plant's or animal's ability to reproduce, damage its nervous system or the function of its liver or kidneys.
Federal law regulates most chemicals that are likely to cause environmental problems. However, it is difficult to keep track of the relatively small amounts used by homeowners and renters. Therefore, everyone needs to participate to minimize the impact from hazardous household products. Lowering the amount of hazardous household products released into the environment lowers potential human health risks as well.
How can you minimize risk when purchasing products?
What should you know about labels?
Labels generally provide important information regarding how to safely use, store and dispose of products. The information should help you determine if the products fit your needs and if they can be used safely in your situation. Even if the print is small, always take the time to read labels before you purchase or use products. Avoid health problems by following the directions and heeding the signal words as well as any other precautionary statements listed on the label.
Signal words such as danger, warning and caution refer to human safety information. These words relate to the effects of the products on human health. Products labeled danger are the most hazardous and may be extremely flammable, corrosive, or toxic. Those products labeled caution are the least hazardous. Other words that give clues to products containing potentially hazardous ingredients are the following: irritant, use with adequate ventilation, combustible, caustic, volatile, flammable, avoid inhaling, poison, vapor harmful, and fatal if swallowed. On some labels, these signal words are listed under "precautionary statements." Precautionary statements list hazards to human health, animals, and the environment. Also, they give information regarding the steps you should take to minimize exposure to products.
Absence of signal words or other warnings doesn't necessarily imply that products are safe. For example, old products or products not designed for household use may not provide consumer information on the label. Also, vague or possibly misleading terms such as "ozone safe" or "environmentally friendly" may not mean what they suggest. If you are unsure about a product, you may want to request a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or other relevant information from the manufacturer, or consult a poison control center. Also, call the phone number given on the product, or contact a local health agency or county Cooperative Extension office.
Pesticide labels offer more complete and regulated information than labels on other hazardous products. In fact, the pesticide label is the law. Pesticide users, whether in or out of the home, are forbidden to use a pesticide in a way contrary to its labeling. The information and instructions on pesticide labels come from decades of research. To minimize health and environmental risks, always read the label and follow the directions each time you use a product.
How can you minimize risk when using products?
You can minimize risks to your health and the environment when using hazardous household products by heeding the following guidelines:
How do you safely store hazardous household products?
When storing household products, the main concerns are child safety, indoor air quality and the prevention of damage to household equipment or the environment. Store hazardous household products in a locked cabinet or one inaccessible to children. Even relatively harmless laundry detergents can make children sick if they ingest some. Store products by type and in a place with good ventilation. For example, pesticides should be on the highest shelf while paints should be on a different shelf. If hazardous products are stored in the garage, its doors should be kept shut and locked when children are playing nearby. If you can smell a household product while it is in storage, the lid may be loose or ventilation may be insufficient to protect your health. Routinely check storage areas to make sure that containers are closed tightly and that the sides of the containers are not bulging.
If you answer "no" to even one of the following questions, you may not be storing products safely. Do you ...
Keep products out of reach of children and pets, preferably in a locked, secure area?
Store products in their original containers?
Clearly label and date any alternative containers?
Keep containers tightly sealed and dry?
Store products away from any well or waterway?
Keep products in a well-ventilated area and away from sources of ignition?
Store batteries and flammable chemicals in an area shaded from direct sunlight?
Store products by type?
For more information ...
Managing hazardous household products ... Contact your local, county, or state government. Also, your county Cooperative Extension office may have information.
Managing pesticides ... For detailed guidance on pesticide management see Guides to Pollution Prevention: Non-Agricultural Pesticide Users, United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1993, document EPA/625/R-93/009. This 58-page guide, which includes nine worksheets, is available from the National Center for Environmental Publications and Information, P.O. Box 42419, Cincinnati, OH 45242-2419. Fax: (513) 489-8695.
Protective Clothing When Using Pesticides ... See BCERF Fact Sheet #21 on Avoiding Exposure to Household Pesticides: Protective Clothing that should be worn when using pesticides in home and garden.
Disposal ... Call the manufacturer or contact your local government or sewage treatment facility. Also, many communities sponsor hazardous household products pick-up days. Check to see if containers are recyclable.
Household and Institutional Product Information Council ... Phone: (202) 872-8110.
Home*A*Syst is an environmental risk assessment guide for the home which is very easy to use and an excellent source of information. To purchase the book, contact NRAES at phone: (607) 255-7654, e-mail: NRAES@cornell.edu. Or write to NRAES, Cooperative Extension, 152 Riley-Robb Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853-5701.
Prepared by Katrie DiTella, BA Extension Associate
and Ann Lemley, PhD., Associate Director of BCERF
When reproducing this material, credit the authors and the Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors in New York State.