Our homes are filled with toxic products. Read on for an enlightening, but scary article. It’s especially important if you have children and still have toxic cleaning products in your home.

Wisconsin State Journal
Hazardous Homes Part II: Household products that may be harmful


January 7, 2008

Donna Lotzer, poison education coordinator with UW Health, demonstrates how some medicines and household cleaners can be mistaken for candy or health drinks. The second gumball from the left is actually a vitamin. And notice how much the can of Comet sink cleaner looks like the adjacent container of parmesan cheese.

Though most of us think of our home as a place where we are safe from what seems an increasingly dangerous world, we are more often filling our houses with products and chemicals that may threaten our health. And much of the time we’re not even aware of it.

Annual calls to the Wisconsin Poison Center have risen more than 40 percent in the past five years.

Today more than 75,000 chemicals are registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency but less than 20 percent of them have been tested for toxicity. That lack of research means doctors and researchers often know little about the effects these substances have on humans or how much is safe.

Federal labeling laws don’t require manufacturers to list all toxic ingredients on labels so consumers don’t necessarily realize what’s in the products they use at home.

Mary Powers has personally heard the anguish that can come when an accidental poisoning happens in the home.

Powers is manager of the Wisconsin Poison Center in Milwaukee, part of the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. But she is also a nurse who answers emergency calls at the center.

And those emergency calls drive home for her the realization that our homes, supposedly havens for our families, can also harbor little-known hazards. Last year, the center received 45,012 emergency calls about accidental poisonings, 75 percent of which came from homes and nearly 66 percent of which involved children younger than 5.

Powers said the phone calls from parents who find themselves in such situations are terrifying. “They’re asking, ‘Is this going to hurt my child? Is this going to kill my child?’ “

But it’s not just children who can be exposed to toxic threats in the home. It could be an elderly couple overcome by carbon monoxide from a defective furnace. Or someone working on the garden who is accidentally doused by pesticide. Or a housewife cleaning her bathroom floor who unknowingly mixes ammonia and bleach and creates poisonous fumes.

“It happens all the time,” said Donna Lotzer, a poison education coordinator with UW Health. “You can get chemical pneumonia. An older person could die.”

Toxic products in the home account for more than 90 percent of poison exposures, according to the Wisconsin Poison Center.

Everyday exposure

While accidental poisoning in the home is a frightening experience, we are generally less alarmed at the increased and everyday exposure to toxins and chemicals about which we are not even aware.

But statistics from the EPA show that the average household in this country generates more than 20 pounds of household hazardous waste per year. Cleaning products, according to the agency, make up about 11.5 percent of the 3.2 billion pounds of waste produced annually in the U.S.

Studies are linking some of these chemicals to illness and disease. For example, consider two organic hazardous chemicals commonly found in our homes that present a cancer risk to the general population that is about 100 times greater than the EPA considers acceptable. These include formaldehyde, which is found in many home products including permanent-press sheets and naphthalene, used in mothballs.

According to the EPA, products we use in our homes can cause a wide range of health effects including eye, nose and throat infections, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination, and damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system.

Of course, chemistry has also given us plenty in the way of products that make our lives safer and more comfortable. And chemical industry officials say threats from products such as household cleaning supplies are overblown and research on the dangers of the chemicals they contain are misleading because they often involve laboratory animals. Those results, officials say, don’t necessarily mean that the chemicals are dangerous to humans.

Doug Fratz is vice president for scientific and technical studies for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, whose 260 members include manufacturers of everything from disinfectants and pesticides to household cleaners. He said it is misleading to blame health problems on the use of cleaners when the dust mites, mold and mildew brought into the air by cleaning are the more likely culprits.

Hidden chemicals

Frequently, the dangerous substances to which we are exposed are not apparent. That’s because the chemicals that can harm us are hidden in pleasant-smelling perfume or in a poorly-labeled bottle of cherry-red cleaning fluid. The most frequent substances involved in poisoning of children 5 and younger, for example, are personal care cosmetics such as cologne or perfume. These contain ethanol, which can cause intoxication, coma and seizures. Chemicals called phthalates are found in products ranging from nail polish and fragrances to shampoos and hair spray. Some research has shown that high levels of exposure to these chemicals in laboratory animals can cause cancer or reproductive system abnormalities.

But the science remains uncertain. Other reports, including one from the Food and Drug Administration, say there is little risk from exposure to phthalates. Still, some cosmetic manufacturers are removing the chemicals from their products.

Second on the list of products most dangerous to children five and younger are household cleaners such as sanitizers and toilet bowl cleaners. These contain corrosives that can cause internal and external burns. Third on the list are over-the-counter analgesics such as non-aspirin pain relievers; they contain acetaminophen which can cause liver failure.

Inadequate labeling

A big part of the problem is that manufacturers are required to list only “active ingredients” and not all toxic ingredients on labels, according to Dr. Henry Anderson, the state’s chief medical officer and an environmental and occupational disease epidemiologist for the state Department of Health and Family Services. Labels on many household cleaners are a good example, Anderson said.

“There are more and more of these agents such as brighteners, cleaners and polishers,” Anderson said. “You look at the labels and they don’t tell you anything.”

Yet such products are loaded with substances that can be harmful. Disinfectants contain the chemicals phenol and cresol, which can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness and kidney and liver damage. Furniture and floor polishes contain nitrobenzene which, if inhaled, can cause shallow breathing and, if ingested, poisoning and death. The chemical has also been linked to cancer and birth defects. Metal polishers contain petroleum distillates, which can irritate the eye and can damage the nervous system, kidneys, eyes and skin.

Powers, the nurse who answers emergency calls for the Wisconsin Poison Center, knows firsthand how little information is listed on many labels.

“I know that many parents have trouble finding the ingredients on a label when they call us,” Powers said.

Packaging can also be an issue. Lotzer gives talks at schools and elsewhere in which she demonstrates how easy it is for a child or even an adult to mistake a bottle of cleaning fluid for a sports drink or a box of chewable vitamins with candy.

Anderson said misleading packaging and inadequate labeling can prove dangerous, even fatal. Over the past several years, he said, two people have died and hundreds became sickened using commercial waterproofing sprays to waterproof their tents, clothing and other outdoor gear. The sprays contain a water repelling ingredient known as a fluoropolymer. Because the chemical resin isn’t considered hazardous at the concentration used in the sprays, federal law doesn’t require that labels mention its presence.

But a cluster of cases involving the sprays in Michigan became known through data collected by poison centers. Studies showed that when the chemical is mixed with other solvents and pressurized in the can it can end up deep in the lungs of the person using it.

‘Green’ products

Growing awareness of the dangers posed by our increasing use of chemicals is bringing some change, however. For example, more “green” products, formulated without most of the harmful chemicals used traditionally, are available.

Robin Pharo, who owns a Mount Horeb company called Healthy Homes and advises clients on how to reduce exposure to indoor contaminants, said safer cleaning products marketed by companies such as Seventh Generation are available on the Internet and in stores such as Target.

Terry Mayhall helps run a Madison cleaning company called Kleenmark and said that a few years ago the company made the decision to switch completely to green cleaning techniques. The company’s cleaning crews use products that are made without harmful chemicals and they are taught to use techniques that minimize exposure, such as spraying cleaners or furniture polish on a rag first instead of dousing the object to be cleaned.

Mayhall warned, however, that even some so-called “green” products are not necessarily what they seem. Some of the companies are also lax in putting all of the contents on their labels. Still, he added, the increasing availability of safer cleaning options to the consumer is a good thing.

The decision to make the change, Mayhall said, was prompted by concern for employees. But the company has found that homeowners are demanding the products they use and now sells many of those cleaners commercially.

— Tony Davis of the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson contributed to this story.

In case of accidental poisoning, call 911 if the person has collapsed, is having seizures or stopped breathing. Otherwise call the Wisconsin Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222 for advice on what to do.