You Can Avoid Hazardous Chemicals

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everyday products can expose you to potentially hazardous chemicals, some of which can accumulate in your body. As revealed in a published study, researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now detected 212 of those chemicals in the blood or urine of some 2,500 volunteers. Here are some potential problems associated with common household items, as well as Consumer Reports' recommendations for less-toxic alternatives.

Air fresheners

They can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as petroleum distillates and d-limonene. Both compounds can irritate the skin, and petroleum distillates can bother eyes and the respiratory tract. Additionally, many air fresheners contain synthetic fragrances that have compounds called phthalates. Some phthalates are linked to hormonal abnormalities, birth defects and reproductive problems.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Try getting rid of the source of the odor, rather than masking it with an air freshener, and leave an open box of baking soda to absorb any lingering smells. If you must use an air freshener, do so only in well-ventilated spaces or consider natural fragrances, such as herbs and spices boiled in water or wooden sticks dipped in natural oils.

Bathroom and kitchen cleaners

Drain openers can contain sodium hydroxide or sulfuric acid, which can harm eyes, lungs and skin. Also, scouring powder can contain chlorine bleach; bleach should never be mixed with other cleaners because together they can form toxic gases. Further, potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, which are found in some oven cleaners, can irritate eyes, lungs and skin.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Try a plunger, plumber's auger or snake to unclog drains. To clean stains on tiles and glass, make a paste of baking soda and water. Use the paste with steel wool or a nylon scrubbing pad to clean your oven. And you can add salt to the mixture for extra abrasion power when tackling tough stains.


New carpets as well as the adhesives used to install them can emit VOCs.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Air out new carpeting by opening windows and running a fan for a few days. Moreover, prior to installing new carpet, ask for low-VOC, formaldehyde-free adhesives.

Dry-cleaned clothing

It can release perchloroethylene (perc), a probable human carcinogen.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} First, consider "wet" cleaning, a dry-cleaning service that does not use perc. But when you must dry-clean, hang items near an open window to air them out.

House paints and paint removers

Paints can spread VOCs. Also, methylene chloride, which in lab tests causes cancer in animals, is found in aerosol paints and paint removers.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Choose low-VOC paints. Paint in well-ventilated rooms, and wear a face mask or respirator if you are particularly sensitive or have underlying breathing problems such as asthma.

Pest control

Roach pesticides can contain organophosphates and carbamates. These substances are neurotoxins, which can cause headaches, nausea and tremors. Rodent killers aren't any better: They often contain warfarin, a chemical that can cause internal bleeding.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Try roach traps that use bait made from slow-acting poisons or compounds that interfere with a pest's reproductive system. These products are extremely targeted, stay in a specific area and aren't sprayed, which can cause more inadvertent exposure than necessary. For rodents, try such preventive measures as sealing entry points where rodents can creep in. If they've already infiltrated, set ordinary mousetraps.

Plastic products

New plastic products, including computer casings made with polyvinyl chloride, can emit phthalates. Additionally, they can release polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flame-retardant chemicals that are linked to neurological changes in animals.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} If the smell is strong, ventilate the area until the chemical odor dissipates. And on a regular basis, vacuum around computers, printers and televisions to remove particles that shed from the plastic and stick to dust.

Pressed-wood and upholstered furniture

Some glues in pressed wood as well as wrinkle-resistant fabrics can release formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen that can cause allergic reactions and bother the eyes, nose and throat.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Put existing furniture in well-ventilated areas and, when shopping for new items, look for formaldehyde-free furniture, upholstery and wood products.

Wood cleaners

Furniture cleaners can give off VOCs, and some polishes contain naphtha. Naphtha can induce headaches and nausea, and can cause problems in the central nervous system.

ALTERNATIVES {vbar} Wear gloves and make sure the room is well-ventilated when using furniture polishes. In particular, when cleaning wood floors, consider mixing one cup of vinegar into a pail of hot water for a nontoxic cleaning alternative.

Copyright 2009. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to More-detailed information -- including CR's ratings of prescription drugs, conditions, treatments, doctors, hospitals and healthy-living products -- is available to subscribers to that site.

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