Everyday products in your home—use with care

Consumer Reports News: April 26, 2010 03:41 PM

Everyday products can expose you to potentially hazardous chemicals, some of which can accumulate in your body. 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 of the potential problems, as well as some less toxic alternatives.

AIR FRESHENERS. They can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as petroleum distillates, that can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, as well as d-limonene, a skin irritant. Many also contain synthetic fragrances with compounds called phthalates, some of which have been linked to hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Alternatives: Get rid of the source of the odor and leave an open box of baking soda in the area. If you 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 damage your eyes, lungs, and skin. Scouring powder may contain chlorine bleach, which should never be mixed with other cleaners because of the risk of forming toxic gases. Oven cleaners can contain potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, both of which are extremely irritating to eyes, lungs, and skin.

Alternatives: Try a plunger or a plumber’s auger or snake to unclog drains. Make a paste of baking soda and water for stains on tiles and glass. Use the paste with steel wool or a nylon scrubbing pad to clean your oven. Add salt for tough stains.

CARPETS. New carpets can emit VOCs.

Alternatives: Air out new carpeting by keeping windows open and running a fan for a few days. If you’re having carpet installed, ask for low-VOC, formaldehyde-free adhesives.

DRY-CLEANED CLOTHING. It can release perchloroethylene (perc), a probable human carcinogen.

Alternatives: Limit dry-cleaning and hang cleaned items near an open window. Consider “wet” cleaning, a dry-cleaning service that does not use perc.

HOUSE PAINTS AND PAINT REMOVERS. Paints can spread VOCs. Aerosol paints and paint removers can also include methylene chloride, which causes cancer in animals.

Alternatives: Choose low-VOC paints, apply all products in wellventilated rooms, and wear a face mask or respirator if you are particularly sensitive or have underlying breathing problems such as asthma.

PLASTIC PRODUCTS. New plastic products, including computer casings made with polyvinyl chloride, can emit phthalates. Plastics can also release polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flameretardant chemicals that animal studies have linked to neurological changes.

Alternatives: Ventilate the area until the chemical odor dissipates. Vacuum around computers, printers, and televisions regularly to remove particles that shed and stick to dust.

PEST CONTROL. Roach killers can contain organophosphates or carbamates, neurotoxins that can cause headaches, nausea, and tremors. Rodent killers often contain warfarin, a chemical that can cause internal bleeding.

Alternatives: Try roach traps that use bait with slow-acting poisons or compounds that interfere with a pest’s reproductive system. Set mousetraps and seal home entry points.

PRESSED-WOOD AND UPHOLSTERED FURNITURE. Some glues in pressed wood as well as wrinkle-resistant fabrics can release formaldehyde, a probable carcinogen that can also cause allergic reactions and eye, nose, and throat irritation.

Alternatives: Put furniture in well-ventilated areas. Or look for formaldehydefree furniture, upholstery, and wood products.

WOOD CLEANERS. Furniture cleaners can give off VOCs, and polishes can contain naphtha, which can cause headaches, nausea, and problems in the central nervous system.

Alternatives: Wear gloves when using furniture polishes and make sure the room is well-ventilated. To clean wood floors, consider using one cup of vinegar in a pail of hot water for a less toxic alternative.

This article first appeared in the August 2009 issue of Consumer Reports on Health. For more on how to keep your home clean, without the toxins, read "7 ways to green clean—and cut costs."

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