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Safe Home, Healthy Home

Hazardous Household Products—Should You Be Concerned? 

We are exposed to harmful chemicals in many ways—including from the products we use to clean our homes or maintain our gardens. Advertising for cleaners, detergents, polishes, pesticides, and other products tells us they are fast, easy, and effective. But how safe are they? Only a small portion of the more than 80,000 chemicals registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been thoroughly tested for human health concerns. Many common chemicals found in our homes can have immediate toxic effects on adults, children, and pets if not used properly. Others may have long-term health effects after repeated exposure. Particles from detergents, cosmetics, pesticides, and other chemicals are found in the dust in our homes, potentially contributing to asthma.

We can make our homes safer by changing our purchasing habits, adopting some minor changes to the way we clean our homes or care for our lawns and gardens, and through proper storage, use, and disposal of household chemicals. 

Purchase and Use of Chemical Products

Choose products wisely
When considering a chemical product, ask yourself if something else you already have will do the job. There are a wide variety of nontoxic or low-toxic products available.  Common household items such as baking soda, vinegar, and plant-based soaps and detergents can often clean just as well as specialty cleaners.

  • Consider multi-purpose cleaners. Having one multi-purpose cleaner reduces the need to buy and store other cleaners.
  • Buy only what is needed. For special clean-ups, such as oven cleaning, or for painting and similar jobs around the house, carefully estimate the amount of product you need to complete the particular job and buy only that much. Avoid “super” sizes or bundled products. The risk of storing unused hazardous products is not worth the money you might save by buying a larger quantity.
  • Avoid aerosol sprays. Aerosols contribute to indoor air pollution, and pose disposal issues when empty. The containers can also explode when exposed to heat or fire. Most products are available with pump sprays, or come in solid or gel alternatives. Dispose of empty aerosol cans in the garbage, NOT in a recycling bin. Aerosol cans containing hazardous materials, such as paint or pesticides, should be taken to a hazardous waste collection event. Contact the District at (413) 772-2438 or check the District’s website at www.franklincountywastedistrict.org for the next collection event. 
  • Choose water-based products. Water-based latex paint, glue, shoe polish, and similar products are safer and less toxic than petroleum-based products.
  • Look for plant-based products. Products made from citrus, seed, vegetable, or pine oils are typically biodegradable, less toxic, and made from renewable resources instead of petroleum. 
  • Avoid chemical scents. Fragrance chemicals in air fresheners, detergents, fabric softeners, perfumes, and personal care products can be harmful to your health and the environment. Natural air fresheners made with citrus are available. Look for cleaning and personal care products that are “unscented,” “fragrance-free,” or made with nonpetroleum-based, natural scents. 
Read the label
A quick look at a product’s label will help you find the safest product that will do the job. Labels tell you:
  • The level and type of hazard associated with a product.
  • How to use a product safely and effectively.
  • How to store a product safely.
Words such as “caution” or “danger” indicate that the product contains harmful ingredients. Choose the least hazardous product—avoid products labeled “danger” or “poison.” 
  • Caution or warning: moderately or slightly toxic.
  • Danger: extremely flammable, corrosive, or highly toxic.
  • Poison: highly toxic or poisonous. 
Pesticide labels are different. On pesticide labels:
  • Warning means that the product is moderately toxic. This means that one teaspoon to one ounce can kill an average size person.
  • Caution means that the product is slightly toxic. It would take more than one ounce to kill an average adult.
Other words on a product label also indicate the toxicity of the product, such as “irritant to the skin and eyes,” “harmful if swallowed,” “vapor harmful,” “flammable,” “corrosive,” or “absorbed through the skin.” If a product does not give a list of ingredients or contain adequate instructions for its safe use, choose another product. The term “non-toxic” is an advertising term and is not defined by the federal government. It can be used on products with hazardous ingredients.

Follow all instructions 
Not following label instructions is risky for your health, your family’s health, and the environment. 

  • Always use the recommended amount. Using more of a product does not mean a better job will result, and it may be dangerous! 
  • Wear gloves when using any chemical product. 
  • Wear additional protective clothing (long sleeves, long pants, eye goggles, closed shoes, hats, and respirator or dust mask) as recommended on the product label. This is especially important when using harsh chemicals, such as bleach, drain cleaners, and oven cleaners, or if spraying products. 
  • Touching and breathing some products—even small amounts—can be harmful.
  • Don’t wear soft contact lenses when working with pesticides and solvents, as they can absorb chemicals and potentially cause the chemicals to enter your eyes.
  • Always put the product away immediately after you finish using it. 
When working indoors
  • Open several windows and position a fan between your work area and an open door or window, with the fan pointed outward to pull fumes away from the work area.
  • Take plenty of fresh-air breaks. 
  • Don’t eat, drink, or smoke while using hazardous products. Remove or cover food, cooking and eating utensils, and pet dishes when using chemicals.
  • Keep the container tightly covered when it’s not being used to avoid fumes and spills. 
Product labels may not be specific about safety equipment use or indicate how much ventilation is adequate. If concerned about additional safety requirements, call the manufacturer and request a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) or look up the product at www.householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov. Basic first aid instructions may be found on product labels, including antidotes in case of accidental poisoning. However, especially with older products, many of the antidotes are not in keeping with current medical recommendations. 

Protect the environment: Apply the product only as directed
Warnings of environmental hazards, particularly on pesticides, are important. Applying a product where it could run into ponds, creeks, or other water supplies can contaminate drinking water and kill pets, fish, and other wildlife. 

Do not mix products
Never mix products unless the labels say it is safe to do so. Don’t mix different brands of one type of product (e.g., different brands of drain openers). Dangerous reactions can occur when some materials are mixed. Never mix chlorine bleach with ammonia or other cleaning products, as dangerous and deadly fumes will result.

Keep children and pets away
Children and pets are more susceptible to fumes that may be present in chemical products. Also, accidents can happen quickly! Never leave a product or container where children can see it or reach it. Do not leave cleaning buckets containing even small amounts of liquid unattended. Keep household products in containers with child resistant caps. If pregnant, avoid exposure to toxic chemicals, as many have not been tested for their effect on the human fetus. For more poison prevention information visit the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

Be ready for an accident. Post the Poison Control Center telephone number, 1-800-222-1222, by your telephone. For TTY/TDD call 1-888-244-5313. For medical emergencies and large toxic spills call 911 or your fire department.

Proper storage

  • Store all chemical products in their original containers with the labels intact. If a label comes off or can no longer be read, make a new label with a permanent marker. 
  • Follow label directions for storage. 
  • Always store hazardous products, including detergents and bleach, out of reach of children and animals, preferably in a locked cabinet or on a high shelf. 
  • Never store hazardous products in the same area as food. 
  • Store away from heat, flames, or sparks. Prevent products from freezing. 
  • Batteries and flammable chemicals should be stored away from direct sunlight. 
  • Keep products away from your well, cistern, or water pump.
  • Pesticides, flammable products, and pool chemicals should be kept in a well- ventilated area away from your home. Do not store them together.
  • Know where flammable materials are stored in your home. Keep a fire extinguisher nearby and know how to extinguish a fire in the event of an emergency. 
  • If a product label tells you to mix a product in another container, use all of the mixture. If you can’t use it all, label the new container. If mixing your own homemade cleaners, be sure to follow safety precautions as well.
Check the container
Make sure chemical containers are properly sealed so that they won’t leak or spill. If a container is leaking, secure it in a secondary leak-proof container. Label the outside of the secondary container. Never store hazardous products in food or beverage containers. Keep containers dry to prevent rusting.

Store rags used with flammable products, such as furniture stripper and paint remover, in a well-sealed and marked noncombustible container (such as a metal container with a lid). When ready for disposal, keep the rags in a noncombustible container and discard in the trash. If the rags are sufficiently soaked that they drip, they should be kept in the container, stored in a safe location away from heat, and disposed as hazardous waste.

Give away usable product
If you have large amounts of usable product, such as cans of oil-based paint in a color that you no longer need, try to donate it to a responsible neighbor who can use it or to a local non-profit group such as a theater group or school drama club.

Franklin County Solid Waste Management District
50 Miles Street
Greenfield, MA 01301
Tel: (413) 772-2438
MA Relay for the hearing impaired: 711 or 1-800-439-2370 (TTY/TDD)
Fax: (413) 772-3786
Staff email addresses  

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