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The Hazards of Household Cleaning Products
by Janice Hughes - Share Guide Editor

Detergents, degreasers, stain removers and pesticides have made our homes miniature chemical factories.

What cleaning products do you use in your home? Are they safe for the environment? Do they pose health risks? What happens if a child accidentally drinks some? The answers to these and other questions may surprise you.

Many of us use toxic chemicals in everyday life. Sometimes we are aware of it, sometimes not. Many actions which appear to be harmless actually involve the use of harmful chemicals. Household cleaners, garden pesticides, paints, batteries, detergents, even flea powders can be hazardous to our health and the environment.

Hazardous chemicals endanger the environment by contaminating our groundwater, lakes and oceans. If these hazardous products in the home are ingested, absorbed through the skin or inhaled they can cause illness that may only appear years later.

One of the biggest culprits in ocean pollution is phosphates, common in laundry detergents and some cleaning products. The average consumer nationwide uses about 30 pounds of laundry detergent a year; all together, Americans use about 8.3 billion pounds of dry detergent and a billion gallons of liquid detergent each year! High phosphate levels can kill life in rivers, streams and oceans by causing "algae blooms." Algae slimes dense enough to suffocate marine life have been swelling around the world, especially in coastal bays. They are largely caused by fertilizing pollutants called "nutrients" in human sewage and farm runoff.

Some marine experts call this type of ocean pollution a silent, global epidemic that if unabated could destroy American's most scenic and commercially valuable waters. From Long Island Sound to the Santa Monica Bay, nutrients have devastated many popular fishing spots and shellfish beds. Many coastal bays have turned the hue of pea soup, and some have regressed to "dead zones"--water so depleted of oxygen that only primitive creatures such as bacteria and algae can survive.

Some progress has been made in tackling this problem. Phosphates have been banned in many areas. But some supermarket varieties still contain them. In addition, many other household cleaning products contain harmful solvents and harsh chemicals that destroy the natural processes involved in wastewater treatment. In addition, hazardous waste products should not be disposed of in a septic system. These materials kill valuable bacteria in the system. This includes even small amounts of latex paint rinsed off of rollers and brushes.

Many of us tend to think anything sold in a supermarket must be safe, but often labels do not contain complete and accurate information. Many common household cleaning products are actually classified as hazardous waste! You should not dispose of them in the trash; please take them to your county's hazardous waste collection center.

There is another side to this issue besides the pollution of our environment--our health, and the safety of our children. Chemical levels can be up to 70 times higher inside the home that out. Over 100 chemicals commonly found in homes have been linked to allergies, birth defects, cancer, psychological abnormalities, skin reactions, headaches, depression, joint pain, chronic fatigue, chest pains, dizziness, loss of sleep, asthma. . .the list goes on. Housewives have a 55% higher risk of getting cancer than do women working outside the home. This most likely has to do with the products they use on a daily basis. Nervous disorders and respiratory problems have also been linked to hazardous substances in the home.

Every year thousands of household poisonings are reported. Many are fatal. Approximately 70% of all poisoning accidents occur in children between the ages of one and five. Almost all childhood poisonings are caused by unsafe storage and handling of household cleaning products and medicines. According to Poison Control, dishwashing detergent accounts for more accidental poisonings than any other household substance. Dandruff shampoo, if swallowed, causes vital organs to degenerate. Household ammonia, when mixed with bleach is a deadly substance. Bug spray can remain active and airborne in your home for up to 30 years.

Seniors are also at risk. With increasing age, people become more vulnerable to the harmful effects of environmental chemicals due to the deterioration of physiological and biochemical processes, which include certain age-related biochemical, morphological and functional changes associated with the nervous system. For example, the elderly are likely to suffer more than younger people from exposure to carbon disulfide and to certain pesticides and chemicals.

The most common ingredients in household cleaning products include alkalies, acids, detergents, other toxic chemicals. Alkalies are soluble salts that are effective in removing dirt without excessive rubbing. Alkalies vary in strength; the stronger one cause burns, and if swallowed can cause internal injuries and even death. Acids are beneficial in removing hard-water deposits, discoloration and rust stains. Acids can irritate and injure the skin and eyes. Oxalic acid, used in some toilet bowl cleaners, is extremely poisonous.

Caustic household cleaners can cause severe burning if swallowed or put on the skin, Symptoms of poisoning include redness around the mouth, drooling and difficulty in swallowing. Never make someone who has swallowed a caustic substance vomit or give a "neutralizing" agent, as the chemical reaction can cause further burning.) It is best to give water (about a cupful) and seek emergency advice from poison control.

Many of the chemicals found in our homes are used to make our lives easier. But we don't realize the consequences of using many of these substances. Think before you pour waste down the sink. Only natural substances should be disposed in our sewer systems. Be wary and read labels. And whenever possible, use alternative non-toxic products that will curtail the destruction of the environment.

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