Either by accident or faulty manufacturing, household consumer products injure an estimated 33.1 million people in the United States every year [source: Consumer Product Safety Commission]. These incidents rack up an astonishing $800 billion in related expenses from death, injury or property damages [source: Consumer Product Safety Commission]. The Consumer Product Safety Commission that regulates and recalls products on the market emphasizes potential dangers to children in particular for hurting themselves with toys, furniture or other common items in the home.
However, we can also pinpoint a number of invisible hazards from products we buy that aren't as immediately apparent as a broken leg on a coffee table or a tear in a shirt. Scientists have realized that chemicals found in a wide variety of the goods we use every day may be more toxic than previously thought. In part because of the array of chemicals used to manufacture things we use in our daily lives, the National Poison Data System estimates 4 million cases of poisoning in the United States each year [source: American Association of Poison Control Centers].
We cannot discount that chemicals have made our lives easier. Thanks to them, we easily keep mosquitoes at bay, stop moths from eating our clothing and make our houses instantly smell like a dewy spring morning. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently concluded that indoor air may be more polluted than outdoor air [source: EPA]. And since we spend an average of 90 percent of our time inside, our home sweet home may not be so safe after all [source: EPA].
Where are these toxins coming from and what can we do about it? Read on to learn about 10 of the most common products that people are starting to think twice about bringing into their houses.
Mothballs emit one of the most distinctive and unpleasant household scents. Since moths will chew holes through clothing or other textiles, people pack away these stinky repellents to kill any moths that attempt to. But as they convert from a solid to a gas, you do not want to inhale too much of it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency even requires mothball manufacturers to include a warning on packaging to "avoid breathing in the vapors."
Studies on one active ingredient in some repellents, paradichlorobenzene, found that it can cause cancer in animals [source: EPA]. Although scientists do not know if it is also a human carcinogen, the animal trials provided sufficient evidence to urge people to handle them with caution. Other types of moth balls use naphthalene, which after prolonged exposure can damage or destroy red blood cells [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. The chemical can also stimulate nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
If you must use mothballs, put them in a sealed container in an area with separate ventilation from the rest of your house [source: EPA]. Also, wash any clothing that has been stored with mothballs before wearing it since the vapors will have absorbed into the fibers. For a safer, natural alternative, cedar chips should work as well.
According to the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network, 90 percent of households in the United States use some form of pesticides [source: NPTC]. Pesticide is a broad term that encompasses a variety of chemical formulas that kill everything from tiny microorganisms up to rodents. They could be insecticides, fungicides, disinfectants or other varieties. Because these are poisons, the U.S. EPA requires pesticide manufacturers to include the toxicity level of the product on its packaging.
Although the EPA goes to great lengths to test new pesticides before they go on the market, they should still be used with care and kept out of reach of children. In 2006, the American Association of Poison Control Centers received nearly 46,000 calls regarding children under 5 years old who had been exposed to potentially toxic levels of pesticides [source: American Association of Poison Control Centers].
Since a majority of people's exposure to pesticides happens indoors, be sure to ventilate any enclosed spaces after applying a pesticide and do not use unauthorized ones. If hiring a professional pest control service, ask them to review with you the chemicals they will use in your home before they spray.
Pressed Wood Products
If you catch a couple episodes of "The Brady Bunch," you can see pressed wood paneling at the height of its splendor. This faux wood is like the hotdog of timber products, taking bits and pieces of logs and whatnot and combining them together. Pressed wood products also include particle board, fiberboard and insulation, which were particularly popular for home construction in the 1970s.
However, the glue that holds the wood particles in place can cause a sticky situation for people. Some products use urea-formaldehyde as a resin, and the U.S. EPA estimates that this is the largest source of formaldehyde emissions indoors, which can increase as well in hotter, more humid conditions [source: EPA].
Formaldehyde exposure can be dangerous, possibly setting off watery eyes, burning eyes and throat, difficulty breathing and asthma attacks. Scientists also know that it can cause cancer in animals, which leaves open a possibility for the same in humans.
Because of construction materials and smaller spaces, trailers and prefab homes often give off higher levels of formaldehyde emissions [source: EPA]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a preliminary report in February 2008 detailing this problem in FEMA trailers along the Gulf Coast occupied by hurricane victims [source: CDC]. The people reported an unusual spike in illnesses suspected to have happened from prolonged formaldehyde exposure. As a result, the agency recommended that the people move out of the trailers.
If you live in an older house with pressed wood paneling or insulation, the good news is that it releases less formaldehyde as it ages [source: EPA]. Using a dehumidifier and air conditioning to keep the indoor environment temperate can help. Today, pressed wood products also are more closely regulated to reduce formaldehyde emissions.
Chemicals in Carpet
Indoor carpeting has recently come under greater scrutiny because of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with new carpet installation. Although the popular floor covering isn't inherently dangerous, people have reported health problems associated with it [source: EPA].
The glue and dyes used with carpeting are known to emit VOCs, which can be harmful to one's health in high concentrations [source: Consumer Reports]. But often, the initial VOC emissions will subside after the first few days following installation [source: Consumer Reports].
Scientists are still researching what specific chemicals new carpets may release and whether they are in fact dangerous for the average person [source: EPA]. To alleviate this, the Carpet and Rug Institute in Dalton, Ga., has developed two Green Labels that guarantee lower VOCs, and it continues to test indoor air quality associated with carpets.
To be on the safe side, you can request your retailer to unroll the carpet and air it out a couple of days before bringing it in your home [source: EPA]. You should also keep the newly carpeted area well ventilated during installation to minimize VOC build up.
Laser Printers Chemicals
A 2007 study from the Queensland University of Technology in Australia found that some laser printers give off ultra fine particles that could cause serious health problems [source: He, Morawaska and Taplin]. Another study from the National Institute of Public Health also confirmed that laser and ink-jet printers can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone, and particulates [source: Kagi et al].
Tests so far have shown that concentrations of the released particles return to normal levels after a couple of minutes [source: CBC]. But depending on the size of the specks and exposure time, they have been linked with heart and lung disease [source: Davis]. For that reason, the biggest implication for this finding is in office settings, where someone may sit next to a printer.
Not every printer will do this. In the Queensland study, of the printers tested, researchers found that 40 percent gave off the ultrafine particles and 27 percent of those sent out high concentrations of them. The emissions also varied with the type of printer, its age and toner cartridge.
In response to these findings, companies including Xerox and Hewlett-Packard have publicly denied any health hazards linked to their products. According to Xerox's President of Environment Health and Science, the company continually tests for the health effects of contact with toner particles.
If you're choosing a new printer, Energy Star recommends many types that are better for the environment. Although the Energy Star Web site does not stipulate whether it tests for particle emissions, its endorsed brands do use less electricity.
In 1991, the U.S. government declared lead to be the greatest environmental threat to children [source: EPA]. Not a big surprise considering the nasty effects that lead exposure can have on adults and children alike. Even low concentrations can cause problems with your central nervous system, brain, blood cells and kidneys [source: EPA]. It's particularly threatening for fetuses, babies and children, because of potential developmental disorders.
The hubbub surrounding lead paint isn't a new one, but still warrants discussion since many houses built before 1978 contain lead paint [source: EPA]. The intact paint on a surface won't kill you. Only once the paint begins to peel away will it release the harmful lead particles that you can inhale. For that reason, do not try to remove lead-based paint by sanding, scraping or burning it because that will liberate the toxic metal. Leave it to a professional instead.
This is the same type of paint that set off the widespread recalls of toys from China in late 2007. Retailers feared that children could ingest the paint, possibly contributing to brain damage [source: Lipton and Barboza]. Regulated commercial paints and painted products in the United States today do not contain lead.
Air Fresheners and Cleaning Solutions
Air fresheners and cleaning solutions freshen and sanitize our indoor habitats. However, a study by the University of California at Berkeley found that when used excessively or in a small, unventilated area, these products release toxic levels of pollutants. This comes from two main chemicals called ethylene-based glycol ethers and terpenes [source: Science Daily]. While the EPA regards the ethers as toxic by themselves, the non-toxic terpenes can react with ozone in the air to form a poisonous combination [source: ScienceDaily].
Air fresheners in particular are linked to many volatile organic compounds, such as nitrogen dioxide. Concentrations of this chemical are two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, which can cause cancer in some animals [source: EPA]. Some fresheners also contain paradichlorobenzene, the same chemical we discussed earlier with mothballs.
Cleaning your bathroom or spritzing air freshener shouldn't make you sick, but you must keep air circulating through the area as a precaution. Professional house cleaners should especially ensure that they aren't breathing harmful levels of these chemicals on the job [source: ScienceDaily].
Baby Bottles and BPA
Canada has taken the first steps to outlaw the sale of baby bottles made from polycarbonate plastics, which are the most common type on the market. It has done so because the plastics are made with a chemical called bisphenol-a (BPA). When heated, these types of baby bottles can release BPA.
What's wrong with a little BPA mixed in with a baby's formula? BPA has a structure very similar to estrogen and for that reason is referred to as a "hormone disruptor." As the name implies, hormone disruptors can interfere with the natural human hormones, especially for young children. According to a joint U.S.-Canada study conducted by a group of environmental health organizations, BPA in products and inside a woman's body (from using BPA-containing products) may cause development and neurological problems for fetuses and infants based on the results of extensive animal trials [source: The Working Group for Safe Markets].
In one study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 93 percent of participants had detectable levels of BPA in their systems [source: CDC]. Of those, children had the highest concentrations [source: CDC]. Other common products containing BPA include refillable plastic bottles, compact discs and some plastic eating utensils [source: CDC].
In 2006, the Whole Foods grocery chain stopped carrying plastic baby bottles [source: Underwood]. In response to Canada's removal of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles from the market, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has formed a BPA task force to study any risks associated with the material. Based on the research so far, the agency maintains that the bottles being sold in the U.S. are safe for use [source: FDA].
Commonly used in mattresses, upholstery, television and computer casings and circuit boards, flame retardants have likely saved many lives by preventing unexpected fires in homes across the world. However, science has revealed a darker side to these chemical superheroes, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs for short, found in a variety of consumer plastics. Two forms of PBDEs were phased out of use in manufacturing in the United States in 2004 because of related health threats [source: CDC]. However, the products containing them and their cousin deca-PBDE linger on.
Studies have linked PBDEs to learning and memory problems, lowered sperm counts and poor thyroid functioning in rats and mice [source: Underwood]. Other animal studies have indicated that PBDEs could be carcinogenic in humans, but that has not been confirmed [source: CDC].
People can inhale them through air and dust or ingest it by eating animal products that contain it [source: Duncan]. And once these get into our bodies, they set up camp. These chemicals have spread so extensively that traces of them have also shown up in waterways.
In humans, PBDEs accumulate in females' wombs and breast milk, passing the chemicals along to infants [source: Cone]. Likewise, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discovered levels of PBDEs in almost all people tested for it [source: CDC]. Future CDC studies will focus on the safety of deca-PBDE, which could lead to a complete phase out of these flame retardants.
Forget about bat poop in mascara. There's another icky ingredient that could be floating around in your favorite beauty products. Phthalates, also called plasticizers, go into many products dotted around your bathroom and vanity, including hair spray, shampoos, fragrances, deodorants and even your rubber ducky. Along with increasing the durability and flexibility of plastics, phthalates also bind the color and fragrance in cosmetic products.
Why worry about this chemical additive? They may demand a higher price for beauty than you wish to pay. Like BPA mentioned earlier, these hormone-like chemicals are linked to reproductive and developmental problems in animals. Because of these findings, California and Washington state have banned the use of phthalates in toys for younger children [source: Underwood]. Nationwide manufacturers no longer use them in baby pacifiers, rattles or teething rings [source: CDC].
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention plans to complete more research on the effects of phthalates before judging its safety in consumer products. However, the agency recognizes a potential for lowered sperm count in boys and premature breast development in girls, among other things [source: CDC]. As for cosmetic products, the Food and Drug Administration maintains that levels in products are safe for adults but also is studying the potential effects in infants and children [source: FDA].
The 'Close Before You Doze' campaign is on a mission to get you to sleep with your bedroom doors closed. Why? Fire safety. HowStuffWorks explains.
- A Guide to Home Safety
- Is insulation dangerous?
- How the EPA Works
- How Ozone Pollution Works
- How Radon Works
- How to Install Carpeting
- How Laser Printers Work
- How can ozone be both good and bad?
- How to Prevent Garden Pests
- What is in a moth ball?
- Is it safer to remove asbestos from a building or leave it there?
- What's with China and lead poisoning?
More Great Links
- American Association of Poison Control Centers. "2006 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison Control Centers' National Poison Data System." Dec. 1, 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://www.aapcc.org/archive/Annual%20Reports/06Report/2006%20Annual%20Report%20Final.pdf
- CBC News. "Office Printers Emit Hazardous Particles." Oct. 22, 2007. (May 30, 2008)http://www.cbc.ca/health/story/2007/10/22/printer-study.html
- CBS News. "Toxic Baby Bottles?" Feb. 7, 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/07/health/main3804860.shtml
- Cone, Marla. "Researchers Link Flame Retardants to Hazards." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 25, 2003.
- Consumer Reports. "Wall-to-wall Carpeting." November 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/home-garden/home-dcor/furnishings-dcor/carpet/walltowall-carpeting-buying-advice-604/overview/
- Davis, Tony. "Worst pollution risks increasingly indoors: Not so sweet home: Toxins lurk in air, dust, even cleaning supplies." McClatchy -- Tribune Business News. Nov. 30, 2007.
- Duncan, David Ewing. "The Pollution Within." National Geographic. October 2006. (May 29, 2008)http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0610/feature4/
- He, Congrong; Morawska, Lidia and Taplin, Len. "Particle Emissions Characteristics of Laser Printers." Environmental Science and Technology. 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/sample.cgi/esthag/2007/41/i17/pdf/es063049z.pdf
- Kagi, Naoki; Fujii, Shuji; Horiba, Youhei; Namiki, Norikazu; Ohtani, Yoshio; Emi, Hitoshi; Tamura, Hajime and Kim, Yong Shik. "Indoor air quality from chemical and ultrafine particle contaminants from printers." Building and Environment. May 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6V23-4MFJJ3G-1&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=c8e924f27fcb55de231ad81ec76010ce
- Lipton, Eric S. and Barboza, David. "As More Toys are Recalled, Trail Ends in China." The New York Times. June 19, 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/business/worldbusiness/19toys.html?pagewanted=1
- National Pesticides Telecommunications Networks. "Pesticides in Indoor Air of Homes." Feb. 22, 2001. (May 29, 2008)http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/air_gen.pdf
- ScienceDaily "Many Cleaners, Air Fresheners May Pose Health Risks When Used Indoors." University of California - Berkeley. May 24, 2008. (May 28, 2008)http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/05/060524123900.htm
- The Working Group for Safe Markets. "Baby's Toxic Bottles." (May 29, 2008)http://www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/BabysToxicBottle.pdf
- Underwood, Anne. "The Chemicals Within." Newsweek. Feb. 4, 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://www.newsweek.com/id/105588
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "National Report on Human Exposure to Chemicals -- Spotlight on Bisphenol-A." May 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/factsheet_bisphenol.pdf
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "National Report on Human Exposure to Chemicals -- Spotlight on Phthalates." Updated January 2007. (May 29, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/factsheet_phthalates.pdf
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "National Report on Human Exposure to Chemicals -- Spotlight on Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers and Polybrominated Biphenyls" February 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/pdf/factsheet_pbde.pdf
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality." Office of Air and Radiation. Updated April 25, 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidest.html#Intro2
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Phthalates and Cosmetics." Updated Feb. 7, 2008. (May 29, 2008)http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-phth.html
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Bisphenol A (BPA)." April 14, 2008. (June 11, 2008)