Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products

What lurks in your utility room?
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
May/June 1984
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A review of cleaners, disinfectants, laundry products and more.

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Under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is required to regulate substances or products that are toxic, are flammable, are corrosive, are irritating, generate pressure, are radioactive, or cause strong reactions in people prone to allergies. It also regulates toys that present electrical, mechanical, or thermal hazards to children. The CPSC's mandate also includes the authority to require labeling on products that contain such hazardous substances or which present hazards by their design.

To date, the CPSC's main concern has been with acute toxicity or other immediate hazards, so the study of chronic hazards of vapors in the household has been largely left to the Environmental Protection Agency. In the late 70's and early 80's the EPA began to study a number of different indoor pollution problems, the most prominent of them being emissions from gas appliances and heaters, kerosene heaters, and woodburning stoves. In the last two years, however, the EPA has largely abandoned work in these areas.

To make matters worse, a bill (H.R. 2668) was introduced and passed in the House in the fall of 1983 that would strip the CPSC's ability to act. The bill proposes that no CPSC rule be enforceable until it has passed the House and Senate and has been signed by the President. The Senate's reaction to this legislation bears watching.

It's not surprising, then, that the ability of regulation to protect us from the more insidious hazards of household cleaning products is quite limited. Once we tread beyond the immediate danger posed by the following substances, we've moved onto soft ground. It's our position, once again, that in the absence of knowledge, we should exercise caution.

If you'd like more information on the safety of the cleansers, detergents, and other chemicals used to care for your home, we'd suggest that you look into The Household Pollutants Guide by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (Environmental Action Foundation) and The Product Safety Book by Stephen Brobeck and Anne C. Averyt (The Consumer Federation of America, E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1983). Also, for suggestions on how to replace commercial cleansers (among other things), see Natural Formula Book for Home and Yard edited by Dan Wallace (Rodale Press, Inc., 1982).



Hydrochloric or sulfuric acid: Used to promote chemical action on organic matter.

Hazards: Extremely corrosive. Concentrated solutions cause severe burns and eye damage. Weaker concentrations cause skin irritation and photosensitization. Inflammation and ulceration of the respiratory tract can be caused by inhaling concentrated vapors. Ingestion causes corrosion of gastrointestinal tract, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, circulatory collapse, and death.

Lye (potassium or sodium hydroxide): Used for its chemical action on organic matter. The majority of drain cleaners contain it.

Hazards: Extremely corrosive. Usually fatal if swallowed.


Aerosols: Used to disperse active ingredients in a variety of household products.

Hazards: Beyond the hazards of the active ingredients in aerosol sprays and the possibility of explosion, the propellants themselves present a danger. Today, most propellants are either nitrous oxide (which is associated with brain damage and may cause cancer) or propane (which is highly flammable). Aerosol sprays produce vapors that can easily be inhaled deep into the lungs, greatly increasing the hazards of any toxicants contained in the product or which are carried with it.

Sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate: Used to dissolve grease and oil.

Hazards: Causes skin irritation and, if swallowed, vomiting.

Sodium hypochlorite: Used to bleach and disinfect.

Hazards: Ingestion causes corrosion of mucous membranes, perforation of esophagus and gastric areas, and laryngeal edema. Inhalation causes bronchial irritation and pulmonary edema. Contact causes skin irritation. Mixing bleach with ammonia produces chloramine gas, which is very toxic; mixing bleach with vinegar or some acids produces chlorine gas, which is also extremely toxic.

Sodium tripolyphosphate: Used as a cleaning agent. Common in coffeepot cleaners.

Hazards: Is moderately irritating to the skin and mucous membranes. Ingestion causes violent vomiting.

Trisodium phosphate (TSP): Used to soften water and as a cleaning agent.

Hazards: Irritating to skin, eyes, mucous membranes. Undiluted, it is very alkaline.


Phosphoric acid: Dissolves oxidized metal. Also used in denture cleaners.

Hazards: Irritating to the skin and mucous membranes.


Aerosols: See Cleaners, Household section.

Lye (potassium or sodium hydroxide): Used for its chemical action on organic matter.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Drain section.

Ammonia: Used for its chemical action on organic matter.

Hazards: Inhalation of concentrated vapors causes edema of respiratory tract, spasm of the glottis, and asphyxia. Mixing with chlorine bleach produces toxic chloramine gas.

Toilet Bowl

Hydrochloric acid: Used for its chemical action on organic matter.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Drain section.


Aerosols: See Cleaners, Household section.

Ammonia: Usually mixed with water and detergent.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Oven section.

Dishwasher Soap

Sodium silicate (water glass): Used to protect the machine's parts.

Hazards: Causes irritation of the skin and mucous membranes. Ingestion causes vomiting and diarrhea.

Sodium tripolyphosphate: Used as a cleaning agent.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Household section.

Disinfectants/Air Fresheners

Aerosols: See Cleaners, Household section.

Carbolic acid (phenol): Used as a disinfectant.

Hazards: Ingestion can cause nausea, vomiting, circulatory collapse, paralysis, convulsions, coma, respiratory failure, and cardiac arrest. Death has resulted from ingesting as little as 1 gram of concentrated solution. Passes through the skin. Chronic poisoning can cause kidney and liver failure.

Cresol: Used as a disinfectant.

Hazards: Can be absorbed through the lungs or mucous membranes. Causes liver, kidney, lung, pancreas, and/or spleen damage. Ingestion causes circulatory collapse and death.

Formaldehyde: Common in air fresheners.

Hazards: Causes irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. As much as 1% to 4% of the population becomes sensitized to it and reacts at even small concentrations. Causes nausea, headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness, memory loss, and shortness of breath. Inhalation has caused cancer in test animals. For information on a reasonably priced formaldehyde indoor pollution test, contact the National Indoor Environmental Institute.

Furniture Polish

Naphtha: Used as a carrier for waxes.

Hazards: Inhalation of vapors can cause drowsiness, headache, coma, and cardiac arrest.

Nitrobenzene: A polishing ingredient.

Hazards: Vapors are hazardous and can be rapidly absorbed through the skin. Causes nausea, vomiting, methemoglobinemia (impairment of oxygen distribution in the blood) with cyanosis (characteristic bluish coloring of the skin).

Oil of cedarwood: A polishing ingredient.

Hazards: A central nervous system depressant. May induce spontaneous abortion.

Laundry Products

Aerosols: Used to disperse active ingredients in spot removers and spray starches.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Household section.

Linear alkylate sulfonate: Used as a wetting agent in detergents.

Hazards: Has caused liver ailments in test animals at comparatively low dosages. Absorbed through the skin.

Perchloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene: The active ingredients in do-it-yourself dry-cleaning formulations.

Hazards: Inhalation of vapors can cause dizziness, sleepiness, nausea, tremors, and liver damage. Depresses the central nervous system.

Phosphate substitutes: Used to replace phosphates in detergents that cause algal growth problems in drainage waters.

Hazards: Non-phosphate detergents are far more alkaline than phosphate detergents, which already have very high pH.

Sodium and calcium hypochlorite (bleach): Used to whiten fabrics.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Household section.

Sodium tripolyphosphate: Used as cleansing agent in detergents.

Hazards: See Cleaners, Household section.


There is danger to human health from nearly all commercially used pesticides. The ones listed below are particularly dangerous.

Arsenates: Active ingredients in insecticides, weed killers, rodenticides, and fungicides.

Hazards: Extremely poisonous. Cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shock, and death. Chronic exposure causes degeneration of liver and kidneys.

Diazinon (dimpylate): An active ingredient in insecticides.

Hazards: Impairs central nervous system function. Extremely toxic.

Dichlorvos (DDVP): An active ingredient in insecticides.

Hazards: Impairs central nervous system function. Extremely toxic.

Lindane: An active ingredient in insecticides. Also found in some prescription lice shampoos, flea powders, and dog shampoos.

Hazards: Acute symptoms after inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through skin include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremors, convulsions, cyanosis, and circulatory collapse. Chronic effects include liver damage, stillbirths, and fetal abnormalities. Has caused cancer in test animals.


Chlorofluoromethanes: Used to chill refrigerators, freezers, and air conditioners.

Hazards: May cause frostbite if bare skin is exposed to it. If expelled from containment and exposed to heat, it can form extremely toxic phosgene gas (nerve gas, as this substance was called in World War I). Never operate the engine when venting a car's air-conditioning system.

Shoe Care Products

Methylene chloride: Used in cleaning and polishing solutions. A major ingredient in paint strippers.

Hazards: Inhalation of vapors causes carbon monoxide accumulation in blood, which can result in coma and death. Hazard is increased for those with cardiac or pulmonary conditions.

Nitrobenzene: Used in cleaners.

Hazards: See Furniture Polish section.

o-dichlorobenzene: Used in dyes.

Hazards: Depresses the central nervous system. Causes liver and kidney damage in test animals.

Perchloroethylene: Used in cleaners.

Hazards: Has narcotic effects in high concentrations. Its defatting action can cause skin irritation and dermatitis. (See Laundry Products section.)

Propylene dichloride: Used in dyes.

Hazards: Irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes. Has caused liver and kidney damage in test animals. Narcotic in high concentrations.

1,1,1-trichloroethane: Used in polishes and dyes.

Hazards: Irritating to the eyes and mucous membranes. Narcotic in high concentrations.

Trichloroethylene: Used in polishes and cleaners.

Hazards: Moderate concentrations produce intoxication; higher concentrations have narcotic effect. Has produced liver cancer in test animals.

Xylene: Used in cleaners.

Hazards: Narcotic in high concentrations. Chronic toxicity not determined.

To learn more about the chemicals and hazardous substances you may be living with, see Hazardous Household Chemicals, The Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives, The Living Room and The Bathroom.    

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