Hazardous Household Chemicals

A guide to chemicals in the kitchen, utility room, bathroom and living room.

| May/June 1984

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    Protect your household from harmful substances found in consumer products. 

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Each day the average American uses (directly and indirectly) hundreds of laborsaving formulations, and even the conscientious consumer is likely to be coerced into pushing the buttons on a few spray cans. In the last 50 years, chemicals (that is, those of the synthetic variety) have become an integral part of the U.S. way of life—not to mention of our economy.

It would be easy to rail against the trend. After all, a hundred years ago people got along pretty well without an arsenal of aerosols. What's more, the harmful effects of chemical production and the disposal of its by-products may be the most serious environmental problems facing the country today. Indeed, there are frighteningly dangerous compounds that continue to be manufactured and used, despite widespread scientific knowledge of (and complaints about) their harmful effects. Only public outcry will bring grease to the wheels of regulation in a government bogged down in bureaucracy and badgered by commercial interests.

However, it's consumer self-defense (not action) that's the subject of this article. As you'll learn, federal regulation is no assurance of safety from a whole array of compounds many of us use in our own homes. We'll be discussing substances that are much more insidious than newsworthy contaminants such as dioxins or polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB's), even though they are much less dangerous on a per-unit basis. Most consumers are practically unaware of them, because the compounds may go unmentioned on labels or because their names are indecipherable. Some of the chemicals are additives that are known to be hazardous. Others are dyes or flavorings that have never been adequately tested. But the most sinister aspect of the proliferation of household chemicals is that most of us expose ourselves to these laborsaving elixirs for hours on end in our own homes every day. In effect, we live in chemical warehouses.

What is a Chemical?

Over the last few years, a major chemical company has used advertisements in its attempt to make the point that since all matter is made up of chemicals, that term certainly isn't a dirty word. Whatever you may think of the firm's motivations, the ads do make a worthwhile point: Simply because a compound sounds complex, that doesn't mean it's dangerous. Unless you have a strong background in chemistry, you probably won't be able to tell a harmful substance from a beneficial one purely on the basis of its name. For example, vitamin B6 (an essential nutrient) goes by the technical names of pyridoxine or pyridoxine hydrochloride, either of which is a fair mouthful to pronounce.

Likewise, simply being of natural (rather than synthetic) origin is no guarantee of a substance's safety. The ranks of suspected and known toxic and cancer-causing compounds are filled with plants and minerals. Generalizations really don't go very far when we're discussing hazardous substances. To make sensible decisions about the chemicals you live with, you'll need to be well armed with information.

What is Hazardous?

There are a number of different and fairly obvious ways in which chemicals can harm us, but judging the degree of risk is a very difficult matter. Toxic compounds cause one or more of a variety of bodily malfunctions. Perhaps they depress the central nervous system, making us drowsy or even causing death. Or maybe they attack the liver, where they accumulate when they're cleaned from our blood. The question is, how much of a particular substance does it take to cause such harm? If an inordinately high dosage must be taken to harm a human, the substance may be considered toxic but not hazardous.

10/10/2007 4:03:18 PM

The revised and updated A Consumer's Dictionary of Household, Yard and Office Chemicals has just been published. I am about to start working on the seventh edition of A Consumers Dictionary of Food Additives. Thought you might like to know. Keep up the good work. Best, Ruth Winter

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