The Truth About Household Chemicals

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on September 09, 2011
6 min read

It seems like every time you turn on the television or log onto your computer, there’s a new warning that some seemingly harmless product that you use every day is actually lying in wait to kill you. But it’s hard to tell which warnings are rooted in reality and which ones are false alarms.

How hazardous are the products that surround us in our home? What’s so hazardous that you should eliminate it immediately, and what simply requires careful handling? And how can you protect your family without living in fear? Let’s take a tour of the house.

Many of the products that we use in our kitchen, from the storage containers that keep our food fresh to the bottles we tote drinks in to the cans our soups come in, are lined with chemicals. Over the past several years, a lot of attention has been paid to one of these chemicals, bisphenol A (BPA), which some research indicates could pose a variety of hazards to human health.

Many sports bottles and baby products now boast that they’re “BPA free” -- but that doesn’t mean that they’re free of all chemicals.

“When something is phased out of a product, they have to substitute something else, and that substitute isn’t necessarily well studied,” says Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the program on reproductive health and the environment at the University of California, San Francisco.

Many of these chemicals, Woodruff says, may be “endocrine disruptors,” just like BPA. “That means they affect our endocrine system, including the production of estrogen, testosterone, and thyroid hormones, which are all very important for the proper functioning of the body, and particularly important during pregnancy because they do the signaling that lays down certain architecture in the developing fetus.”

It’s impossible to eliminate your exposure, and your family’s, to BPA and other additives and plasticizers, says Woodruff. Instead, do your best to minimize the hazard:

  • Don’t use any plastic containers in the microwave. That upsets the chemical structure and can cause leaching.
  • Avoid canned foods as much as possible, whenever there is a non-canned alternative. For example, when you can’t buy fresh fruit or vegetables, opt for frozen over canned. Buy soups and sauces that come in glass jars.
  • Use stainless water bottles without plastic liners.
  • Wash plastic containers on the top shelf of the dishwasher, where it’s cooler and discard when they become scratched.

Glass is generally safer than plastic as a storage medium, but that’s not always the case. Leaded crystal and glass -- like the fine stemware and decanters you may keep for special occasions -- are called “leaded” because they do, indeed, contain lead.

Now, just drinking out of a leaded glass goblet shouldn’t be a problem because the drink doesn’t stay in the glass long enough to absorb anything. “But if you store brandy in a leaded-glass decanter, the longer you store it, the more lead will leak into the alcohol,” says Paul Blanc, MD, MSPH, chief of the division of occupational and environmental medicine and the endowed chair of occupational medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

So if you must use that gorgeous lead-glass decanter, pour your brandy or whiskey into it right before you entertain, and pour any remnants out at the end of the evening.

“I’ve heard that the average woman uses about 12 personal care products every day,” says Woodruff. Add them up: soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lipstick, mascara, blush, lotion, baby oil -- the list goes on. Are these products safe?

Two types of chemicals that are found in some of these products, and the containers they come in, are phthalates and parabens. (There are a lot of these in baby care products as well.) Like BPA and its relatives, they are also endocrine disruptors. How bad are they for you?

“It’s hard to tell,” says Woodruff. “If all you ever did was use a shampoo with phthalates, that’s probably not a big deal. But the fact is that people are exposed to multiple phthalates, and also parabens and lots of other chemicals. Science tells us that if you get exposed to multiple chemicals on top of others, you get enhanced effects.”

She advises seeking out cosmetics, shampoos, and skin care products labeled “paraben free” and “phthalate free” whenever possible.

What about that baby powder you use on your little one’s tender skin? If you choose to use baby powder, pour it out carefully and keep the powder away from baby's face. Talc or cornstarch in baby powder can cause breathing problems.

Another item found in your bathroom that poses potential hazards is petroleum jelly. You may remember that mom would rub it around your nostrils when you had a cold to ease the pain of a nose raw from running and rubbing. That’s fine over a short period of time, but if you do it for many weeks or months at a time, the jelly you inhale without realizing it can cause a gradual buildup of lung damage. Doctors call this “lipoid pneumonia.” Try using a vaporizer or humidifier in your room instead.

Many household cleaning products harbor dangerous chemicals -- that’s why parents lock the under-sink cabinet in order to keep small children out.

One of the most hazardous household cleaning products isn’t a single product, but a combination. It happens when you mix a bleach product with a product such as ammonia. This produces toxic gases, including chlorine gas.

When you inhale the fumes, it causes coughing, shortness of breath, nausea, chest pain, and watery eyes. And if the exposure is bad enough -- especially if you’re in a small, enclosed room like a bathroom -- can lead to chemical pneumonia and even death.

“There are thousands of cases of injury from this combination every year,” says Blanc.

So if you’re cleaning with a product that contains bleach, don’t use other products at the same time, such as:

  • Glass cleaners
  • Tile cleaners
  • Drain cleaners

Even household vinegar also contains some acid, Blanc notes. And use caution when cleaning a cat box with bleach, since cat urine has a high ammonia content.

Another major toxin you may find under your sink is a pesticide -- anything designed to kill bugs or other household vermin.

“Peer-reviewed studies have shown that prenatal exposure to pesticides -- just regular exposure around the house, not just when there was a regular occupational exposure -- may be associated with an increased risk of childhood leukemia,” says Woodruff. “You’re much better off finding nontoxic alternatives to pesticides.”

Finally, one of the most dangerous substances in your home may be one you can’t see at all: radon gas. “This is an underappreciated danger,” says Blanc. “Depending on where you live, it can be a serious hazard.”

Radon, a radioactive gas, enters the home as a result of the natural decay of the uranium found in most soils. It moves up through the ground and gets in through cracks and holes in the foundation. After smoking, radon is the number one cause of lung cancer in the country, and it’s the leading cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Exposure to radon causes an estimated 20,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

All homes should be tested for radon, but some areas are at particular risk. To find out your risk level and learn how to test, visit the EPA’s Radon web site.