Chemicals in the Home

There are some quite toxic chemicals that have been deemed ‘safe’ for household use in low concentrations and certain conditions. Some cleaning ingredients are known to be hazardous and are labelled accordingly, with warnings and instructions for safer use, which limit the multiplying effect of exposure.

Little is known about the cumulative effects of long-term low-level exposure to these substances. However, we do know that the rates of cancer, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies and multiple chemical sensitivity cases are steadily increasing and that exposure to toxic chemicals can cause or exacerbate some of these conditions.

Here is a list of some of the household sources of unhealthy chemicals:

  • Formaldehyde may be released or ‘off-gassed’ from particleboard, plywood and some other treated or reconstituted timber products.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, chloroform, trichloroethane and styrene) may be emitted from plywood, particleboard, sealants, adhesives, paint, varnishes, PVC products, cleaning products, cigarette smoke, pesticides and some cosmetics (such as nail polish remover). The level of VOCs off-gassed decrease over time, so take particular care with new products, homes and renovations.
  • Lead may be present in the paint of houses built prior to 1970. Get professional advice before disturbing it, particularly when renovating older houses.
  • Pesticides can contain highly toxic organochlorine and organophosphate compounds. Chlorpyriphos and diazinon, for example, are used in pet flea rinses and are potentially hazardous to people and wildlife. There are alternatives made from citronella, eucalyptus and cedar oils. Napthalene is used in mothballs; natural insect-deterring oils make a less harmful alternative.
  • Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that mimic hormones, particularly the female hormone oestrogen, influencing the endocrine systems of animals (and humans) that ingest them. Common endocrine disruptors include some pesticides, heavy metals, organochlorines and some plasticisers and surfactants, some of which are present in some plastics and cleaning chemicals.

Where possible, choose less potentially harmful alternatives to these products. However, it can be hard to eliminate these products altogether, so always follow product safety instructions, ventilate regularly to maintain good indoor air quality and keep soft plastic toys out of the hands (and mouths) of teething children.