Skip to content

Health Hazards in Your Own Home

6 products to be careful of and how to minimize their danger

Is the environment — your home environment — hazardous to your health? With new research continuing to show that unhealthy substances found in everyday products often pose higher risks for certain segments of the population, it's a question that might loom larger for you.

See also: 5 ways you can help the environment.

With good reason. Longer life spans may increase the chances that cumulative exposure will cause illnesses with long latency periods, such as cancer or Parkinson's disease, to develop. And older people are more likely to have conditions — such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and diabetes — that can dramatically reduce their ability to withstand exposure to environmental hazards.

The stakes increase with age as our bodies tend to process and eliminate toxicants more slowly. "The slowing down of kidney, liver and immune system functioning all play a role," says Sandra Steingraber, the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.

Weeding out potentially hazardous substances in your home can be a challenge, but it's not impossible. "We're not suggesting that you do away with all these things immediately," says Paul McRandle, deputy editor at the National Geographic Green Guide.

Next: Products to watch out for and ways you can reduce risk. >>

Here are products to watch out for and ways you can reduce risk.

1. Paint and solvents. If paint and paint solvents, such as mineral spirits, turpentine, methanol or xylene, are used improperly, their fumes can stress your lungs and heart, contributing to irregular heartbeat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Aging Initiative. That's because many of these products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

  • Check the label: Alkyd- and oil-based paints generally have higher levels than latex and water-based paints; many stores now carry VOC-free paints.
  • If you can't find an eco-savvy store near you, try such websites as Green Building Supply, Green Depot and
  • Use and store products in well-ventilated areas. Old containers of hazardous products can leak chemicals into the air over time, which can build up in enclosed areas.

2. Cleaners. Chemicals to avoid in cleaners, says McRandle, "run from ammonia, which is known to trigger asthma, elements in chlorine bleach, which is a lung irritant and will kill you if you swallow it, to things like glycol ethers, which are used to dissolve grime and dirt, and are easily absorbed by the skin and can cause nerve damage."

  • Protect your skin by wearing rubber gloves.
  • Protect your lungs by ventilating your work area or wearing a mask.
  • For a less toxic cleaner, try hydrogen peroxide, baking soda or white vinegar.

3. Pesticides. Pesticides kill bugs, but they can kill you, too. While older Americans account for only 2.8 percent of all reported pesticide-poisoning incidents, they account for 28 percent of all deaths from such incidents, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Exposure to pesticides can cause headaches, dizziness, muscle twitching and nausea; long-term or excessive exposure to some pesticides has been linked to cancer and damage to the reproductive and central nervous systems.

Studies have also suggested that there may be a connection between pesticide exposure and Parkinson's disease. Some people may have a genetic susceptibility to the substance that later triggers the disease. In addition, pesticides can be dangerous for those with weakened hearts or lungs, the EPA warns, leading to arrhythmia or even heart attack.

  • Get more information on reducing your exposure to pesticide hazards from EPA's fact sheet.
  • onsider using less toxic alternatives (see "5 Natural Pest Repellants" sidebar).

4. Clothing. Clothing labels aren't required to list chemicals used in finishes, and many permanent press fabrics and some older water-repellent and flame-retardant fabrics contain formaldehyde, an upper-respiratory irritant.

"In general you are better off looking for untreated clothing made of more natural fibers like cotton," McRandle says.

  • What's on or around your clothing can also pose dangers. Mothballs, for example, slowly emit a toxic gas that kills moths and other insects. (Ditto for moth flakes, crystals and bars.) The vapors are harmful when breathed, and mothballs can harm people or pets that may touch or eat them.
  • Use mothballs only as intended — in airtight containers. That way, as the gases they produce build up inside and kill any clothes moths, you're protected.

Then there's dry-cleaning. Most professional dry-cleaners wash clothes in perchloroethylene, or PERC, a solvent that the EPA classifies as a possible-to-probable carcinogen. Some scientists consider PERC to be a neurotoxin. If your closets are full of dry-cleaned garments, you could be breathing PERC in without even knowing it.

  • If your clothes come back from the cleaners with a detectable chemical odor, return them and have them redone.
  • Air out dry-cleaned garments, with the plastic bags off, in an open area like your garage or even outside.
  • Perhaps consider a "professional wet cleaner" that uses water-based solutions and systems to get your clothes clean.

5. Furniture/draperies/carpet pads/stuffing. Before 2000 the Scotchgard anti-stain treatments on some furniture and draperies included chemical compounds that were potential carcinogens. In 2000, Scotchgard revised its formula to use compounds considered safer.

Another potentially hazardous treatment can be found in some carpet pads and older stuffing in furniture and mattresses. There is evidence suggesting polybrominated diphenyl ethers, used as flame-retardants in these products, can affect the thyroid gland and the nervous and reproductive systems.

  • "We don't advise that people throw out all their old furniture," McRandle says. "But we do recommend that you seal up that rip in an old couch."

6. Nonstick cooking pans. Nonstick surfaces aren't generally considered a risk at normal cooking temperatures, but some can release 15 toxic chemicals, including two carcinogens, at higher temperatures, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research group in Washington.

  • Don't leave pans on a lit burner unattended.

Reed Karaim lives in Tucson, Ariz.