Hidden Health Dangers in Your Home

Father And Daughter Washing Dishes
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Keep your home clean and healthy with a few simple housekeeping changes.

Surprisingly, some of the items we bring into our homes to improve our lives can actually harm us. For example, many household cleansers formulated to keep our homes free of germs and grime,are potentially hazardous when mishandled. Perhaps less obvious, even the ubiquitous kitchen sponge might be doing more harm than good. Let's take a quick inventory of a few things that might be in your home and consider some healthier alternatives. Let's begin with that lovely welcoming fragrance that might be polluting your indoor air.

Scented Candles

During fall and winter, many of us find comfort in the warm glow of candlelight and the accompanying fragrance of spices, forests, or flowers. Occasional use of scented candles is fine. However, if you're burning candles on a regular basis, especially in close quarters, the air quality becomes compromised with soot and other chemicals. That's especially problematic for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When you're burning candles, place them in a well-ventilated room or run a fan. Also, when you change your furnace filter, check for an accumulation of dark soot. That's definitely an indicator that there's too much soot in the air. As an alternative, burn unscented candles that produce less soot, or use battery-operated candles that mimic soft flickering flames.

Air Fresheners

A fragrance is powerful because our brain links scents to memories of people, events, and places. For example, the scent of lilacs might immediately transport you to a special person's garden. So, placing an air freshener in your home can be a great way to reconnect with fond memories. However, air fresheners can contain formaldehyde, phthalates, or benzene. The small amounts emitted in a well-ventilated home don't pose an immediate health risk but over time might have a detrimental effect, causing headaches or nausea, and they can aggravate asthma. The natural way to freshen indoor air is simply opening a window. Otherwise, try adding fragrance by spraying or diffusing organic essential oils.

Household Cleansers

top view collection of cleaning supplies
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Safely store household cleansers to prevent accidental poisoning and chemical burns.

The most common source of accidental poisoning in children is household cleansers. To prevent poisoning, store cleansers on a high shelf or use child safety locks. Even if you don't have children, use care storing these products so you're prepared if a child visits your home. To truly minimize the risk of poisoning or dangerous exposure to harsh cleansers, consider using alternative natural cleansers in your home.

Sometimes it's difficult to know which products truly pose a problem. For example, one urban legend claims a Swiffer® WetJet™ poses a serious health hazard to dogs and cats. However, veterinary toxicologists at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reviewed the claim and declared that the ingredients are safe to use around pets. In fact, even if pets drank large amounts of the solution, they would only experience temporary, minor intestinal upset. The following list reveals the real health hazards.

Caustic Cleansers

People usually choose to use caustic cleansers—those containing ingredients such as bleach that burn living tissue by chemical action—because they are effective. However, non-toxic cleansers that don't rely on ingredients are readily available.

method antibac toilet cleanser
credit: Method
Some companies formulate their products with non-toxic ingredients, such as citric acid rather than bleach, so our homes are safer and the environmental impact is minimal.

Single-Use Detergent Packets

Unfortunately one sensationalized hazard is true: Teenagers were biting into caustic single-use laundry detergent packets (pods) while being recorded on video or streamed live—a blatant misuse of the product. Yet, small children have also been injured by rupturing pre-measured laundry and dishwashing packets. In fact, several children died after ingesting laundry detergent packets that they mistook for candy. Detergent pods must be kept out of sight and reach of children and stored in the original container with a child-safety locking cap. As an alternative, purchase a bottled liquid or dry detergent because accidental poisoning is much less common. The contents are still caustic and require careful storage; however, they are less enticing to children.

Man pouring laundry detergent
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Store laundry detergent out of sight and reach of a child.

Ammonia

Cleaning solutions with a high concentration of ammonia can quickly irritate nose, throat, and lungs when fumes are inhaled, and they burn skin and eyes upon contact. Typically, home cleansers have a lower concentration of ammonia to reduce the risk of a reaction, but use these products with care in a well-ventilated room, or use white vinegar as an alternative.

Chlorine Bleach

Chlorine bleach is a product created from sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide. It is not made from elemental chlorine, which is a very strong acid. Typically, people use chlorine bleach while washing clothes or disinfecting kitchen and bathroom surfaces. When using bleach or a product containing bleach, always follow instructions printed on the label. More is not better! To disinfect kitchen surfaces, dilute only one tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water. Store bleach away from children in a safety-locked cabinet because bleach is the most common product ingredient that harms children. Bleach alternatives include hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, white vinegar, and lemon juice.

Spray Bottles

In 2010, household cleansers in spray bottles—especially products containing bleach— caused the most injuries to children. If a label provides instructions for calling poison control or emergency treatment, consider it dangerous, especially for children. The best option is to look for alternative cleansers that contain safer ingredients, such as those labeled as a safer choice by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Avoid cleansers that have spray applicators and always store cleansers in their original packaging.

Safer Choice label
credit: Environmental Protection Agency
The United States Environmental Protection Agency evaluates products, and those that meet their standards for safer families and pets earn the Safer Choice label.

Food Poisoning

Twenty percent of foodborne illnesses result from food that we prepare and eat in our homes. Prevent contamination by storing food properly and exercising care during handling and preparation. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling food. Use two separate cutting boards: one for raw meat and the other for fruits and vegetables. Especially, take note of the following common kitchen items that harbor harmful bacteria and then take steps to reduce the risk of serious illness.

Kitchen Sponge

Kitchen sponges contain the largest amount of active bacteria in an entire house. They are likely to collect bacteria from kitchen surfaces, incubate them, and then spread bacteria back onto kitchen surfaces. From there, bacteria can eventually enter a human body from contaminated food or hands. To reduce your risk of illness, use paper towels instead of a sponge to clean up surfaces after cooking. You can disinfect a sponge used to wash dishes, but after a week, replace it because disinfecting is no longer effective. Use one of the following methods to sanitize a sponge.

  • Place a sponge in a pan of boiling water, cover the pan, and boil it for five minutes.
  • Saturate a sponge with water and microwave heat it on high for one minute (scrub sponge) or two minutes (cellulose sponge). Use caution when removing the hot sponge from the microwave oven. (Note that some sponges can burn in a high-powered microwave oven.)
  • Add a sponge to a regular dishwasher load and use the Heat Dry option.
  • Soak a sponge in full-strength white vinegar for five minutes, then rinse.
Woman Cleaning Kitchen Counter
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A kitchen sponge needs to be sanitized daily and replaced weekly.

Refrigerator

Ironically, refrigerators designed to safely store food can harbor E. coli, salmonella, listeria, yeast, and mold. Follow the refrigerator manufacturer's instructions for regularly cleaning your particular model.

  • Meat compartment: Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and ready-to-eat food come into direct contact with each other and the compartment itself. To prevent the spread of contamination, keep all meat only in the meat compartment, separate from other refrigerated foods, and clean the compartment regularly. Five microorganisms are commonly found here: E. coli, salmonella, listeria, yeast, and mold.
  • Vegetable compartment: Raw produce—especially leafy greens—are the largest source of foodborne illnesses. You need to wash the produce and the compartment where it's stored. This compartment is often contaminated with salmonella, listeria, yeast, and mold.
  • Ice and water dispenser: Yeast and mold find favorable conditions to grow in these areas. When added to food or beverages, they will spoil faster.
  • Refrigerator door seals: Door seals often harbor listeria, yeast, and mold.
Woman looking in a refrigerator
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Prevent food poisoning by following sanitation guidelines for home appliances and utensils.

Kitchen Utensils and Storage Containers

  • Rubber spatula: If the spatula separates into two pieces, separate them each time it's cleaned. A rubber spatula can harbor E. coli, yeast, and mold.
  • Can opener: Wash after every use. It can harbor E. coli, salmonella, yeast, and mold.
  • Pizza cutter: Wash thoroughly after use. It can harbor E. coli, yeast, and mold.
  • Food storage containers with a rubber seal: Wash and dry thoroughly after each use. The seal can harbor salmonella, yeast, and mold.

Blender

A blender is one of the germiest items in your kitchen because the gasket often isn't thoroughly cleaned and dried. It can harbor E. coli, salmonella, yeast, and mold.

Vitamins, Supplements, and Medications

Increasingly, young children are accidentally ingesting prescription medications, vitamins, and health supplements, causing pharmaceutical poisoning. The obvious answer is to keep these substances in a cupboard that's out of a child's reach and protected with a safety lock. Preferably, choose a cupboard in the kitchen rather than a bedroom or bathroom, where a child isn't as closely monitored. Keep pills and capsules in the original child-proof packaging.

Medical capsules and pills
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Children often confuse vitamins, supplements, and medications with candy.

House Plants

Houseplants are popular because they add natural beauty and can even clean inside air. However, some plants are toxic to pets and people if they're ingested.

  • Many spring bulbs, such as daffodils, are toxic if eaten. A child can easily mistake a bulb for an onion or shallot. Ingestion causes intense stomach problems, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, and even death.
  • An Easter lily is highly toxic for cats. Eating even a small amount can cause kidney failure and death. However, the plant is not poisonous to humans.
  • A peace lily is toxic if eaten in large quantities. Keep it away from pets or young children.
  • All parts of the sago palm are poisonous to people and pets when ingested. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea, and it can cause liver failure.
  • Oleander is a popular indoor flowering shrub. All parts are extremely poisonous and can be fatal if eaten. Take care during pruning to avoid accidentally ingesting the sap.
  • English ivy can cause serious problems if ingested in large amounts by people and pets. Symptoms include skin irritation, burning throat, fever, and rash. Since the plant tends to trail, keep it high off the ground.
  • Philodendrons and pothos are very popular vining plants that are toxic to humans and pets when eaten. Symptoms include swelling lips, tongue, and throat, as well as vomiting and diarrhea. Keep the plant elevated far from the floor.
  • Dieffenbachia is a common houseplant because it grows well in low light conditions. Unfortunately, if eaten the sap causes the tongue to burn and dangerously swell. Large amounts can be fatal to people and pets.
Dieffenbachia house plant
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The dieffenbachia is an example of a popular houseplant that poses a risk to pets and children who are tempted to eat its leaves and stems.

Button Batteries

Surprisingly, people of all ages have been poisoned by swallowing button batteries, such as those used in greeting cards, toys, and other portable electronics. Small children have also put them in their nose and ears. When swallowed, a battery burns quickly through the airway, into the heart and chest cavity. Once a battery is removed, scarring can cause long-term health problems, and some people have died. As a precaution, don't give young children greeting cards that contain batteries, and always store batteries out of a child's reach.

Pesticides

Household pesticides, including insect repellant and flea and tick repellant for pets, are one of the leading causes of childhood poisoning. Follow instructions on the label and wash your hands thoroughly after using pesticides. Store these products in a cabinet out of the reach of children.

Cats are cleaning the body every day.
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Store your pet's medication and flea and tick shampoos and repellents out of a child's reach.