Hidden Health Hazards in Your Home

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Keep your home clean and healthy with a few simple housekeeping changes.
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Surprisingly, some of the items you bring into your home to improve the lives of your family can actually harm them. For example, many household cleansers formulated to keep your home 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. Taking a quick inventory of potentially hazardous things that might be in your home helps you find healthier alternatives to reduce your risks.

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Hidden household hazards come in many forms and may seem safe on the surface. Some hazards include scented candles, air fresheners, contaminated food, button batteries, toxic houseplants and many cleaning products.

Burning 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 candle 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.

Artificial Air Fresheners

A fragrance is powerful because the 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 Cleaning Products

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 to keep kids out of cabinets. 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.

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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 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.

Caustic Cleaning Products

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, nontoxic cleansers that don't rely on such ingredients are readily available.

Warning

A caustic product is either a very strong alkaline or very strong acid, in liquid, powder or granular form. An injury is instantaneous as the chemical burns bodily tissues, such as skin, eyes, lips and the gastrointestinal tract. Damage cannot be reversed, only treated. Therefore, it is essential to protect yourself, family members, visitors and pets from all caustic products: household drain cleaner, oven cleaner, rust remover, toilet bowl cleaner, dishwasher detergent, laundry detergent packets, high-strength bleach, some swimming pool chemicals and cleaning products for brick and stone.

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.

Ammonia and Products Containing Ammonia

Using ammonia for cleaning is common. 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 on 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 cleaning vinegar as an alternative.

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Warning

Never combine cleansers that contain ammonia (typically a glass cleanser) with cleansers that contain bleach (kitchen and bathroom cleansers) because the combination creates very toxic chloramine gas.

Chlorine Bleach Products

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 the instructions printed on the label. More is ​not​ better!

To disinfect kitchen surfaces, dilute only 1 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.

Warning

Bleach is corrosive, so contact will irreversibly burn skin, eyes and other body tissues. It is poisonous if swallowed. Follow first aid instructions on the label and immediately contact a poison control center or doctor. Avoid breathing the vapors and use in a well-ventilated area. (Simply smelling the odor of bleach is not harmful.) Never mix bleach with vinegar or other household products.

Spray Bottle Cleaners

Household cleaners in spray bottles can cause serious injury 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 U. S. Environmental Protection Agency. Avoid cleansers that have spray applicators and always store cleansers in their original packaging.

Food Poisoning and Contamination

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 common kitchen items that harbor harmful bacteria and then take steps to reduce the risk of serious illness.

Kitchen Sponge Bacteria

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. If your sponge smells, there's a good chance it has bacteria in it, but it's impossible to tell if it's contaminated by looking at or smelling it.

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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 these 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. 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.

Refrigerator Food Contamination

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, so cleaning door seals regularly is important.

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Kitchen Utensils and Storage Containers

Many kitchen utensils and small appliances that you use every day can become contaminated as well. Being aware of the contamination and cleaning these items regularly can reduce the risk. Examples include:

  • 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.

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.

Toxic Houseplant Varieties

Houseplants are popular because they add natural beauty and can even clean inside air. However, some houseplants 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 and 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 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 of the dieffenbachia plant causes the tongue to burn and dangerously swell. Large amounts can be fatal to people and pets.

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Button Batteries and Children

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.

Toxic Pesticide Products

Household pesticides, including insect repellent and flea and tick repellent 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.

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references

Tracie is a technical writer who earned her home and garden expertise while extensively remodeling two homes, custom-building a new home, and designing and building a cabin. Additionally, she and her husband, a former landscape professional, have created gardens that feature native plants and locally-sourced limestone. Tracie loves a cozy minimalist home and sews her own pillow covers, quilts, and curtains. Learn more at RicefordStreams.com.