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How to Read a Label: Are There Toxic Products in Your Home?

Posted on April 13, 2018 by Rachel Tardif There have been 0 comments

In the average American home you can find a toxic waste dump. Floor and furniture polish contain phenol, diethylene glycol, and other toxic compounds; glass cleaners have ammonia; metal cleaners have phosphoric and sulfuric acids; oven cleaners contain lye; drain cleaners have hydrochloric and sulfuric acids; all-purpose cleaners contain ammonia and chlorine; and toilet cleaners contain paradichlorobenzene. Even air fresheners, which are designed to "clean" the air, contain phenol, cresol, and formaldehyde. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, the air inside a home can be up to ten times worse than outside air.

In addition to their environmental impacts, having these chemicals in our homes exposes us to many known and unknown health risks. Allergies, asthma, cancer, migraines, dizziness, nausea, eye, skin, and respiratory tract irritation are just a few of the hazards of toxic chemicals we keep around us. Only 7% of the 3,000 chemicals produced in amounts of 1 million pounds a year have been fully tested and virtually no data exists for about 50% of them. Furthermore, manufacturers of cleaning compounds don't even have to tell you what's inside them!

These chemicals can be especially dangerous in homes with children. A recent study showed that, between 1996 and 2006, nearly 12,000 children aged 1-5 were treated in emergency rooms for poisoning by household cleaners.* In fact, one U.S. child in 13 under the age of 6 will come in contact with a hazardous chemical, resulting in a call to a poison center. But how can you tell if the products in your home are dangerous?

Who Decides If A Product Is Toxic?

The determination of the hazards from product use is made by one of three federal agencies:

  • Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): regulates pesticides, insecticides, chlorine bleach, mildew removers, wood preservatives, rodenticides, fungicides.
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA): regulates food, drugs, cosmetics, and personal care products.
  • Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC): regulates cleaners, non-chlorine bleach, wood finishes, other household items except food, drugs, cosmetics, and personal care products.

Most products on store shelves will have been tested by one of these three agencies, who will then require companies to label accordingly. in general, the following four properties make products hazardous:

  • Toxic products are poisonous or causes illness; includes pesticides, solvents, and paint stripper.
  • Flammable products catch fire easily includes gasoline, paints, paint thinner, lighter fluid, and aerosol products.
  • Corrosive products causes skin or eye burns; includes drain cleaners and oven cleaners.
  • Reactive products causes chemical reactions; includes chlorine bleach, ammonia, acids, and bases.

What's On The Label?

Each agency has its own labeling regulations and keywords.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA):

  • Caution (III): least toxic
  • Warning (II): more toxic
  • Danger (I): most toxic and hazardous

The EPA does not allow "safe" to be used on the labels of pesticides. The above label warnings are all followed by phrases that identify specific health hazards and some environmental hazards. Labels must identify active ingredients, but not other (sometimes called inert) ingredients (other ingredients may include solvents, detergents, or propellants that pose their own hazards). Detailed use information must also be given.

Food And Drug Administration (FDA):

  • Must list all ingredients; no specific signal words.

Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC):

  • Caution and Warning mean about the same.
  • Danger is the most hazardous.

What's Not On The Label?

Carcinogens, environmental hazards (except pesticides), and chronic health hazards

Other Label Dangers

Other label information that is important to note includes whether or not a product has volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Common sources of household VOCs are products such as cleaning products, floor polishes, charcoal lighter fluid, windshield washer fluid, and hair styling spray, gel, and mousse - whether in aerosol cans or spray pumps. It can be difficult to tell from labels alone which products will give off VOCs, so look for options that specifically advertise themselves as VOC-free.

Also beware of advertising claims from product manufacturers that boast of being "environmentally safe," "biodegradable," "ozone friendly," and "recycled.” There is very little regulation on the use of these green terms, so always check the label to make sure a product is living up to its claim. And finally, while one product may be safer than another, other factors also need to be taken into account when deciding which product is best for the use intended, such as how it is being applied, stored, and disposed of, as well as ventilation requirements.

Alternatives to Toxic Products

Fortunately, there are plenty of non-toxic, green options out there that can take the place of more dangerous products. If you’re having trouble reading a product’s label, look for natural materials like citrus extracts, enzymes, or baking soda that indicate a product is safer than artificial alternatives. And if you’re still unsure about the safety of a store-bought product, you can also make common household products like cleaners, shampoo, and garden pesticides safely in your own kitchen.


This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Green Cleaning, Health and Safety, Your Green Home and was tagged with bio-based cleaners, environmental products, Green Your Home, NON-TOXIC


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