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updated August 1, 2002


Household Chemicals - Risk or Benefit?
submitted by Lorene Bartos, Extension Educator

Are household chemicals a risk or benefit? The benefits of chemicals have become so much a part of our everyday life that we usually take them for granted. Unfortunately, some of the characteristics that make household chemical products the most useful also lead to trouble when these products are carelessly handled.

It's easy to understand that pesticides or medicines are chemicals, but often people don't stop to think that such common household products as bleaches, disinfectants, shoe polish, detergents, floor polishes, etc. are also chemicals and could be hazardous.

As our use of chemicals has grown, so has our concern about their effects on people and the environment. Some chemicals are highly poisonous. Some can cause illness or death if misused.

Alternatives to Hazardous Substances

There is a lot of interest in finding and using less hazardous substances around the home. It can be an acceptable risk to use a toxic chemical substance provided it is safely and properly handled and controlled. It is not an acceptable risk to use just any chemical substance for just any purpose. An important qualifying factor for a toxic substance is the quantity or amount used.

The fact that a household chemical is tested, labeled and marketed does not mean a consumer no longer has a responsibility for product safety.

There is a lot of information being circulated with recommendations for "natural" products to use for various household uses. Common recommendations include the use of vinegar, baking soda, salt, lemon juice, washing soda, ammonia and borax. When selecting alternative products, consider:

  1. The alternative product may be less effective, require more effort, take longer to use or be less convenient to use.
  2. The same precautions about quantity of the product as a toxicity factor apply to even "natural" products. Excessive amounts can be toxic.
  3. The same precautions about the hazards of mixing chemicals will apply.
  4. Many products recommended as less hazardous alternative products can, in fact be harsher in use. This is especially true of "natural" cleaning products and practices that replace cleaning and "elbow grease." The result can be greater wear and possible damage to the material being cleaned.

Safe Use of Household Chemicals

Whether you choose a chemical that is clearly indicated as a hazardous product, or a less hazardous alternative product, careful safety practices are needed.

  1. Buy products that are clearly labeled and have complete instructions for safe use and disposal.
  2. Purchase only as much of the product as you expect to use, or buy only a small amount of the product at first to determine if it meets your needs. Plan with friends, family or neighbors to share the product. This will reduce the chance that you will have a leftover hazardous product that needs storage or disposal.
  3. Before using a product, become familiar with emergency procedures in case of skin or eye irritation, accidental ingestion or other problems.
  4. Always use products according to label directions, for their intended purpose, and at the recommended strength or concentration.
  5. Never mix products together unless specifically directed.
  6. If a product contains a solvent, use in a well-ventilated space and away from heat sources and sparks. Also be aware that solvents can remove dyes or be damaging to synthetic fibers.
  7. Keep track of the product container during use, to avoid spills and inquisitive children. (One study by the Soap and Detergent Association reported that three-fourths of the reported childhood poisonings from household chemicals occurred when the product was in use.)
  8. Where recommended, use safety equipment or protective clothing, such as gloves, safety glasses or masks.
  9. Always store products in their original containers so they are clearly labeled.
  10. Store products in a safe location, secure from children and pets, and away from heat sources and air vents.


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