12 Household Items That Contain Harmful Chemicals (and How to Avoid Them)

12 Household Items That Contain Harmful Chemicals (and How to Avoid Them)

Most people like to think of their house as a safe zone, a place to feel secure, comfortable, and healthy. Yet chances are there are numerous unwelcome and invisible visitors in your home. These dangerous chemicals can jeopardize your safety by causing allergic symptoms and increasing the risk of birth defects and numerous cancers.

These invaders are actually hiding in plain sight: That brightly-colored vinyl shower curtain you just bought with the parrots on it is one of them. Other possible candidates include your couch, the clothes in your closet and in your children’s dresser, household cleaning products, carpets, toys, and more.

Is your Home Sweet Home suddenly not sounding so safe? Don’t despair! Once you recognize the culprits, you can take steps to make your home a cleaner, safer place to live.

1. Candles and air fresheners.  We all like our homes to smell fresh and look inviting, but burning candles and using air fresheners are not always a healthy way to do it. Scented candles made from paraffin, which is a petroleum oil by-product, emits several known carcinogens, such as benzene and toluene. Spray and plug-in air fresheners often contain carcinogens as well, such as benzene, paradichlorobenzene, and formaldehyde, and/or VOCs such as nitrogen dioxide. Alternatives include beeswax or soy candles (there are non-GMO soy candles but they are pricey) or essential oils in a diffuser or spritzer.

2. Carpet and area rugs. Have you walked into a carpet store lately? The smell of chemicals could knock you over! With carpeting, rugs, and padding, there are two issues: the chemicals in the glues and dyes that are in the items already and emitting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and semivolatile organic compounds (SVOCs, such as flame retardants), especially when they are new; and contaminants that can accumulate in them from outside sources.

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To tackle the first challenge, look for carpets and rugs that are VOC-free and/or use natural dyes and materials, such as wool. Shop for carpeting that carries Green Label Plus, which indicates it emits a low amount of chemicals. Regardless of which type of new carpeting you have installed, the off-gassing is worst during the first 72 hours. If at all possible, have the carpeting unrolled and let it air out in a warehouse or other ventilated area for 72 hours before it is installed. If not, plan to stay out of the house for the first 72 hours.

For carpeting and rugs already in your home, you can help prevent the accumulation of additional chemicals and irritants by vacuuming twice a week using a machine that has a HEPA filter, cleaning up any spills or stains using nontoxic cleaners (e.g., vinegar, baking soda, club soda, cornstarch) whenever possible, steam cleaning with water only or by adding a small amount of vinegar to the water, prevent carpet odors by sprinkling baking soda on rugs and then vacuuming, and having everyone remove their shoes before entering the house to prevent dirt, pesticides, and other unwelcome substances from tracking into the house and into the carpeting.

3. Children’s plastic toys. Plastic toys for children are often made of vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make the known human carcinogen called PVC (polyvinyl chloride). To make PVC flexible, manufacturers often add the phthalate DEHP. Even though US Congress banned the use of six phthalates in children’s toys in 2008 and amended the ban in 2011, these hormone-disruptors can still be found in some toys, especially those made overseas. Your safest bet is to ban plastic toys from your home altogether.

4. Clothing and linens. New clothes and linens often contain materials that have been dyed and produced in different countries, where there are many different laws concerning acceptable levels of chemicals in textiles. Urea formaldehyde resins, which are used to help prevent wrinkling and mildew, along with dyes, can cause inflammation and severe skin reactions. Whenever you buy new clothing or linens (and used ones as well), you should always wash them before using them and air dry if possible.

5. Computers and other electronics. Our beloved electronic devices are phasing out chemicals such as triphenyl phosphate, a flame retardant that off-gasses when devices heat up. It is found in the insulation on wiring. If you have a laser printer or photocopier in your home, you could be exposing yourself and your family to ozone, which can irritate the nose, throat, and lungs. Ozone is especially harmful to anyone who has a lung condition, such as asthma or bronchitis. Fortunately, there are ozone-free versions of these products. And although electromagnetic fields are not chemicals, they also are emitted from electronic devicesand provide health hazards.

6. Dryer sheets. These rightfully should be called chemical sheets because they contribute chloroform, alpha-terpineol, pentanes, and other VOCs to your clothing. These toxic chemicals found in dryer sheets can cause skin and eye irritation and are associated with central nervous system disorders as well as nausea, vomiting, and reduced motor activity. Try any of these natural alternatives to toxic dryer sheets.

7. Health and beauty products. The health and beauty items in your bathroom and makeup collection could be hosting a virtual party of dangerous chemicals associated with allergic reactions, neurological disorders, cancer, and hormone disruption, to name just a few. In fact, the possibilities are so numerous (and the safer alternatives so plentiful) I encourage you to take Naturally Savvy’s Women’s Health Challenge to discover how to clean up your act in the health and beauty products department.

8. Household cleaning products. Think about it: you may be using toxic chemicals to clean your home. What’s wrong with this picture? If your household cleaning products sound like a chemistry experiment, then it’s time to go natural. Lemon juice, borax, vinegar, salt, and baking soda are excellent cleaners, deodorizers, and antibacterial agents for nearly every cleaning need.

9. Plastic containers and accessories. Let’s face it: items such as food containers and big plastic tubs used to store clothes and kids toys are convenient and light. So are plastic accessories such as plastic storage cubes, corner shelving, and patio tables. But these and other plastic items harbor toxic substances such as phthalates, which have hormone disruptive properties. These chemicals have been associated with asthma and allergies, reproductive problems, diabetes, obesity, and thyroid conditions. Use glass or stainless steel containers for food and keep plastic furniture and containers out of high-temperature areas.

10. Shower curtains. When you unwrapped your new vinyl shower with the colorful seashore scene or bright parrots, did you get a strong whiff of that new curtain smell? That was toxic chemicals, including dozens of volatile organic chemicals and phthalates. Opt for shower curtains made from birch, cotton, hemp, linen, or PEVA.

11. Upholstered furniture and mattresses. Some couches, chairs, and other upholstered furniture, including mattresses, have been treated with stain-resistant chemicals such as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). PFCs has been named as a cause of birth defects and cancer by some researchers. Furniture also harbors the flame retardants PBDEs, which have been associated with nervous system and brain development problems.

12. Wood furniture and other wood products. Pressed wood products can include furniture, paneling, fiberboard, particle board, and insulation. Such items can off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as formaldehyde, which can be in the glue that holds the wood pieces together. Exposure to formaldehyde can cause watery eyes, breathing difficulties, asthma attacks, and burning throat and eyes. Furniture and other wood products also can be covered or finished with paints, varnishes, and lacquers that contain harmful chemicals as well.

As of March 2015, the US Environmental Protection Agency noted that there were “no national standards in place for formaldehyde in composite wood products,” but that the agency was working on rules to “set limits on formaldehyde emissions” from such products.

Besides avoiding bringing new wood products into your home, you should keep your home well ventilated to limit exposure to formaldehyde from products already in place. When buying new furniture, search for those that say they have not been treated with formaldehyde and/or have not been assembled using toxic glues and/or have been finished with low or VOC-free finishers.

General suggestions

  • Hire a commercial cleaning service that uses nontoxic methods of cleaning carpets, area rugs, and upholstered furniture.
  • Avoid buying items that harbor toxins in the first place. Read labels carefully. If the labels don’t provide enough information about the product, check out the manufacturer online and/or directly and ask questions.
  • Smell items before you buy them. This approach is not foolproof, however. According to Mary Cordaro, an environmental consultant, things that out-gas VOCs such as polyurethane foam, carpet padding, and upholstered items often have an odor for a while, but once they stop outgassing, “they continue to contaminate…with SVOCs at higher and higher levels over time,” and you can’t smell SVOCs. However, smell is still a good place to start.
  • Use indoor plants to help remove toxins from the air. Many common indoor plants such as Boston fern, bamboo palm, and peace lily help remove toxins such as toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde from the air.
  • If you must have clothing and linens dry cleaned, take them to a nontoxic dry cleaner.Buy second-hand pressed wood furniture. Most of the out-gassing will be done, and you can finish them with non-toxic varnishes or paints yourself. Or you can choose solid wood furniture only.
  • Rather than buy new carpeting or rugs, consider cleaning your current items with nontoxic methods or buying refurbished carpet.
  • New wood furniture and other items such as cabinets can be treated with a nontoxic sealer such as AFM Safecoat Safe Seal, which will contain VOCs.
  • Change the filters in your furnace and air conditioning units regularly, every one to three months, depending on usage. These filters can accumulate mold and mildew, which can cause and trigger asthma and allergic-type symptoms.

READ MORE: 5 Places Plastic Is Hiding In Your Home >>

Consumer Product Safety Commission. Phthalates.
MedicalDaily. Wash and wear.
Mercola.comCarpet installation
HealthyChild.org. Reduce your use of PVC in plastics and other household products.

Image via Arto Brick

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Andrea Donsky, B. COMM is an international TV Health Expert, Best Selling Author, Nutritionist Podcast Host, and Founder of NaturallySavvy.com—a recipient of Healthline’s Best Healthy Living Blogs for 2019. As a pioneer and visionary in the health food industry, Andrea’s passion is to inspire people to make healthier choices. Andrea has combined her background and expertise as both a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and an entrepreneur ("She Boss!") to educate the public on living a healthy lifestyle through the creation of her businesses, books, articles, podcasts, videos, talks, and TV and radio media appearances. Andrea founded Naturally Savvy Media Inc. in 2007 in order to share her passion for healthy living, and love for natural products and companies. Among her numerous publications, Andrea co-authored Unjunk your Junk Food published by Simon and Schuster, a book that journalist, author and mother Maria Shriver endorsed: “Unjunk Your Junk Food has certainly made me more aware about the food that my children eat and the effects it has on our body and mind."</P. Andrea also co-authored two e-books entitled Label Lessons: Your Guide To A Healthy Shopping Cart, and Label Lessons: Unjunk Your Kid’s Lunch Box.