HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS: Questions and Answers

Q. What role do chemicals play in household products?

A.Production rates for synthetic petrochemicals skyrocketed from 1 billion pounds per year in 1940 to over 400 billion pounds per year in the 1980s. Approximately 70,000 chemicals are now in commercial production, many of which are used in household products. Many of these chemicals accumulate in the human body and cause cancer and other diseases, yet they have been inadequately tested or remain completely untested for their safety. Only about 600 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Many chemicals used in household products are volatile. That means they become gaseous at room temperature or are sprayed from an aerosol can or hand pump and thus take the form of microscopic particles that are easily inhaled. They can cause damage to the lungs or other organs as they are taken into the bloodstream.

Q. Are hazardous chemicals from household products more dangerous than outdoor pollutants?

A. Because indoor pollutants are not as easily dispersed or diluted as outdoor pollutants, concentrations of toxic chemicals may be much greater indoors than outdoors. Peak concentrations of twenty toxic compounds -some linked with cancer and birth defects - were 200 to 500 times higher inside some homes than outdoors, according to an Environmental Protection Agency Study. Not surprisingly, EPA experts say that indoor air pollution is one of the nation's most pressing personal health concerns.

Q. Have products been pulled from the market because of their chemical hazards?

A. In the last few years consumers have discovered that some of the chemicals in household products whose safety was taken for granted are hazardous. For instance, methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane), the propellant used in many aerosol products, is carcinogenic. Although some products containing methylene chloride have been pulled from the market, this carcinogen continues to be found in many consumer products such as spray paint and stripper. More recently, it was learned that indoor latex paints used widely for decades contained highly neurotoxic mercury-based fungicides. But it was not until 1990 that manufacturers finally removed most of these potent neurotoxins.

Q. What are some of the symptoms caused by chemicals in household products?

A. Symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, skin rash, and respiratory infections are all common reactions to indoor air pollution. Long-term exposure to indoor pollution can result in lung cancer, or damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Young children are especially vulnerable to impaired lung function and respiratory infection.

Q. What types of products have the biggest cancer risks?

A. Certain cleansers and many brands of cat litter contain the carcinogen crystalline silica. Some car cleaning products contain formaldehyde. Fortunately, there are safe alternatives.


Baking Soda -An excellent cleaner and deodorizer, available in supermarkets and health food stores.

Borax - An excellent disinfectant, available in supermarkets and health food stores.

Distilled White Vinegar- An excellent cleaner, available in both supermarkets and health food stores.

Essential Oils - Essences distilled from plant oils, essential oils are less allergenic than synthetic fragrances. They add a pleasing fragrance to your cleaning formulas. Available at health food stores.

Hydrogen peroxide - An alternative to bleach, available at supermarkets and drugstores.

Lemon juice - An excellent cleaner, available in both health food stores and supermarkets.

Liquid Soaps - An alternative to harsher detergents and other cleaning agents, available in health food stores and supermarkets.

Pumice Stone - Excellent as a stain remover, available in health food stores, drugstores, and supermarkets.

Sodium Perborate - An alternative to standard bleaches made with sodium hypochlorite, available from chemical supply companies.

Sodium Percarbonate - Also an alternative to standard bleaches, available from chemical supply companies.

Trisodium phosphate (TSP) - A powerful cleaning material, TSP can be irritating and caustic; it does not pose long-term health hazards such as carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, or reproductive effects. Be aware that some products with the name TSP on their container do not actually contain Trisodium phosphate. Available at supermarkets, drugstores, and hardware stores.

Washing Soda (also known as sodium carbonate, soda ash, and sal soda)- A strong cleaner, available in supermarkets and health food stores.

Zeolite - This naturally occurring mineral is an excellent deodorizer and available from G&W Supply, 1441, W. 46th Avenue #31, Denver, CO 80211, (303) 455-8834.


Cancer Prevention Coalition c/o School of Public Health
University of Illinois Medical Center
2121 West Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60612
Tel: (312) 996-2297, Fax: (312) 996-1374


Steinman, David and Epstein, Samuel, The Safe Shopper's Bible, MacMillan: New York, 1995.