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Reducing Risk from Household Products

One of the greatest difficulties in estimating the toxicity of household products is the fact that most of the ingredients are not disclosed on product labels or other documents. Household pesticides, for example, often contain well over 90% so-called "inert" ingredients, more recently referred to as "other" ingredients. The terminology relates to their function in the product rather than their toxicological characteristics, and these ingredients, with few exceptions, are not listed on product labels.


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Although product labeling regulations in the United States do allow one to deduce certain acute toxicity characteristics from careful reading of required label warnings, the conclusions one can draw are limited. Frequently, the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), a document required by the US. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, contains Lethal Dose (LD), or other toxicity data. Unfortunately, many MSDSs contain incomplete and apparently inaccurate information, making them a flawed tool for toxicity assessment. In other countries, labels are quite different, and even less information may be available.


The risk of adverse effects from exposure to household products is difficult to estimate because of the wide variety of products available, the many ingredients they contain, the presence of many "trade secret" ingredients, and the wide variety of exposure scenarios. It is worth noting that the highest exposures to household products are typically to those most likely to be particularly susceptible: children, the elderly, and the chronically ill. These groups tend to spend on average more time in the home than adults aged 20 to 60, who are more likely to work outside the home and to he in good health. Children also exhibit behaviors that increase their exposure to toxic agents in the home: they play on the floor, they put their hands in their mouth, and they are curious about their surroundings. Combined with their low body weight, proportionately higher intake of food and water, and their developmental stage, these behavioral factors contribute to elevated risks.


Risks are undoubtedly increased when products are not used as directed. Examples might include using concentrates at full strength, mixing products with incompatible chemicals, using with inadequate ventilation, or deliberately inhaling solvents to get high. Reasons for "misusing" products are runny:

•   Label too difficult to read (e.g., too small, not in native language, poorly written).
•   Consumer doesn't bother to read label.
•   Directions too difficult or inconvenient (what is "adequate" ventilation?).

Nevertheless, even when used as directed, some products may cause significant health risks. Estimates of health risks are often controversial because they involve various assumptions about exposure that are difficult to measure and because the risk assessor may have a financial stake in the outcome. There are many examples of consumer products that have been banned or taken off the market because of unacceptable health or environmental risks: the pesticides chlorpyrifos and diazinon, DDT; the wood preservatives pentachlorophenol and creosote; arsenic-treated lumber; carbon tetrachloride; and lead-based paint. Since the risk of using these products didn't change on the day they were taken off the market, one can infer that the products were unsafe before removal. Given the huge number of consumer products on the market and entering the market every year, regulatory agencies will typically be delayed in identifying unsafe products.

The risk from using household products can be reduced by reducing the hazard level (toxicity), by reducing exposure, or both. Reducing the toxicity - choosing less-toxic products - is arguably the best strategy because safer product choices can do more than reduce risk in the home. Safer products may also use fewer toxic chemicals in their manufacture and may be safer for the environment when disposed of.


When no safer alternatives are available, reducing exposure becomes especially important. Usually, product labels will explain the recommended safety equipment and procedures appropriate for a particular product. In addition to safety gear, ventilation, and mixing precautions, labels may also mention storage requirements. Unfortunately, some label directions are not specific enough to ensure that following them will guarantee safe use.


Label-directed or common sense precautions should always be taken, even when using products with relatively low toxicity. For example, all chemical products should be kept out of children's reach.


Excerpted with permission from A Small Dose of Toxicology, by Steven G. Gilbert, and published by CRC Press. 


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Reducing Risk from Household Products:  Created on May 30th, 2008.  Last Modified on November 2nd, 2009


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About Steven G. Gilbert, PhD

Steven G. Gilbert, PhD, DABT is Director and Founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders (INND), Seattle, Washington. INND is a non-profit (501(c)3) institute dedicated to research and education in toxicology.

Dr. Gilbert consults and lectures on issues related to toxicology, drug development and bioethics. He is available for speaking engagements on toxicology, stem cells, drug development, and bioethics. He is particularly interested in making toxicology and biomedical research accessible to the public and policy makers.

In 2004 he published "A Small Dose of Toxicology - The Health Effects of Common Chemicals" (CRC Press). More information is available on his Web site, A Small Dose of Toxicology.  He is also the founder of Toxipedia, a public resource for scientific information about toxic substances.



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