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Toxic Substances in the Home: A Critical Problem That Is Only Getting Worse

Jul 1, 2009

While many household products are capable of producing injuries or death as a result of electrical shock, suffocation, strangulation, or toppling over, the consumer is usually in the position of observing such dangers and taking appropriate steps to avoid them. When it comes to toxic substances in  the home, however, the risks are even more serious since, for the most part, they are impossible to detect and, quite often, do not cause any observable injury until weeks, months, or even years, of exposure. The rapid growth in home-based businesses has also lead to a greater number of toxins being brought into people's living areas.

According to a Hazard Screening report from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), in 2004 alone, there were about 150,000 emergency-room-treated injuries associated with toxic household products. That report highlights the significant increase in the rate of household chemical-related injuries between 1997 and 2004. To view the report, visit:

The following will bring our readers up-to-date with respect to many of the toxic substances, which are probably lurking in their homes.

Chinese Drywall

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many areas of the South underwent extensive rebuilding.  One of the building materials used in much of that reconstruction was plasterboard or gypsum imported from China known as Chinese drywall.

An estimated 100,000 houses across the country, many in South Florida and Virginia, built after 2004 contain defective Chinese drywall, which emits various sulfur compounds that corrode electrical wiring, air conditioning coils and other metals including plumbing fixtures.

These foul smelling emissions, which include iron disulfide, hydrogen sulfide, carbonyl sulfide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon disulfide, are also suspected of causing headaches, irritated eyes, skin rashes, nosebleeds, breathing difficulty, ear and upper respiratory infections, and symptoms similar to bronchitis and asthma.

Many experts believe these contaminated houses cannot be repaired and must be demolished.

Pesticides (Insecticides and Rodenticides)

Once looked upon as scientific breakthroughs, insecticides and rodenticides not only stopped the spread of many diseases (by insects and rodents) but, also, allowed farmers to greatly increase food production. As time passed, however, these chemicals demonstrated a dark side, which included immediate or long-term physical and neurological damage to those exposed directly or indirectly to the toxins involved or their residue.  In a significant number of cases, exposure to some of the toxins has proved to be fatal.

While some pesticides like DDT and Chlordane have been outlawed in the U.S. for many years, some less developed nations either still allow them or do not have the resources to enforce laws prohibiting their use.  

New studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, suggest a possible link between toxins once believed to be safe and pediatric cancer. In fact, in one study, traces of organophosphates (OP), the chemical name of some household pesticides, was found in urine samples from all of the affected children, while in none of the control subjects.   

Dangerous pesticides are also found in products applied directly to the body, such as lice shampoo, which, in at least one notable case, caused the death of a 2-year-old girl as a result of the exposure to high levels of pyrethrin, an alternative to OP that is commonly used in dog collars and flea and lice treatments.

While those in the pesticide industry maintain pyrethrin is less toxic than OP, a number of experts as well as consumer advocates argue that quite the opposite is true and also claim pyrethrin is especially dangerous to those suffering from allergies or respiratory problems as well as to the nervous systems of children and infants.


Teflon (also known as C-8), the widely used coating used in cookware and many other household and industrial products is turning out to be a potentially dangerous substance due to perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), the chemical that gives Teflon its nonstick quality. This compound has been linked to birth defects in humans and animal studies done by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have found a connection between PFOA and certain cancers, reduced birth weight, and immune suppression.

Exposure to PFOA has been associated with increased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as potential developmental problems. A 2009 study on perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which include PFOA, found that, aside from being likely carcinogens, the toxins may also be related to female infertility.

Old cookware with damaged or flaking Teflon should never be used nor should Teflon be exposed to excessively high temperatures, which causes PFOA to be vaporized and released as toxic fumes that can be extremely dangerous or even fatal. Eventually, it is anticipated that Teflon will be phased out as a coating on cookware. In the meantime, you should use uncoated cookware or limit the use of Teflon-coated products to lower temperature cooking and only when they are new or undamaged.

Plastic Containers (BPA)

Bisphenol A (BPA) is a chemical commonly found in water bottles, sippy cups, baby bottles and many other plastic products. A number of studies have linked BPA to brain and reproductive disorders, cardiovascular risks, immune system disorders, and interruption of liver function testing and chemotherapy treatments. Recent data also shows that the chemical transfers into stored liquids even in the absence of heat or any human intervention.

Since thousands of beverages are packaged in plastic containers and many other products designed for food or beverage storage are also made of plastic, BPA is almost unavoidable. As a result, you should limit the use of these products by transferring liquids to safe containers made of glass, metal, or non-BPA plastic.    


Lead is a particularly toxic metal that can cause serious neurological damage, especially in children. It can be found in paint or as an airborne contaminant.

In paint, lead is extremely dangerous to children under the age of six and is most often found in older (built before 1978), poorly maintained buildings, or in buildings that have undergone renovations. The problem is most prevalent in poorer neighborhoods where there is a greater likelihood that painting has not been done recently or where paint has been allowed to fall into disrepair. In these situations, paint tends to peel, chip, or flake. Young children are prone to swallowing these small pieces of paint. Even if the paint is not flaking or peeling, small children will chew on window sills and other painted surfaces when teething and ingest paint chips in the process.

Recent studies have indicated that severe, irreversible neurological damage may occur at lower levels of exposure than previously believed. While there are treatments that may stop the progression of lead poisoning, they do not prevent or reverse the damage from lead-induced neurotoxicity.

Airborne lead can be the result of dust produced by old lead-based paint that has deteriorated to the point of flaking or cracking. It can also come from candle wicks that contain lead for extra support. Despite a warning issued by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC), candles with lead-core wicks (as opposed to zinc or tin wicks) are still being manufactured. These candles release concentrations of lead into the air that are many times the acceptable federal limit.

Lead is particularly harmful to children and can cause damage to the central nervous system, reproductive system, and kidneys. Even low levels of lead can lead to decreased intelligence, impaired neurobehavioral development, decreased stature and growth, and impaired hearing acuity.



Inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause serious respiratory problems including asbestosis, emphysema, and the deadly form of cancer known as mesothelioma. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was used in the construction industry for decades as insulation, fireproofing and in other products, such as cement.

Asbestos fibers can easily flake off and are small enough to be completely inhaled deep into the lungs. They are microscopic as well as virtually indestructible.

Pressure Treated Wood

A serious health threat is posed by arsenic when it is combined with other elements to form inorganic compounds used to preserve wood.

Wood decks, patio furniture, benches, and playground equipment are often treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) to repel insects, kill molds and fungi and retard rot. While the chemicals can stay in the wood for many years, they can slowly leach out and become dangerous to humans.

Children are particularly vulnerable to CCA poisoning as they are more likely to play on floorboards or playground equipment and then put their hands in their mouths. Adults are also at risk if they inhale or ingest sawdust from arsenic-treated wood. Prolonged exposure can lead to nerve damage, dizziness, numbness, and an increased risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer.



Formaldehyde is a compound found in a wide variety of pressed wood products such as sub-flooring, shelves, cabinets and furniture. EPA studies show that particleboard, hard plywood paneling, and medium density fiberboard are high formaldehyde-emitting products.

Some health effects from brief exposure to formaldehyde are watery eyes, skin rash, allergic reactions, wheezing and coughing, nausea, and difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure may be more problematic with recent animal studies suggesting formaldehyde may be a carcinogen. 

Dryer Sheets

Used to soften and give clothes a fresh smell, dryer sheets contain many toxins linked to serious physical and neurological disorders such as:


  • Benzyl acetate (pancreatic cancer)
  • Benzyl Alcohol (upper respiratory tract irritation)
  • Ethanol(central nervous system disorders)
  • Limonene (carcinogen)
  • A- Terpineol (respiratory damage)
  • Ethyl Acetate (narcotic)
  • Camphor (central nervous system disorders)
  • Chloroform (neurotoxic, anesthetic)
  • Linalool (narcotic linked to central nervous system damage)
  • Pentane (Inhalation of vapors may cause headache, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, drowsiness, irritation of respiratory tract, loss of consciousness, and prolonged exposure may damage central nervous system)



While bleach is a deadly toxin if ingested, it is also dangerous when mixed with other chemicals. Chlorine, the main ingredient in household bleach, creates potentially lethal fumes when combined with ammonia or other acid-based cleaning products. Federal regulations require every bottle of bleach to include warning instructing consumers not to mix it with any other cleaning product.

Chlorine bleach is toxic and is hazardous on its own, causing skin and eye irritations, respiratory problems, dizziness and nausea. Prolonged exposure can be fatal if inhaled or absorbed through the skin. Only use bleach in well-ventilated areas. Diluting the product with water is also recommended.

Fragrances and Phthalates

Artificial fragrances are just that, artificial. Thus, it requires a man-made combination of chemicals to produce them. Room deodorizers, scented candles, disinfectants, perfumes, deodorants and other pleasantly scented products contain toxic fumes that may be dangerous. Since most scented products are not required by law to list all of their ingredients, it is difficult for the consumer to determine whether they contain dangerous toxins.

Fragrances can be comprised of harsh chemicals that can cause allergic reactions or skin irritation especially when used against the skin as with scented sanitary napkins and deodorants.  

Closely related to fragrances is the group of chemicals known as phthalates, which have been used in many personal care products and other consumer goods for the past 50 years for everything from making plastic more flexible to slowing the evaporation process of perfumes to making nail polish chip-resistant. 

Phthalates, pronounced "thallets," are found in a variety of products such as cosmetics, hair sprays, deodorants, shampoos, nail polish, perfumes, body washes skin creams, prescription pill coatings, insect repellants, detergents, vinyl products, medical equipment, food packaging, plastic and vinyl toys, shower curtains, and building materials such as pipes, vinyl flooring, and wallpaper. 

Until recently, phthalates enjoyed almost universal acceptance as a safe additive. Although some consumer advocates had often questioned such wide-spread use of what they believed to be a potentially toxic chemical, no reliable evidence existed to support the conclusion that phthalates were unsafe.    


Recently, however, environmental and consumer advocacy groups have begun to seriously challenge the safety of phthalates.  Studies of the effects of phthalates on both animals and humans have now found several serious heath risks traceable to exposure, inhalation, or ingestion of phthalates. 


In May 2005, researchers were able to identify a link between a woman's exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and the development of her male child's genitals.  The study indicated that when four particular phthalates are found above certain concentrations in the urine of pregnant women, the reproductive systems of their infant boys were adversely affected.  The researchers concluded that the chemicals used to make phthalates suppress production of testosterone. 

Another recent study found a connection between phthalates and the onset of lupus in laboratory mice.


Phthalates are currently used to make many different kinds of children's toys from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) that require bendable plastic or vinyl. Children's exposure to phthalates can occur from mouthing or chewing vinyl products, eating contaminated food, inhaling chemicals released from vinyl products into indoor air. It is a good idea to reduce or eliminate the use of perfumes, nail polishes, or other phthalate-containing cosmetics around children.  Pregnant women, women thinking of getting pregnant, and women who are nursing should be particularly cautious about overexposure to these products.


Color Dyes

Artificial coloring is found in a wide variety of products used in the home including food and clothing. Recent studies have found that some color dyes may pose serious health risks.


Researchers have linked Tartrazine, also known as Yellow #5, to behavioral changes in children, including restlessness and difficulty sleeping. The artificial coloring, commonly found in products such as pudding and bath soap, is described as an irritant of ADHD.


According to the CPSC, color dyes used for fabrics and clothes have been found to be potential carcinogens. After several tests, the CPSC is preparing to ban benzidine dyes and two similar color dye components that make up about 60% of home dye products. To stay up to date with the ban and other product recalls visit:


Laser and Ink Jet Printers

The chemicals typically found in toner cartridges in printers, copiers, and other office machines pose several health (and environmental) risks if not handled properly.

If inhaled for an extended amount of time the fumes can cause damage to the heart and lungs and residual ink left on skin when installing ink cartridges or toner can also lead to irritation. Washing hands and any area that has come in contact with the ink toner is recommended after installation.



The main component of Styrofoam products is polystyrene, which has been linked to disrupting hormonal functions. When used as a food container, the toxin is absorbed into the food and then is ingested into the body. In addition to polystyrene, products such as foam insulation contain components of formaldehyde, which as mentioned above, can be dangerous if inhaled.

Products that have traces of the chemical components of polystyrene are considered toxic. That is the case of styrene, a chemical component of polystyrene, reported by the EPA as a possible carcinogen and if ingested or inhaled may cause serious damage to the kidney and liver.


Vinyl Flooring

Recent studies have found a link between autism and the chemical components of vinyl flooring, specifically phthalates (see above). Researchers found children with vinyl flooring in their homes were more likely to develop autism by the age of three than children with wood flooring.

If you or a loved one have sustained an injury related to toxic exposure, please contact Parker Waichman LLP at for a free case assessment.

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