The Top Sources Of Toxic Fumes In Your Home

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Your home should be your sanctuary, a safe and comfortable space to spend time with family and friends. Unfortunately, if you're not careful, your safety could be jeopardized by a number of common household toxic fumes.

Household Cleaner Risks

The products you use to keep your home clean and fresh may be the source of some surprising toxic fumes:

  • Ammonia: Fumes from ammonia can damage eyes, skin and respiratory tract.
  • Bleach: Getting fabrics white and killing germs has a price. Chlorine bleach vapors irritate skin, nose, eyes and throat.
  • Oven cleaners: Most oven cleaners contain ethylene glycol, ethers, methylene chloride, lye, petroleum distillates and pine oil. If you inhale the fumes from these cleaners, you might actually damage your internal organs.
  • All-purpose cleaners: If your all-purpose cleaner contains ingredients including ammonia, ethylene glycol, monobutyl acetate, trisodium phosphate and/or sodium hypoclorite, their fumes may irritate your eyes, skin, nose and throat.
  • Drain cleaners: Be careful when you try to open a clogged drain. The lye and sulfuric acid in drain cleaners produce fumes that can burn your skin and even cause blindness.
  • Furniture polish: Wood furniture polish generally contains ingredients including phenol, petroleum distillates, naphtha, nitrobenzene and ammonia. Fumes from furniture polish can irritate eyes, skin, throat, windpipe and lungs.
  • Air fresheners: These products may smell refreshing but the quality of the air they produce is often anything but. If your air freshener contains petroleum distillates, formaldehyde and propellants, you may be risking cancer and brain damage if you spray too frequently. Additionally, these chemicals irritate skin, eyes and throat.
  • Carpet and upholstery shampoos: Carpet cleaners often contain a dry cleaning chemical called perchloroethylene as well as naphthalene and ammonium hydroxide. Breathing in the fumes from these chemicals may cause nausea, loss of appetite, dizziness, sleepiness and disorientation.

Household and Grooming Product Fumes

Even when you're not cleaning, you may still be at risk for inhaling toxic fumes around the house. These common household and grooming products produce some nasty fumes:

  • Oil based paint: Be careful when you add a splash of color to your home. Fumes from chemicals in oil based paints, including lead, alkyl resin, kerosene, mercury, lithopone, methylene chloride and more are toxic irritants to skin, lungs and eyes.
  • Shoe polish: Most people don't consider polishing their shoes dangerous, however, fumes from the methylene chloride, mineral spirits, nitrobenzene, trichloroethylene and silicones in shoe polish may harm skin and other organs.
  • Paint thinner: Paint thinner fumes are especially dangerous with long-term exposure. Some ingredients in this product are linked to genetic damage, reproductive effects and nervous system damage. Dangerous ingredients include acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, methanol, mineral spirits, turpentine and toluene.
  • Bug foggers: Since bug foggers kill bugs, the fact that their fumes are toxic is not all that surprising. Bug fogger fumes are toxic to skin, eyes and internal organs. The ingredients to watch out for include aromatic petroleum distillates, permethrin, pyrethrum, isobutene and N-Octyl bicycloheptene.
  • Nail polish remover: If you use nail polish remover, be aware that the fumes are toxic to your immune system, nervous system, digestive system and possibly your reproductive system. Additionally, nail polish fumes are a general irritant to skin and sense organs and may cause damage in these areas. Chemicals to blame include acetone, benzophenone-1, ethyl acetate, ethanol, formaldehyde and more.
  • Mothballs: Everyone knows mothballs are harmful if ingested, but the surprising truth is that they also produce harmful vapors. Inhaling mothball fumes can irritate skin, eyes and throat as well as cause dizziness and headaches. Chemicals including naphthalene and p-dichlorobenzene are to blame.
  • Antifreeze: Like mothballs, we all know swallowing antifreeze is dangerous. The fumes from anti-freeze present some lesser-known risks. Inhaling antifreeze fumes may cause you to become dizzy due to its main ingredient, ethylene glycol.

Building Materials

If you're planning any remodel work on your home, be aware that many building materials may also give off dangerous fumes. This happens when material have added formaldehyde, which is a known toxin. Here are some materials that may be affected:

  • Plywood
  • Carpeting
  • Particle board
  • Trim
  • Wall paneling
  • Two-by-fours
  • Ceiling tile.

Deadly Mixtures

Mixing different products together sharply increases the risk for toxic fumes. To protect your health, never combine any of the following:

  • Bleach with ammonia
  • Different brands of cleaners
  • Acid with alkaline products
  • Disinfectants and detergents
  • Bleach with acid toilet bowl cleaners.

Staying Safe

These simple measures will help protect you and your family from toxic fumes at home:

  • Seek out non-toxic alternatives for toxic products whenever possible.
  • When using products that produce harmful fumes, always work in a well-ventilated area. Open windows and use a box fan. Consider wearing a mask for added protection.
  • Use a brush or roller rather than a sprayer with oil based paint to reduce the amount of airborne fumes.
  • If product fumes cause eye irritation, wear goggles.
  • All people and pets should leave the house when it is being bug bombed, and food, dishes, toys and cookware should not be left in the open.
  • After a bug bomb, air house out and clean all countertops and tables.
  • Wipe on rather than spray shoe polish, and look for shoe products made from beeswax, which are less toxic than traditional varieties.

Understanding the potential for dangerous fumes around the house is the first step toward finding the least toxic products available and keeping your family safe.

Last Updated: June 10, 2012
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About Roberta Pescow Roberta Pescow holds a bachelor's degree in communications from City University of New York, Queens College and is a freelance writer and editor in the NJ area. The author of "A Life In The Service" and "A Monster's Tears," she enjoys writing informative articles, personal essays, fiction and music.  Roberta is a proud mother of two. Her other interests include fitness, photography, sculpture and meditation. She is a voracious reader and holds a 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwan Do. Roberta enjoys decorating her hectic, but happy home and garden in original and affordable ways.  

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