Household Pollutants

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Household Pollutants

Household pollutants are contaminants that are released during the use of various products in daily life. Studies indicate that indoor air quality is far worse than that outdoors because homes, for energy efficiency, are made somewhat airtight. Moreover, household pollutants are trapped in houses causing further deterioration of indoor air quality.

Hazardous household products fall into six broad categories: household cleaners, paints and solvents, lawn and garden care, automotive products, pool chemicals, and health and beauty aids. Many commonly used household products in these categories release toxic chemicals. As an alternative, manufacturers are introducing products, often referred to as green products, whose manufacture, use, and disposal do not become a burden on the environment.

Chemicals in Household Products and Their Effects

Many household products like detergents, furniture polish, disinfectants, deodorizers, paints, stain removers, and even cosmetics release chemicals that may be harmful to human health as well as cause environmental concerns (see the table, "Household Products and Their Potential Health Effects"). Insecticides, pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers that are used for maintaining one's lawn and garden are another source of household pollution. Their entry into the house could occur through air movement or adsorption by shoes and toys, which are then brought inside the house.

A common class of pollutants emitted from household products is volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Sources for these pollutants include paint strippers and other solvents, wood preservatives, air fresheners, automotive products, and dry cleaned clothing. Formaldehyde is a major organic pollutant emitted from pressed wood products and furniture made from them, foam insulation, other textiles, and glues. Exposure to very high concentrations of formaldehyde may lead to death.

Other household products that contain harmful chemicals are antifreeze, car cleaners and waxes, chemicals used in photo development, mice and rat poison, rug cleaners, nail polish, insect sprays, and wet cell batteries. Such household chemicals may pose serious health risks if not handled, stored, and disposed of properly.

Indoor Air Pollutants from Other Household Activities

From time to time, homeowners complete a variety of remodeling projects to improve the aesthetic look of their house. These include new flooring, basement remodeling, hanging new cabinets, removing asbestos sheets, scraping off old paint (which might contain lead), and the removal or application of wallpaper. Such activities could be a significant source of indoor air pollutants during and after the project. Asbestos, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, toluene, chloroform, trichloroethane and other organic solvents, and lead dust are the main pollutants released during remodeling. Homes built before 1970s may pose additional environmental problems because of the use of lead- and asbestos-containing materials. The use of both materials was common in

Product TypeHarmful IngredientsPotential Health Hazards
source: compiled by author.
Air fresheners & deodorizersFormaldehydeToxic in nature; carcinogen; irritates eyes, nose,throat and skin; nervous, digestive, respiratory system damage
BleachSodium hypochloriteCorrosive; irritates and burns skin and eyes; nervous, respiratory, digestive system damage
DisinfectantsSodium hypochloriteCorrosive; irritates and burns skin and eyes; nervous, respiratory, digestive system damage
 PhenolsIgnitable; very toxic in nature; respiratory and circulatory system damage
 AmmoniaToxic in nature; vapor irritates skin, eyes and respiratory tract
Drain cleanerSodium/potassium hydroxide (lye)Corrosive; burns skin and eyes; toxic in nature; nervous, digestive and urinary system damage
Flea powderCarbarylVery toxic in nature; irritates skin; causes nervous, respiratory and circulatory system damage
 DichloropheneToxic in nature; irritates skin; causes nervous and digestive system damage
 Chlordane and other chlorinated hydrocarbonsToxic in nature; irritates eyes and skin; cause respiratory, digestive and urinary system damage
Floor cleaner/waxDiethylene glycolToxic in nature; causes nervous, digestive and urinary system damage
 Petroleum solventsHighly ignitable; carcinogenic; irritate skin, eyes, throat, nose and lungs
 AmmoniaToxic in nature; vapor irritates skin, eyes and respiratory tract
Furniture polishPetroleum distillates or mineral spiritsHighly ignitable; toxic in nature; carcinogen; irritate skin, eyes, nose, throat and lungs
Oven cleanerSodium/potassium hydroxide (lye)Corrosive; burns skin, eyes; toxic in nature; causes nervous and digestive system damage
Paint thinnerChlorinated aliphatic hydrocarbonsToxic in nature; cause digestive and urinary system damage
 EstersToxic in nature; irritate eyes, nose and throat
 AlcoholsIgnitable; cause nervous system damage; irritate eyes, nose and throat
 Chlorinated aromatic hydrocarbonsIgnitable; toxic in nature; digestive system damage
 KetonesIgnitable; toxic in nature; respiratory system damage
PaintsAromatic hydrocarbon thinnersIgnitable; toxic in nature; carcinogenic; irritates skin, eyes, nose and throat; respiratory system damage
 Mineral spiritsHighly ignitable; toxic in nature; irritates skin, eyes, nose and throat; respiratory system damage
Pool sanitizersCalcium hypochloriteCorrosive; irritates skin, eyes, and throat; if ingested cause severe burns to the digestive tract
 Ethylene (algaecides)Irritation of eyes, mucous membrane and skin; effects reproductive system; probable human carcinogen of medium carcinogenic hazard
Toilet bowl cleanerSodium acid sulfate or oxalate or hypochloric acidCorrosive; toxic in nature; burns skin; causes digestive and respiratory system damage
 Chlorinated phenolsIgnitable; very toxic in nature; cause respiratory and circulatory system damage
Window cleanersDiethylene glycolToxic in nature; cause nervous, urinary and digestive system damage
 AmmoniaToxic in nature; vapor irritates skin, eyes and respiratory tract
source: based on information available from various sources including the web site of air and waste management association
air refresheropen windows to ventilate. to scent air, use herbal bouquets, pure vanilla on a cotton ball, or simmer cinnamon and cloves.
all-purpose cleanermix cup baking soda, ¼ cup ammonia and ¼ cup vinegar in a gallon of hot water. doubling all the ingredients except the water can make stronger solution.
brass polishuse paste made from equal parts vinegar, salt and flour. be sure to rinse completely afterward to prevent corrosion.
carpet/rug cleanersprinkle cornstarch/baking soda on carpets and vacuum.
dishwashing liquidwash dishes with hand using a liquid soap or a mild detergent.
drain openeradd 1 tablespoon baking soda into drain and then slowly pour cup white vinegar to loosen clogs. use a plunger to get rid of the loosened clog. prevent clogs by pouring boiling water down drains once a week, using drain strainers, and not pouring grease down drains.
fabric softeneruse ¼ to ½ cup of baking soda during rinse cycle.
fertilizeruse compost and organic fertilizers.
floor cleanermix 1 cup vinegar in 2 gallons of water. for unfinished wood floors, add 1 cup linseed oil. to remove wax buildup, scrub in club soda, let soak and wipe clean.
floor polishpolish floors with club soda.
furniture polishmix 1 teaspoon lemon oil and 1 pint mineral oil. also, use damp rag.
insecticideswipe houseplant leaves with soapy water.
laundry bleachuse borax on all clothes or ½ cup white vinegar in rinse water to brighten dark clothing. nonchlorinated bleach also works well.
methylene chloride paint stripperuse nontoxic products.
mothballsplace cedar chips or blocks in closets and drawers.
oil-based paint, thinneruse water-based products.
oven cleanerwash the oven with a mixture of warm water and baking soda. soften burned-on spills by placing a small pan of ammonia in the oven overnight. sprinkle salt onto fresh grease spills and then wipe clean.
pesticideuse physical and biological controls.
silver cleaneradd 1 teaspoon baking soda, 1 teaspoon salt and a 2" x 2" piece of aluminum foil to a small pan of warm water. soak silverware overnight.
toilet cleaneruse baking soda, a mild detergent, and a toilet brush.
window cleanermix ¼ cup ammonia with 1 quart water.

building construction prior to the 1970s (e.g., lead-based paint used to paint homes).

Avoiding Exposure and the Use of Green Products

There are several steps one can take to reduce exposure to household chemicals. An adjacent table provides a list of alternative products. One can bring unused and potentially harmful household products to a nearby chemical collection center; many communities have such a center. Chemicals received at these centers are recycled, disposed of, or offered for reuse. One may also purchase just the amount needed or share what is left over with friends. In addition, one should always avoid mixing different household chemicals.

Most of the chemicals released during remodeling projects are toxic in nature, and some of them are even carcinogenic. Proper care, such as employing wet methods for suppressing dust, use of high-efficiency filters to collect fine particulates, and sealing the remodeling area, must be taken while remodeling to prevent the emission of harmful chemicals into the surrounding air. Reducing material use will result in fewer emissions and also less waste from remodeling operations. Another good practice is to use lowenvironmental-impact materials, and materials produced from waste or recycled materials, or materials salvaged from other uses. It is important to avoid materials made from toxic or hazardous constituents (e.g., benzene or arsenic).

Indoor air quality should improve with increasing consumer preference for green products or low-emission products and building materials. Green products for household use include products that are used on a daily basis, such as laundry detergents, cleaning fluids, window cleaners, cosmetics, aerosol sprays, fertilizers, and pesticides. Generally, these products do not contain chemicals that cause environmental pollution problems, or have lesser quantities of them than their counterparts. Some chemicals have been totally eliminated from use in household products due to strict regulations. Examples include the ban of phosphate-based detergents and aerosols containing chlorofluorocarbons. A list of green products available in the United States and other countries is provided in an adjacent table. Materials like plaster boards, urea-formaldehyde foam insulation, soldering glue, switches, and panel boards, which are known to cause indoor air quality problems, have been substituted with other eco-friendly products, which serve the same purpose but have low emissions.

see also Asbestos; Chemistry, Green;

note: all products are not available in all countries
source: compiled by author.
nontoxic skin care productsodor-controlling equipmentcomposting toiletsnatural pesticidesnontoxic pet care productsunleaded gasolinelow-emission productspaints and varnishesorganic food productsair cleaning equipmentpest control equipmentnontoxic cleaning productsorganic gardening suppliesrecycled productsjute, coir, and woolen carpetsenergy-efficient appliances

Indoor Air Pollution; Lead; Pesticides; Recycling; Reuse; VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds).


Baird, Colin. (1999). Environmental Chemistry, 2nd edition. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Internet Resources

Confederate Chemicals Limited Web site. Available from

Ecology America Web site. Available from

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Web site. Available from

Ashok Kumar and Rishi Kumar


The styrene-butadiene (SB) latex backing that is used on most new carpets is a source of styrene and 4-phenyl cyclohexene (4-PC). Styrene is a known toxic and suspected carcinogen. 4-PC is not known to be toxic, and it continues to be emitted at measurable levels for a longer time because it is also less volatile. Vinyl-backed carpets emit an entirely different set of chemicals, notably vinyl acetate and formaldehyde. Health complaints associated with carpets include severe neurological and respiratory problems; health problems usually arise more frequently in individuals with multiple chemical sensitivities or sick building syndrome. Carpet material may not be the largest contributor to indoor air quality problems after a new carpet has been installed. Studies indicate that carpet adhesives and seam sealants emit far more pollutants, especially in the first seventy two hours after installation. Carpet cushions, or pads, may be at fault as well. The majority of adhesives are based on SB latex and generally the most significant short-term source of VOC emissions. Since 1991, adhesive manufacturers have been actively researching ways to reduce solvent levels even further, and by 2002 some claimed a calculated VOC level of zero. Seam sealants, another major culprit, release known toxins, including toluene and 1,1,1-trichloroethane.