Health Topics

Household Chemicals: The Basics

Household Chemicals: The Basics

What is a toxic substance?

A toxic substance is any chemical or mixture that is harmful to the environment, animals, or to human health if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. A poison is another name for a toxic substance that kills, injures or impairs a living organism.

Toxic substances can be found in many of the common products used around the home, including:

  • oven and drain cleaners
  • laundry detergents
  • floor and furniture polish
  • paints
  • pesticides
  • caffeine
  • tobacco
  • alcohol

Depending on the individual, exposure to a toxic substance may result in no ill effects, effects that are reversible or effects that have permanent consequences. At high to extremely high doses (much higher than the average person can consume on a regular basis), a toxic substance might be able to cause birth defects or other serious outcomes including brain damage, coma or death.

What is a pesticide?

Pesticides are chemicals used to prevent, repel, or kill pests such as termites, fleas and mice. Pesticides also can kill microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses. Most pesticides contain chemicals that can be harmful to people, animals, or the environment. Examples of products that contain pesticides include:

  • insect repellents
  • insect bait traps
  • pet flea and tick products
  • disinfectants
  • mildew and mold removers
  • some swimming pool chemicals
  • some lawn and garden products that kill weeds and insects.

How can I tell if the products used to clean or maintain my home are harmful or dangerous?

The product label will indicate how toxic or hazardous a product might be. Look for the words:

  1. "Caution"
  2. "Warning"
  3. "Danger"


Each of these words represents an elevated level of concern. For example, "caution" means that a product could hurt you. It could bother your skin, make you sick if you breathe the fumes, or hurt your eyes if contact occurs.


"Warning" is more serious than "caution" and indicates that you could become sick or seriously hurt with improper handling of the product. "Warning" is also used to identify products that can easily catch on fire.


"Danger" indicates serious concern. Be extremely careful when handling products that contain the word "danger" on the label. If used incorrectly, you could become very sick, be hurt for a long time, go blind, or even die. "Danger" is also used on products to indicate that they could explode if they get hot.

Always read a product’s label first to learn how to use the product and to obtain safety information. Always use products only for what the label says they are intended for and where the label says they are intended to be used. Never use more of a product (or make it stronger) than the product label recommends.

Where should I call for help if I’m accidentally exposed to pesticides or household products?

Check the label for any emergency instructions or an emergency phone number.

If the label does not indicate what to do, or if you are unsure of what to do, don’t hesitate to call your poison control center (800-222-1222 - all poison control centers have the same phone number), call 911, or call your local emergency ambulance number. (It’s always wise to permanently post these numbers next to your phone as well as your children’s ages and weights and your veterinarian’s phone number too.) If possible, have the product container or label with you. If possible, tell the emergency personnel how much chemical came in contact with the affected individual and what specific body part came into contact with the chemical.

Actions to take for four types of exposures

Although there may be specific steps to take based on the type of chemical exposure, here are some general rules of thumb to follow for four types of exposure scenarios:

  1. If a chemical splashes into your eyes, rinse your eyes under a faucet or in the shower for 15 to 20 minutes. Then call the poison control center or other local emergency numbers.
  2. If a chemical splashes onto your skin, remove the wet clothing and rinse the skin under a faucet or in the shower for 15 to 20 minutes. Then call the poison control center or other local emergency numbers.
  3. If poisonous fumes are inhaled, get to fresh air quickly. Open windows and doors. Then call the poison control center or other local emergency numbers.
  4. If someone is not breathing or won’t wake up, call 911 or your local emergency ambulance number.

What is syrup of ipecac and should I have this product in my home medicine chest?

Syrup of ipecac is a type of medicine, called an emetic, that causes a person to vomit. Syrup of ipecac was introduced to the market in the 1960s and, for over 20 years, had been recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics to be in the home for use in the event of an accidental poisoning.

The American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends the use of syrup of ipecac for the home treatment of childhood poisonings and further recommends that parents safely dispose of any syrup of ipecac that is currently in the home. The pediatric organization now states that there is little to be gained from having the medicine in the home. Reasons for their change in policy include:

  • The tremendous drop in number of poisoning deaths in the United States over the last 50 years (brought about, in part, by safer products, safer packaging, improved consumer education, and development of poison control centers, which provide rapid advice in times of emergency).
  • Lack of scientific evidence proving that syrup of ipecac was ever reliable or effective in preventing poisons from moving from the stomach into the bloodstream.
  • Endorsement of and greater use of activated charcoal by poison specialists and by emergency room personnel.
  • Chance of improper use or abuse of syrup of ipecac.

If a child is exposed to or accidentally swallows a potentially poisonous substance, the pediatric organization recommends calling the universal poison control center at 800.222.1222. If the person is convulsing, stops breathing, or loses consciousness, call 911.

What should I know about using and storing household chemicals and pesticides?

2 Tips for safely using products

  1. Always read the label first before buying, storing, or using any household cleaners or pesticide-containing products. Product labels contain such useful information as how to safely use and store the product, first aid instructions, and phone numbers to call for help or additional information. Make sure you are buying the right product for the job, try to buy only what you need, and use only the amount indicated on the label.
  2. Follow all label instructions and precautions. Directions and warning tell you how to use the product safely and correctly. Be sure to follow warnings to open windows, wear gloves, and not breathe product dust and fumes. Keep children and pets away from treated areas as directed by the instructions on the label.

8 Tips for safely storing products

  1. Follow the storage instructions as listed on the product label.
  2. Always keep products in their original containers with the lids on tight. Never use emptied beverage or food containers, which could be mistaken by children and others to still contain a food or beverage. Even if the label is removed or replaced with a new hand-written label, remember that your child may not be able to read the label. Also, by keeping products in their original containers, the label can be referred to for proper and safe use.
  3. Never spray or store household cleaners or pesticides near pet food or water dishes or in cabinets where human or animal food or medicine is stored.
  4. Keep all products out of the reach of children and pets. Keep all pesticides and harmful household cleaners in a locked cabinet. If your child has gotten into household chemicals or pesticides in the past, be especially careful about storing products safely away. Some children repeatedly get into poisons.
  5. Periodically conduct a home survey of all household cleaning and pesticide products– check for loose caps and properly dispose of out-of-date products. If the label of a container is damaged and can no longer be read, consider the product harmful or out-of-date and dispose of it properly.
  6. To properly dispose of leftover or unwanted household products or pesticides, call your local solid waste management authority, environmental agency, or health department. Many communities offer a "hazardous waste collection day." Never dispose of these products by pouring them on the ground, in a stream, down the sink, into the toilet or down a sewer. Keep in mind that pets and children can get into trash cans; therefore, do not dispose of unwanted household products or pesticides in this fashion. Never bury or burn the products. Improper disposal pollutes the environment.
  7. Store flammable products outside your living area and away from other appliances, such as heaters, furnaces, outdoor grills, which could cause the product to catch on fire.
  8. Keep all medicines out of the reach of children. Buy only small quantities in child-resistant packaging. Never refer to medicine as "candy." Never give or take medication in the dark. Keep in mind that even though over-the-counter medications can be purchased without a prescription, some products can be dangerous to pets and children if swallowed – even in small quantities. Ingestion of small quantities of salicylates (ASA or aspirin-containing products, such as Bayer), for example, can be deadly in small children. Visine (eye drop brand) with tetrahydrozoline is a commonly used medicine that does not have a child-resistant cap and can be deadly to small children if swallowed.

Where can I find additional information on household chemicals and pesticides?

If you have questions or concerns about pesticides, household chemicals, waste disposal, or health hazards caused by these products, contact the following organizations:

National Pesticide Information Center

Environmental Protection Agency

National Poison Control Hotline