Have you seen the story about the cleaning woman who nearly blew herself up by lighting a cigarette? Her car was loaded with common cleaning products and when she struck her match… kaboom! The woman survived but was severely burned.
While I don’t defend or advocate smoking, the fact that the woman was not aware of how risky her cargo was reflects a larger problem. Do any of us really know the potential dangers of the common household cleaners that we keep as close to us as under our kitchen sink or in the hall linen closet? This cleaning woman’s story serves as a wake up alarm for why it’s important to your health and safety to learn about the types of toxins you bring into your home and make the transition to green cleaning.
The first thing to do is to take stock of what you have. The Federal Hazardous Substances Act (FHSA) requires manufacturers of hazardous household substances to label their products with a simple code to tell consumers how dangerous the product can be to their health. That means you can tell a lot about a product with just a glance at the label.
Under FHSA, hazardous products are rated by how much would need to be ingested or absorbed to cause severe damage or death. This does not tell you about long-term effects such as cancer or brain damage. However, these signal words can help you sort out and get rid of the products that are immediately hazardous to you and your family. Here are the most important four signal words to look for.
• “Poison” is the strongest signal word you’ll find on household products. It indicates that the product is highly toxic, meaning it does not take much to cause serious damage or death.
• “Danger” is the second strongest signal word and it means that spilling or ingesting the product could cause permanent tissue damage to the skin, mouth, throat and stomach. The product may also be very flammable.
• “Warning” is a common signal word on cleaning products. It means the product is flammable or moderately toxic, but not likely to produce permanent damage if handled properly.
• “Caution” is the most common label on cleaning products and it means that it is slightly toxic.
If you find you have products that are too dangerous to keep in your home, it’s important to dispose of them correctly. Contact your local hazardous waste center to find out how.
Kimberly Delaney is the author of Clean Home, Green Home: The Complete Illustrated Guide to Eco-Friendly Homekeeping, published by the Knack imprint of Globe Pequot Press.