Household health goes down the drain with many dangerous solvents


January 23, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Bad news. The kitchen sink is stopped up, the cat had a accident on the carpet, you've got wine stains on the tablecloth and ring around the collar, the silver is tarnished, the windows are smudgy and your mother-in-law is stopping by for tea.

No problem, you say. You open the cupboard under the sink and expose your awe-inspiring arsenal of commercial cleansers, bleaches, polishes, paints, strippers, solvents, removers, deodorizers, disinfectants, detergents, abrasives and drain openers. You'll whip this house into shape in no time.

Before you get to work, however, open all the windows. And don't forget to put on your rubber gloves and respirator. After all, have you ever taken a look at the labels on those ordinary household products lurking under your sink?

Thousands of household products contain ingredients that are toxic, caustic, corrosive, inflammable, volatile or explosive. These include such everyday products as drain cleaner, motor oil, paint thinner and bleach.

Taken into your body, these chemicals can cause immediate headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, diarrhea -- and death. They can do permanent damage to your liver and kidneys, and to your nervous and reproductive systems.

Of course, you know that household cleansers and maintenance products must not be eaten or drunk. But little is known of the long-term effects of absorbing motor oil through your skin or inhaling oven cleaner fumes.

How can you tell which of your cherished household products contain toxic chemicals? A close look at a product's label may not tell you much. However, certain key words required by federal law do give you the bottom line:

DANGER means a product is highly toxic -- a mere lick of weed killer, for example, will kill you.

WARNING indicates moderate toxicity -- you have to drink a whole tablespoon of toilet bowl cleaner to get a fatal dose. CAUTION signals low toxicity -- you can drink as much as a pint of bleach before dying, though a lesser dose won't exactly be pleasant.

And don't be unduly comforted by the label "non-toxic." A product that kills 50 percent of lab animals within two weeks of exposure can still qualify as non-toxic, according to the Washington Toxics Coalition.

If you do survive your oven cleaner or your air freshener, you run into another problem: how to dispose of it without exposing the environment to those same poisons.

Trash experts estimate that only about 1 percent of America's household waste is toxic. But don't let that statistic lull you into complacency. Households in Washington state alone threw out 14.7 million pounds of hazardous waste last year. That adds up to a lot of lethal teaspoons of toxins that none of us wants drifting in our drinking water and floating in the air.

If you throw toxic materials in with your regular trash, you generate a string of problems. Compacted in a garbage truck, most containers are broken open right away, causing immediate health threats to sanitation workers. Dumped in a landfill, the bad stuff can slowly leach into the ground, contaminating our drinking water. Incineration produces poisonous ash and gases.

And you can't just pour them down the drain. Storm drains pour directly, without the benefit of water treatment, into streams, rivers and oceans. Household drains flow to municipal sewers or septic tanks, which are not designed to handle hazardous waste.

Exactly how you should dispose of hazardous wastes depends on the individual substance and on how your community treats trash. Call your garbage utility for details. You may also want to invest $3.75 in a "Household Hazardous Waste Wheel," a handy NTC disposal guide from Environmental Hazards Management Institute, P.O. Box 70, Durham, N.H. 03824.

Some communities have standard drop-off sites for household hazardous wastes that cannot go in with ordinary trash. Other communities set up special hazardous waste collection days. If neither option exists in your area, consider organizing a collection day yourself. The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts can tell you how. Write for information about its video and kit at 8 Winter St., Boston, Mass. 02108.

Once you've used up and disposed of a toxic product, DON'T REPLACE IT. Next week's column will tell you what to do instead. In the meantime, give the oven and the laundry a break.

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