Household Products

Many products in our homes serve useful purposes, but are also poisonous if misused. These range from medications to pesticides, antifreeze, personal care products, alcohol, and even improperly prepared food. Take measures to learn what poisons are in your home, and how to use and store these products in the best manner possible.

Cleansers and Chemicals
A wide range of household cleansers and chemicals are poisonous to both adults and especially children. Poisoning can result from inhalation, ingestion or from absorption through the skin. Symptoms of poison inhalation can include breathing problems, coughing, sore or dry throat, dizziness or burning or pain in the chest. These effects may not be immediate. Skin contact may lead to burning or inflammation, and certain chemicals may be absorbed into the body. Ingestion symptoms are similar, but more severe; in addition to the absorption and inhalation symptoms, there may be abdominal pain, an internal burning sensation, nausea, vomiting, organ damage, and even death.
Some of the many poisonous products in your home include:

Carelessly stored household chemicals and cleansers can pose a poison hazard.

Automotive Fluids: gasoline, oil, anti-freeze, break fluids, etc.

Household Cleansers: bleach, ammonia, disinfectants, bathroom cleansers, laundry and dishwasher detergents, drain cleaner, etc.

Home Maintenance Products: paint, varnish, stains, oils, polishes, pest poison, etc.

Lawn, Garden, Pet and Pool Products:fertilizers, pesticides, pet flea and tick treatment, chlorine, other pool chemicals, etc.

It is dangerous even to inhale many of these products. Do not mix products (such as chlorine and ammonia), and be very careful not get a dangerous substance into your eyes. Wear gloves and enough clothing to protect your skin. When using a potentially toxic substance, even a household cleaner, make sure that the space is well ventilated. However, when using chemicals such as pesticides outside, do not allow wind to blow chemicals in your direction.

Special care needs to be taken with all of these products to best prevent poisonings. Always store poisonous products out of the reach of children. Children, due to their small size, undeveloped systems, and sometimes dangerous curiosity, are at greater risk for poisoning injury. Keep products in their original containers, and never combine chemicals or transfer products from one container to another. Read product labels to be fully informed about usage, storage and dangers. Only buy and  keep what you need, and remember to dispose of chemical products properly.

For specific information on the proper handling and disposal of a number of hazardous household products, including antifreeze, mercury products, gasoline, pool chemicals and many more, consult the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection website on Household Hazardous Waste.

Cosmetic and Personal Care Products
Cosmetics and personal care products, which are regularly used and widely found in homes, can nevertheless be perilously misused, and consequently account for the greatest number of calls received by the Regional Center. Poisonings can occur when common products are administered incorrectly. Since the range of products in this category is wide, so too are the possible symptoms of resultant poisonings.

Children are often drawn to misuse adult personal care products.

Most frequently, poisonings in this category occur when young children misuse and/ or improperly ingest the personal care products of others. Children may spread excessive amounts of products on their skin, or ingest dangerous amounts of a product. Excessive application of topicals can result in inflammation or skin rashes. Particularly dangerous for children to ingest are perfumes, colognes, after shave or certain mouthwashes. These products are often over 50% ethanol alcohol, and even a small amount (an ounce or less) of alcohol ingested by a child can have serious effects. Not only are children of significantly smaller body mass, their systems can not process alcohol as adults’ can, so they can quickly become intoxicated. As a result, they may then experience disturbances in breathing, pulse and temperature, as well as a lowering of their blood sugar.

Some of the chemicals in nail products can be very dangerous to children.

Nail products, including nail polish, nail glue, and nail polish remover- which contains the toxic chemical acetone-  are also dangerous if ingested by children. Some artificial nail glue removers contain the chemical Acetonitrile, which is chemically related to cyanide, and has been the cause of several pediatric deaths. Toothpaste is another hygiene product which can make a child sick if consumed in excess (small quantities ingested during regular brushing are generally harmless). Parents should supervise children who are learning to brush their teeth and use mouthwash to ensure that they use the proper amounts.

The best way to prevent personal care product poisonings is to carefully store all of the personal care and cosmetic products in your home. Keep them out of reach of children. Children are often attracted the by the colors of certain products, such as nail polish or mouthwash, and they also often attempt to imitate adults. Choose less toxic products when possible, and be sure that products are properly sealed and stored out of the sight and reach of children.

As many symptoms of food poisoning- such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever- are similar to other illnesses, such as the flu, food poisoning is sometimes mistaken for other ailments. Food poisoning is largely caused by pathogenic bacteria. The effects of food poisoning can last several days.

Proper care during food preparation in your home can help to prevent unintentional food poisonings. Cold food needs to be kept cold, and hot food needs to be kept hot. At temperature extremes- such as the cold of your freezer and the heat of your oven- bacteria can not survive. In the intermediate temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees F, however, harmful pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria and Campylobacter can grow most rapidly. Do not store cooked foods at room temperature for more than an hour, and similarly, do not defrost frozen meats and poultry at room temperature. Defrost frozen foods in either the refrigerator, in cold water within a leak proof bag, or in the microwave. (Food defrosted in the microwave, however, should be cooked directly afterward, as it may have warmed and begun to cook in the microwave.) Furthermore, check to see that your refrigerator temperature is not set too high: it must be set at 40 degrees F or below to protect most foods.

Other tips for safe food preparation include carefully washing your hands, cutting boards, and other kitchen equipment. In order to avoid cross contamination, do not handle raw vegetables and uncooked meats with the same hands, utensils or cutting boards. Use a food thermometer to properly determine if meat has been cooked. (For specific information on correct cooking temperatures, see the FSIS page on How Temperatures Affect Food.) Cook fish until it flakes. (Also, with regard to fish, consult our section on Mercury to learn about safe fish consumption.) Adhere to product expiration dates and check food product safety seals. And with the exception of certain cheeses- for example, Gorgonzola, blue, and Brie- do not eat moldy food.
Those at the highest risk groups for food poisoning are young children, seniors, pregnant women, and people with certain illnesses. People in these groups, or preparing food for others who fall into these groups, should take extra care.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services truly extensive website provides a wealth of information on food safety. This pages cover a great deal, with information on bacteria and spoilage, cookware and equipment, food storage, preparation and handling, food borne illnesses, and keeping food safe during an emergency. There are also fact sheets available for download. Another resource is the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline: 1-888-674-6854

Remember, when in doubt, throw it out!

Alcohol can be very toxic to children, and in excessive quantities it can be toxic to adults as well. A small amount of alcohol- even an ounce or less- can be highly dangerous to children, because they have smaller body masses. Advanced symptoms of alcohol poisoning include mental confusion, stupor, vomiting, seizures, low blood sugar, irregular breathing and unconsciousness.
Be smart about alcohol in your house: store it out of the reach of children. Be careful of idle cups or containers of alcohol sitting within the reach of a child, especially during or after an adult party. Never give alcohol to a child. Also, be wary of adult, young adult, and teenage alcohol consumption for signs of advanced intoxication. Pregnant women should NOT drink alcohol, because it can be very detrimental to the developing fetus, and may result in fetal alcohol syndrome.

Thousands of unintentional poisonings occur each year as the result of the improper use of medication. The symptoms of medication poisonings can range from hives and skin reactions, to fever, nausea and vomiting, to circulatory problems and shock, and, unfortunately, even death.

Children can mistake colorful medicines for candy. Be sure to store medicine properly!

Drug poisonings have a number of causes, including careless storage and usage, dangerous drug combinations, and incorrect dosage. Do not store drugs in unlocked cabinets, on countertops, in easily opened purses or otherwise in the reach of children. People often take less precautions in the storage of over the counter drugs, but these can be just as dangerous, especially to children, when misused. Properly dispose of old medicines. Buy products in childproof packaging. Do not refer to medicine as candy! As with personal care products, children may imitate actions they see adults performing. Always take care with prescription and over-the-counter medicines when children are around.

Adults can suffer drug poisoning as well. Never take someone else’s medication. Read drug labels before taking medications, and do not take medication in the dark. Do not mix medications; even supplements and over-the-counter drugs can have adverse interactions with each other or prescription medications. Always confer with your doctor or pharmacist when taking more than one drug. Drugs can have harmful, even lethal interactions, or they may negate each other’s intended effects. Poisoning can also result from drinking alcoholic beverages while on medication. Once again, pregnant or nursing women must take extra care with drugs, as what they intake may be transmitted to their children.

Some of the most common drug products associated with poisonings are aspirin, acetaminophen, sedatives, antipsychotics, and vitamins. Aspirin and acetaminophen (the active ingredient in many pain relievers, such as Tylenol®) poisonings are often the result of a child ingesting too many pills. The symptoms may include deep breathing, nausea, vomiting, and potentially liver damage or death. An overdose of vitamins, especially iron pills, can be quite dangerous for children. Children can become very ill upon ingesting just a few adult iron pills. Again, take as much care in the storage of over the counter drugs and supplements as you do with prescriptions.

Hydrocarbons, also known as petroleum distillates, are in many of the products we use daily. Examples of hydrocarbons in the home include gasoline, furniture polish, lamp oil and solvents. Hydrocarbons, as the name implies, are composed of chains of hydrogen and carbon atoms. Their physical properties are determined by their length, shape, and degree of substitution (or number of hydrogen and other atoms bound to the carbon chain).

Toxicity may occur through all routes of exposure: on the skin, in the eye, breathing, or swallowing with the potential for aspiration into the lungs. When these chemicals are used in high concentrations, or in enclosed spaces, they may cause irritation to the skin, eyes and airway. To treat a hydrocarbon exposure, call the Poison Center, and wash affected skin and eyes with body-temperature water. If you are using a hydrocarbon product in an area of your home that is not well ventilated, get to fresh air by opening a window or going outside.

One of the key concerns when someone swallows a hydrocarbon is the viscosity or “thickness” of the product involved. If the fluid is of high viscosity (a thick substance, like molasses), then it is harder for the liquid to be aspirated. Aspiration occurs when either a liquid or a solid that is swallowed goes into the lungs instead of the stomach. If a hydrocarbon is of low viscosity, it is easier for this liquid to move from the stomach into the lungs, as it may when a person vomits. Therefore, the more dangerous hydrocarbons are those with low viscosity. The specialists at the Center are experts in helping you determine if there is a potential problem with any hydrocarbon exposure, and encourage you to call in any case of contact with these products.

Carbon Monoxide
While not a “household product,” carbon monoxide is certainly a household and automotive danger. Almost 500 people each year die from carbon monoxide poisoning, and thousands of others develop symptoms that require emergency medical attention. Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most common cause of accidental poisoning-related deaths and is often called “the silent killer.”

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a poisonous, colorless, tasteless and odorless gas that is produced from the incomplete burning of fuels that contain carbon, such as wood, charcoal, gasoline, coal, natural gas, or kerosene. Breathing carbon monoxide fumes decreases the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. Low levels of oxygen can cause damage to the brain and heart. Persons with existing health problems such as anemia, heart disease, and lung disease are especially at risk when exposed to carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide exposure is also of particular danger during pregnancy and to infants, children and the elderly.

The majority of CO exposures occur in the winter months. The most CO-related poisonings in the home happen when gas or oil powered furnaces and heaters malfunction. The risk of carbon monoxide poisoning is also greater anytime these products are operated in enclosed areas with poor ventilation, which is of particular concern in winter. If you have your furnace inspected annually in the winter, be sure to know where and at what height the exhaust valve is- it is essential that this not be covered with snow. Snow and ice can block the vents of these appliances, or the tailpipes of cars. If a car is abutting a snow bank, the snow will prevent the exhaust from escaping, and thus the car becomes a small enclosed space and anyone inside can be quickly affected by the symptoms of CO poisoning.

Since auto exhaust is a source of carbon monoxide it is especially important to always check your car’s tailpipe before starting it. Do not run your car in a garage, even with the door open. Never sleep in or leave children inside a car that is running.
Other common sources of CO include the following:

  • indoor charcoal grills
  • tobacco smoke
  • faulty fireplaces and chimneys
  • fires
  • fuel burning equipment such as gasoline engines, gas logs, and gas space heaters
  • faulty gas water heaters or clothes dryers
  • gas appliances and heaters in cabins or campers, pools, and spas

What are the symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning?
The following are the most common symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Some of the most common symptoms may include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • weakness or clumsiness
  • nausea and vomiting
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • loss of hearing
  • blurry vision
  • disorientation or confusion
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness or coma
  • cardiac arrest
  • respiratory failure
  • death

Carbon monoxide poisoning mimics many common illnesses such as the flu and food poisoning. Always consult your or your child’s physician for a diagnosis.

First-aid for carbon monoxide poisoning:
If your child or other family member has any symptoms of CO poisoning, stay calm but act quickly.

  • Leave the area and get fresh air immediately. Turn off the carbon monoxide source only if you can do so safely without endangering yourself or others.
  • If a child in your area has collapsed or stopped breathing, start CPR and do not stop until your child breathes on his/her own or someone else can take over. If you can, have someone call 911 right away. If you are alone, perform CPR for one minute and then call 911.
  • If an adult in your area has collapsed or stopped breathing, have someone call 911 or, call 911 if you are by yourself before starting CPR.
  • Call the Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

The poison control center will advise you and any medical personnel involved regarding further treatment. Emergency medical treatment may include oxygen therapy, blood tests, chest x-ray, and a heart and neurological evaluation.

How can you protect against carbon monoxide poisoning?

  • Have your furnace and fireplace cleaned and inspected before each heating season. Have other fuel burning appliances checked regularly.
  • Use non-electrical space heaters only in well-ventilated areas.
  • Do not start or idle gas lawn mowers, cars, trucks, or other vehicles in an enclosed area, even with the garage doors open.
  • Vent fuel-burning appliances outside whenever possible.
  • Do not ever use a charcoal grill inside your home, garage, tent, or camper.
  • Do not use portable heaters or lanterns while sleeping in enclosed areas such as tents, campers, and other vehicles. This is especially important at high altitudes, where the risk of CO poisoning is increased.
  • Read and follow manufacturer instructions and precautions that come with any fuel-burning device.
  • Do not ever use a gas oven for heat inside your home.
  • Use an approved carbon monoxide detector with an audible alarm inside your home.