Toxins in your home:


Formaldehyde is a colorless and flammable gas with a distinct odor detectable at very lowconcentrations. It is a volatile organic compound (VOC) that causes cancer and other harmful health effects. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical; our bodies even produce small amounts of formaldehyde. However, at high concentrations, formaldehyde vapors are dangerous.  Formaldehyde causes cancer.  Evidence shows formaldehyde can cause a rare cancer of the nasopharynx, which is the upper part of the throat behind the nose.

Formaldehyde irritates the nose, eyes, and throat.  These irritations can happen at low levels of formaldehyde, especially in people who are especially sensitive to the odors.  Other short-term effects include headache, runny nose, nausea and difficulty breathing.  Exposure may cause wheezing, asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms.

Individuals vary in how they respond to formaldehyde.  Some people have a natural allergic sensitivity to airborne formaldehyde and others may develop an allergy as a result of skin contact with liquid formaldehyde.  Researchers have found that some individuals with asthma are more vulnerable to the effects of inhaled formaldehyde.

Many industries use formaldehyde. It is used to produce wood, paper, plywood, glues and adhesives, permanent press fabrics, some paints and coatings, and certain insulation materials. It is also found in many consumer products, including cosmetics, dish soaps, medicines, leather treatments and fabric softeners.  Formaldehyde is present both indoors and outdoors. However, formaldehyde levels are usually much higher indoors. Because formaldehyde is volatile, which means it evaporates easily, it is released into the air from many products inside the home. High humidity and high temperatures speed up the release of formaldehyde.  Smoking indoors produces high concentrations of formaldehyde. Burning wood products, fuel, paper and other products is also an important source of formaldehyde.


  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Tox FAQs for Formaldehyde. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. 2011. Accessed August 26, 2015.
  • California Air Resources Board (CARB). Report to the California Legislature: Indoor Air Pollution in California. Sacramento, CA: California Environmental Protection Agency. 2005.
  • Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Revised Health Consultation –Formaldehyde Sampling at FEMA Temporary Housing Units - Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. 2007.
  • Institute of Medicine, Division of Health Promotion, Indoor Air and Disease Prevention. Clearing the Air: Asthma and Indoor Air Exposures. Washington, DC: National Academies 
  • Press. 2000; Kanchongkittiphon W, et al. Indoor Environmental Exposures of Asthma: An Update to the 2000 Review by the Institute of Medicine. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2015; 123: 6-20.



New research has detected the presence of paraben esters in 99 percent of breast cancer tissues sampled.1 The study examined 40 women who were being treated for primary breast cancer. In 60 percent of cases, five of the different esters were present.

Parabens are chemicals with estrogen-like properties, and estrogen is one of the hormones involved in the development of breast cancer. The study notes that:

"Variation was notable with respect to individual paraben esters, location within one breast and similar locations in different breasts.  Overall median values in nanograms per gram tissue for the 160 tissue samples were highest for n-propylparaben and methylparaben; levels were lower for n-butylparaben, ethylparaben and isobutylparaben...The source of the paraben cannot be identified, but paraben was measured in the 7/40 patients who reported never having used underarm cosmetics in their lifetime."


Deodorants and antiperspirants are some of the primary sources of parabens, but the fact that even those who reportedly never used them still had parabens in their breast tissue clearly demonstrates that these chemicals, regardless of what products they're added to, can, and apparently will, accumulate in breast tissue.

It's important to recognize that whatever you spread on your skin can be absorbed into your body and potentially cause serious damage over time, as this research demonstrates.

Parabens inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and molds, and are used as preservatives. On the label they may be listed as:

  • Methyl paraben
  • Propyl paraben
  • Isobutyl paraben
  • Ethyl paraben
  • Butyl paraben
  • E216

These chemicals are commonly used in:

  • Deodorants and antiperspirants
  • Shampoos and conditioners
  • Shaving gel
  • Toothpaste
  • Lotions and sunscreens
  • Make-up / cosmetics
  • Pharmaceutical drugs
  • Food additives

Studies have shown that parabens can affect your body much like the estrogens, which can lead to diminished muscle mass, extra fat storage, and male gynecomastia (breast growth). Other studies besides the one featured here have also linked parabens to breast cancer. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked methyl parabens in particular to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.




Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break. They are often called plasticizers. Some phthalates are used as solvents (dissolving agents) for other materials. They are used in hundreds of products, such as vinyl flooring, adhesives, detergents, lubricating oils, automotive plastics, plastic clothes (raincoats), and personal-care products (soaps, shampoos, hair sprays, and nail polishes).

Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors. Men with higher phthalate compounds in their blood had correspondingly reduced sperm counts, according to a 2003 study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Harvard School of Public Health. Although exposure to phthalates mainly occurs through inhalation, it can also happen through skin contact with scented soaps, which is a significant problem, warns Alicia Stanton, MD, coauthor of Hormone Harmony (Healthy Life Library, 2009). Unlike the digestive system, the skin has no safeguards against toxins. Absorbed chemicals go straight to organs.

Many fragranced household products, such as air fresheners, dish soap, even toilet paper. Because of proprietary laws, companies don’t have to disclose what’s in their scents, so you won’t find phthalates on a label. If you see the word “fragrance” on a label, there’s a good chance phthalates are present.  Phthalates are used widely in polyvinyl chloride plastics, which are used to make products such as plastic packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, inflatable toys, blood-storage containers, medical tubing, and some children's toys.

People are exposed to phthalates by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing phthalates. To a lesser extent exposure can occur from breathing in air that contains phthalate vapors or dust contaminated with phthalate particles. Young children may have a greater risk of being exposed to phthalate particles in dust than adults because of their hand-to-mouth behaviors.

In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals (Fourth Report), CDC scientists measured 13 phthalate metabolites in the urine of 2,636 or more participants aged six years and older who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) during 2003–2004. For several phthalate metabolites, results from the prior survey periods of 1999–2000 and 2001–2002 are also included in the Fourth Report. By measuring phthalate metabolites in urine, scientists can estimate the amount of phthalates that have entered people's bodies.

  • CDC researchers found measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in the      general population. This finding indicates that phthalate exposure is widespread in the  U.S. population.
  • Research has found that adult women have higher levels of urinary metabolites than men for those phthalates that are used in soaps, body washes, shampoos, cosmetics, and similar personal care products.
  • Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate is listed as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the National Toxicology Program. 



    Public Health Statement for Di-n-butyl Phthalate


    •    Public Health Statement for Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP)


    •    Public Health Statement for Diethyl Phthalate


    •    Public Health Statement for Di-n-octylphthalate (DNOP)


    •    ToxFAQs for Di-n-butyl Phthalate


    •    ToxFAQs for Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate (DEHP)


    •    ToxFAQs for Diethyl Phthalate


    •    ToxFAQs for Di-n-octylphthalate (DNOP)



Tetrachloroethylene (Perchloroethylene)

Tetrachloroethylene is a neurotoxin, according to the chief scientist of environmental protection for the New York Attorney General’s office. And the EPA classifies tetrachloroethylene as a “possible carcinogen” as well. People who live in residential buildings where dry cleaners are located have reported dizziness, loss of coordination and other symptoms. While the EPA has ordered a phase-out of tetrachloroethylene machines in residential buildings by 2020, California is going even further and plans to eliminate all use of tetrachloroethylene by 2023 because of its suspected health risks. The route of exposure is most often inhalation: that telltale smell on clothes when they return from the dry cleaner, or the fumes that linger after cleaning carpets.

Effects resulting from acute (short term) high-level inhalation exposure of humans to tetrachloroethylene include irritation of the upper respiratory tract and eyes, kidney dysfunction, and neurological effects such as reversible mood and behavioral changes, impairment of coordination, dizziness, headache, sleepiness, and unconsciousness.  The primary effects from chronic (long term) inhalation exposure are neurological, including impaired cognitive and motor neurobehavioral performance.  Tetrachloroethylene exposure may also cause adverse effects in the kidney, liver, immune system and hematologic system, and on development and reproduction. Studies of people exposed in the workplace have found associations with several types of cancer including bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma. 

The major effects from chronic inhalation exposure to tetrachloroethylene in humans are neurological effects, including sensory symptoms such as headaches, impairments in cognititve and motor neurobehavioral functioning and color vision decrements.  Other effects noted in humans, generally at higher exposures, include liver damage,  kidney effects, immune and hematologic effects, and on development and reproduction.  Some adverse reproductive effects, such as menstrual disorders, altered sperm structure, and reduced fertility, have been reported in studies of workers occupationally exposed to tetrachloroethylene.  However, the evidence is inconclusive.

EPA has classified tetrachloroethylene as likely to be carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure based on suggestive evidence in epidemiological studies and conclusive evidence in rats (mononuclear cell leukemia) and mice (increased incidence of liver tumors). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified tetrachloroethylene as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A).  Tetrachloroethylene is found in dry-cleaning solutions, spot removers, and carpet and upholstery cleaners.



    1. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Toxicological Profile for Tetrachloroethylene (Update). U.S. Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, GA. 1997. 

    2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) on Tetrachloroethylene. National Center for Environmental Assessment, Office of Research and Development, Washington, DC.  2012. 

    3. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Control of Exposure to Perchloroethylene in Commercial Drycleaning. Publication Number 97-154. 1997. 

    4. American Conference of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). 2009 Guide to Occupational Exposure Values. ACGIH, Cincinnati, OH.  2009.

    5. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).  Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Cincinnati, OH.  2007.

    6. American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).  The AIHA 2011 Emergency Response Planning Guidelines and Workplace Environmental Exposure Level Guides Handbook. 2011.




Triclosan was first introduced in the United States in 1969 by a company that is now part of Novartis. For a long time, it was mainly used in hospitals. When its use crept out of industry and into homes, critics quickly began to raise health concerns about the chemical.  The health concerns, which mainly relate to long-term exposure, are wide-ranging.  Some studies suggest that triclosan causes cancer.  As it breaks down, it emits dioxins, which are some of the most toxic chemicals on earth.  As science began to focus on endocrine disruptors in the 1990s, it became clear that triclosan was among these chemicals that simulate the body’s own hormones. It affects estrogen, androgen, and thyroid hormonal systems.

When triclosan makes its way into natural bodies of water, its estrogen-like properties affect fish. The EPA has agreed to investigate whether it may be adding to the challenges faced by any endangered species.  As concern has grown about the overuse of antibacterials contributing to the rise of antibacterial-resistant microbes, or “superbugs,” triclosan again appeared on the list of problem chemicals.

A 2012 study found that triclosan exposure can weaken heart and other muscular contractions. Terry Collins, Ph.D., a professor of green chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University, says the chemicals may have some specialized uses, but they clearly shouldn’t be in consumer products.

“I’m not in favor of banning these things,” Collins said of triclosan and a less common cousin triclocarban, “but the mass usage of them is almost certainly unwise.”



Critics point to triclosan, along with phthalates and bisphenol-A (BPA), as proof that chemical regulation in the United States is a hot mess.  The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is the main law that covers chemicals. Passed in 1976, it grandfathered in most chemicals that were already on the market.  The Environmental Protection Agency enforces the TSCA. To pull a chemical, the EPA must prove that it poses an “unreasonable risk” to public health or the environment.

Of the 60,000-plus chemicals already on the market when the TSCA became law, just a few hundred have been tested for safety. Only five have been partially regulated, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates cosmetics, which include anything “intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing [or] beautifying”.

That leaves the EPA regulating triclosan in housewares and the FDA regulating it in soaps, gels, and toothpaste.

But the FDA hardly has more bite than the EPA. Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients other than color additives do not need FDA approval before they hit the shelves. The FDA can ban products or ingredients, but it has to present dependable evidence that they are harmful.

Consumers, largely unaware of the debate surrounding the chemicals, spent almost $1 billion on products containing triclosan or triclocarban in 2010. A 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found triclosan in the urine of 3 out of 4 Americans.

The personal products industry has begun to shy away from triclosan in recent years, experts said.  

The FDA proposed a regulation that would remove triclosan and triclocarban from topical antimicrobial products in 1978, but the agency only took action in 2013 after the NRDC filed a lawsuit.  

But the new regulations the FDA is currently proposing, which will become final in 2016, won’t ban triclosan. Instead, they will remove the presumption that triclosan is an effective antibacterial agent. Products labeled “antibacterial” will have to show the FDA evidence that they work better than soap and water.

The new regulations won’t touch products that aren’t used with water, like those hand-sanitizing gels. Nor will they affect toothpastes containing triclosan, which most experts agree improve oral health.

Meanwhile, the European Union banned the chemical for use in products that come in contact with food in 2010. This year, it began to phase triclosan out of all personal products. 






Triclosan is an aggressive antibacterial agent that can promote the growth of drug-resistant bacteria. Explains Sutton: “The American Medical Association has found no evidence that these antimicrobials make us healthier or safer, and they’re particularly concerned because they don’t want us overusing antibacterial chemicals — that’s how microbes develop resistance, and not just to these [household antibacterials], but also to real antibiotics that we need.” Other studies have now found dangerous concentrations of triclosan in rivers and streams, where it is toxic to algae. The EPA is currently investigating whether triclosan may also disrupt endocrine (hormonal) function. It is a probable carcinogen. At press time, the agency was reviewing the safety of triclosan in consumer products.

Triclosan is found in most liquid dishwashing detergents and hand soaps labeled “antibacterial”, clothing, kitchenware, furniture, and toys. It also may be added to body washes, toothpastes, and some cosmetics.

Research has shown that triclosan:

    • Alters hormone regulation in animals

    • Might contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant germs

    • Might be harmful to the immune system

When you use a product containing triclosan, you can absorb a small amount through your skin or mouth. A 2008 study, which was designed to assess exposure to triclosan in a representative sample of U.S. children and adults, found triclosan in the urine of nearly 75% of those tested.

Triclosan isn't an essential ingredient in many products. While triclosan added to toothpaste has been shown to help prevent gingivitis, there's no evidence that antibacterial soaps and body washes containing triclosan provide any extra benefits, according to the Food and Drug Administration.



    1. Rees Clayton EM, et al. The impact of bisphenol A and triclosan on immune parameters in the U.S. population, NHANES 2003-2006. Environmental Health Perspectives 2011;119:390.

    2. Witorsch RJ, et al. Personal care products and endocrine disruption: A critical the literature. Critical Reviews in Toxicology. 2010;40:1.

    3. Triclosan: What consumers should know. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http:/ Accessed Dec. 13, 2013.

    4. Calafat AM, et al. Urinary concentrations of triclosan in the U.S. population: 2003-2004. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2008;116:303.

    5. Triclosan facts. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. factsheets/triclosan_fs.htm. Accessed Dec. 13, 2013.

    6. Triclosan. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Triclosan_FactSheet.html. Accessed Dec. 13, 2013.

    7. Bertelsen RJ, et al. Triclosan exposure and allergic sensitization in Norwegian children. Allergy 2013;68:84.



Quats are another type of antimicrobial, and thus pose the same problem as triclosan by helping breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria. They’re also a skin irritant; one 10-year study of contact dermatitis found quats to be one of the leading causes. According to Sutton, they’re also suspected as a culprit for respiratory disorders: “There’s evidence that even healthy people who are [exposed to quats] on a regular basis develop asthma as a result.”  Some quaternary ammonium compounds, like benzalkonium chloride, are phenolic and have been found to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with hormone function within the body.  Finally, they are toxic to aquatic life, so they're not good for the environment when washed downstream.  

Quaternary ammonium compounds are the active ingredients in disinfectants and sanitizers for homes, farms, hospitals, offices and public transportation vehicles. They are also used as algaecides and slimicides for swimming pools, industrial water reservoirs, and farm ponds. They are included in the last rinse in laundering by some hospitals, diapers, services and various institutions.

Quaternary ammonium compounds are used in a variety of topical preparations in the treatment of minor infections of the eye, mouth and throat and as preservative in preparations for external use.  Cetrimide and benzalkonium chloride are used as antiseptics for cleansing wounds, skin and burns (Reynolds, 1996).  

Quats are found in fabric softener liquids and sheets, hair conditioners, shampoos, lotions and household cleaners labeled “antibacterial.”

Some examples of quaternary ammonium compounds:

  • babassuamidopropalkonium chloride
  • benzalkonium chloride
  • benzathonium chloride
  • Grapefruit Seed Extract
  • methylbenzethonium chloride
  • cetalkonium chloride
  • Vegetable Oil Quaternary
  • Quaternium-15
  • stearalkonium chloride 
  • Polyquaternium
  • guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
  • behentrimonium chloride
  • behentrimoniu methosulfate



2-butoxyethanol is the key ingredient in many window cleaners and gives them their characteristic sweet smell. It belongs in the category of “glycol ethers,” a set of powerful solvents that don’t mess around. Law does not require 2-butoxyethanol to be listed on a product’s label. According to the EPA’s Web site, in addition to causing sore throats when inhaled, at high levels glycol ethers can also contribute to narcosis, pulmonary edema, and severe liver and kidney damage. Although the EPA sets a standard on 2-butoxyethanol for workplace safety, Sutton warns, “If you’re cleaning at home in a confined area, like an unventilated bathroom, you can actually end up getting 2-butoxyethanol in the air at levels that are higher than workplace safety standards.”



While some ammonia is naturally formed when organic materials decompose, it’s also manufactured for fertilizer, synthetic fibers, plastics, explosives, and as an ingredient in smelling salts and cleaning products. Most of us are familiar with this gas’s extremely sharp, irritating odor.  We’re all regularly exposed to small amounts of ammonia in water, soil and air. Thankfully this low-level exposure is not believed to cause health issues. In larger quantities, however, ammonia fumes pose an immediate danger to the lungs and skin. These risks increase dramatically when ammonia is mixed with chlorine bleach or cleaners containing it. This chemical combination produces highly poisonous chloramine gas, which can cause severe lung damage.

Ammonia can irritate or burn skin and mucous membranes, and it is highly toxic if swallowed. Ammonia fumes also react with nitrates in the environment to form unhealthy ammonium nitrate particles, which then linger in household dust, carpets, curtains and upholstery.

Children are most likely to be exposed to ammonia via household cleaners.  Without adequate ventilation, the fumes these cleaners create can pose a danger.  Children with asthma may be particularly sensitive to ammonia fumes.

Ammonia is used on grapefruit, lemons, and oranges to control fungal growth during warehousing.  It is used as a refrigerant in industrial facilities, including meat, poultry, and fish processing facilities; dairy and ice cream plants; wineries and breweries; juice and soft drink processing facilities; cold storage warehouses; and food processing facilities.

Exposure to extremely high levels of ammonia can cause death, coma, blindness, lung damage, collapse, and seizures. 

Breathing high concentrations of ammonia can cause fluid in the lungs to build up and possible lung damage. Exposure to high levels of ammonia can burn the eyes, skin, throat, and lungs. Breathing lower concentrations of ammonia can cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, laryngitis, headaches, fever, nausea, vomiting, pink frothy phlegm, chest pain, asthma, rapid pulse, and increased blood pressure. 

If you swallow ammonia, it can burn your mouth, throat, and stomach and cause severe abdominal pain. If concentrated ammonia spills on your skin, it can blister or severely burn your skin or cause dermatitis. Eye exposure may cause conjunctivitis, corneal irritation or damage, and temporary or permanent blindness. 

You may suffer increased risks from ammonia if you have corneal disease, glaucoma, or chronic respiratory diseases. (



Cleaning your home twice a day with bleach can increase risk of asthma attacks by 28%.  In 2012, US Poison Control Centers fielded more than 40,000 calls about exposure to chlorine bleach.  

Breathing in the fumes of cleaners containing a high concentration of chlorine can irritate the lungs. This is particularly dangerous for people suffering from heart conditions or chronic respiratory problems such as asthma or emphysema. And the risks are compounded when the cleaners are used in small, poorly ventilated rooms, such as the bathroom. Chlorine is also a highly corrosive substance, capable of damaging skin, eyes, and other membranes. Chlorine was listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the 1990 Clean Air Act, and exposure to chlorine in the workplace is regulated by federal standards. 

One of the most important things you can do is buy paper products that aren’t bleached with chlorine. That’s because chlorine bleached paper can contain dioxin and organochlorine residues that can transfer to any food or person they come in contact with.

The EPA says that using bleached coffee filters alone can result in a lifetime exposure to dioxin that “exceeds acceptable levels”.  Using detergents that contain chlorine in the dishwasher or clothes washer can pollute the air in your home. The water in the machines, which contains chlorine from the detergents, transfers the chlorine to the air through a process called “volatilization.” We then breathe the contaminated air.  Dishwashers are the worst culprits, releasing chemicals in a steamy mist when the door is opened after washing. In a clothes washer, chlorine mixes with the dirt in clothes to generate airborne, toxic chlorinated organic chemicals.

Read more:



Sodium hydroxide is strongly irritating and corrosive. It can cause severe burns and permanent damage to any tissue that it comes in contact with. Sodium hydroxide can cause hydrolysis of proteins, and hence can cause burns in the eyes which may lead to permanent eye damage.  Inhaled sodium hydroxide can cause swelling of the larynx and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs.Stridor, vomiting, drooling, and abdominal pain are early symptoms of sodium hydroxide ingestion. Ingestion may lead to perforation of the gastrointestinal tract and shock. The extent of damage to the gastrointestinal tract may not be clear until several hours after ingestion. Inhaled sodium hydroxide can cause swelling of the larynx and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Contact with 25-50% solutions produces immediate irritation, while after contact with solutions of 4% or less, irritation may not develop for several hours.

Inhalation of sodium hydroxide is immediately irritating to the respiratory tract. Swelling or spasms of the larynx leading to upper-airway obstruction and asphyxia can occur after high-dose inhalation. Inflammation of the lungs and an accumulation of fluid in the lungs may also occur.  Children may be more vulnerable to corrosive agents than adults   because of the relatively smaller diameter of their airways.  Children may be more vulnerable because of relatively increased minute ventilation per kg and failure to evacuate an area promptly when exposed.  People with asthma or emphysema may be more susceptible to the toxicity of this agent. (

Found in: Oven cleaners and drain openers.