Home Chemical Safety Tips from the American Society of Safety Engineers

Oct. 12, 2006
As seasons change, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) points out that it is important to address the possible hazards associated with the chemicals found in everyday products in the home - just as one does in the workplace.

The chemicals and cleaning products that sit side by side in cupboards, the garage, the bathroom, the basement and the attic could be extremely harmful if they are mixed or use incorrectly, ASSE notes.

"Working safely with chemicals in the home is really no different than working with them in the workplace," ASSE member Pam Ferrante, CSP, CHMM, of Pittsburgh, said. "Sometimes the chemicals used are more hazardous and we use larger quantities [in the workplace], but the safety principles are the same. We urge everyone to be cautious."

For example: You've just about finished a bottle of cleaner but don't want to throw it out. So you set it aside. Months later, you go back and find that corrosion has begun to develop around the cap and you realize you should put it in the garbage.

But should you drain the contents? And if so, where?

This is just one of several questions people ask themselves when it comes to chemical safety in the home.

Guidelines to Increase Chemical Safety at Home

Here are a few guidelines ASSE suggests to increase safety at home:

  • Read the warning label. Much time has gone into developing it for good reason. Be sure to understand and follow what it says on how to use the product safely, how to protect yourself when using it and how to properly store it. The manufacturer's contact information always is on the label if more information is needed.
  • More is not better, just more dangerous. Use all chemicals sparingly in the home.
  • Don't take the hazardous chemical out of the original container and place it in something else, such as an old plastic milk jug or an empty liter soda bottle. Not only are these containers not likely to be capable of safely storing the substance, but it also may be hard to remember later what was put in there in the first place. And remember, a young child may not know the difference between a yellow-colored cleaning product in an old Mountain Dew plastic container and the real thing.
  • After using, immediately wash hands - or any other part of the body that may have come into direct contact with the substance - with warm soapy water.
  • Follow safety recommendations when using hazardous substances.
  • Properly ventilate the area by turning on the fan and opening the windows. If recommended, wear gloves, long sleeves and masks.
  • Don't leave chemical products unattended. If you must leave the room in the middle of a task, either put the product away or take it with you.
  • Keep all hazardous chemicals out of the reach of young children or locked up. Properly mark and store under lock and key all household and pool chemicals, paints and poisons. Keep these on a high shelf, out of children's reach.
  • Dispose of household and chemical products that are leaking, expired or look bad.
  • Know how to properly dispose of chemical products. If you don't know how to dispose of the products, contact your local waste management authority.
  • Post the poison control center number near every phone - in the United States it is (800) 222-1222.
  • Never store hazardous chemicals near food or food products. Keep hazardous chemicals away from items used to prepare and cook foods in, such as pans and silverware. Never contaminate pots, pans and cooking utensils with a hazardous substance.
  • Keeping a container of baking soda near the stove to put out grease-based fires does help, but it is advisable to purchase a small fire extinguisher for the kitchen. Many stores now carry a "K" type extinguisher designed for the kitchen. Be aware that unless a fire extinguisher company checks it, the useful life of the extinguisher is about 2 years. Prepare to replace it every other year or, even better, when changing the batteries in smoke detectors.
  • It is dangerous to combine two common household cleaners - chlorine bleach and ammonia. It forms a highly toxic gas, which has caused serious respiratory injury and even some deaths.

Characteristics of Potentially Harmful Substances Used in Homes

The potentially harmful substances used daily in homes usually have one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Corrosive - They eat or wear away at many materials;
  • Flammable - They easily ignite;
  • Reactive - They can cause an explosion or produce deadly vapors; and
  • Toxic - They are poisonous to humans and animals.

Some examples of hazardous wastes found around the home include antifreeze, batteries, brake fluid, chemical strippers, chlorine bleach, contact cement, drain cleaners, insecticides, lawn chemicals, nail polish remover, spot removers, toilet and oven cleaners and used motor oil.

"Most households, garages and storage sheds in America have liquids and solids that are considered poisons," said ASSE's Administrator of the Public Sector Practice Specialty Kim Arnold, of Columbus, Ohio. "An inordinate number of the standard household cleaning products that we use on a daily basis can be poisonous, so be cautious. Also, for some medicines, even one adult-strength pill can be deadly to a child."

Arnold suggests that people keep a bottle of syrup of ipecac in the home in case of emergency and to use it only when told to do so by the poison control center.

It also is recommended that before applying pesticides or other household chemicals, remove children and their toys, as well as pets, from the area. Keep children and pets away until the pesticide has dried or as long as is recommended on the label.

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