Improperly stored or used chemicals can have fatal consequences

With spring comes cleaning — the house, the yard, the basement and the car.

And with cleaning comes potential hazards. People use them every day, but if common cleaners and pesticides are stored or applied incorrectly, they can have fatal consequences, say experts in environmental safety and emergency medicine at Washington University in St. Louis.

Safety labels are affixed to dangerous chemicals for a reason, but all too often people ignore those warnings.

Bottles without original labels pose risk.
To avoid injury from a cleaner or pesticide, “don’t store a product in anything besides its original container, particularly an old soda bottle or other beverage container,” warns Michael E. Mullins, M.D., assistant professor of emergency medicine at WUSTL’s School of Medicine and an emergency room physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

“It’s a ‘point-and-spray’ attitude,” says WUSTL Environmental Compliance Officer Linda Vishino. “People have a tendency to think they know what to do from previous experience and do not want to take the time reading directions.

“In some cases, warning labels may be too technical and not easy to read, thereby frustrating the consumer.”

Households with children or animals are especially at risk, so it is very important to use and store chemicals securely.

“Recently applied herbicides and pesticides can be dangerous to people or animals of every age,” Vishino says. “Cleaners left in unsecured areas where animals or children can get to them are also very dangerous. Ingestion or absorption of certain items could be very harmful.”

These items include bleach, which presents a danger of inhaling chlorine or mixing with other cleaning products; herbicides and pesticides absorbed through the skin (overuse of herbicides is especially common, she said); and toilet-bowl cleaners.

Other common cleaners that are hazardous to humans are rust removers and chrome polishers.

“These products contain hydrofluoric acid or its derivatives,” says Michael E. Mullins, M.D., an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Washington University’s School of Medicine and an emergency room physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “They are most toxic when ingested, but when they penetrate skin, they cause a chemical burn.

Mullins cited the death of a child from ingesting wheel cleaner that was poured into a drinking cup.

Read labels, ventilate

Vishino said that when choosing a cleaner, pick one that is detergent-based rather than solvent-based. Detergent-based cleaners are biodegradable and are less harmful to the ecosystem.

Bathrooms present a unique set of challenges for several reasons, says Vishino. First, they are often the smallest rooms in the house, allowing for less air circulation. Second, many are in interior rooms of the house and don’t have windows to the outside. And third, contrary to popular belief, not all bathroom fans are ventilated to the outside.

“A lot of times if you turn on the fan, you are just circulating the air and it’s not being vented to the outside,” Vishino says. “If you don’t have outside ventilation, or don’t have a window, sometimes the best thing to do may be to wait until spring and open all the windows of your house.”

Douglas W. Carlson, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at WUSTL’s School of Medicine and director of the Center for After-Hours Referral Emergency Services at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, warns against automobile windshield fluid commonly sold in clear bottles containing blue liquid, which can look to a child like a fruit drink.

“The fluid, which is methanol, is very appealing to children and highly lethal in small amounts, causing neurological injury that can lead to death,” says Carlson, who is also director of emergency services at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and co-director of hospitalists in the Department of Pediatrics at the School of Medicine.

For those who choose to continue using cleaners and pesticides without following the warning labels, the consequences can be dire indeed, Vishino says.

“A homeowner with a clover problem in a very small front yard over-applied some old herbicide she obtained from a friend,” Vishino recounts. “It destroyed the yard and made the owner very ill. The owner had to remove several inches of soil and sod the yard.

“And one homeowner tried to ‘make room’ under her sink by mixing ‘like cleaners.’ This created a highly caustic mix, which ate through the metal container she had stored it in. It also ate through the bottom of the under sink cabinet and through the baseboard of the house.”

When it boils right down to it, though, the key to avoiding injury — short- or long-term — is simple.

“Use common sense — read the directions, don’t mix things and store cleaners where kids can’t get a hold of them,” Mullins says. “Most importantly, don’t store a product in anything besides its original container, particularly an old soda bottle or other beverage container.”

Mullins said most problems are caused by failure to read the directions on the cleaner’s container or using the cleaner in a poorly ventilated area. He says if you must use household cleaners in a confined area, wear a mask or goggles if the product is a spray.

Vishino agrees, saying, “The two biggest things to remember are to read and understand the label, and to use proper ventilation. A lot of cleaners and chemicals may look the same, but react differently. If you don’t understand the label, then find another product you understand, or ask for help.”

Playing with Fire

Injuries can be both common and potentially devastating.

“The most common injury from household cleaners that we see in the Emergency Department is caused by contact with drain cleaners,” Carlson says. “While they’ve been reformulated and are not as caustic as they used to be, drain cleaners still cause significant burns to the skin and to the esophagus if swallowed.”

Drain cleaners cause a dilemma for homeowners. If the drains get too clogged, the end result may be a costly repair of the entire sewer system. Often, the last resort before calling in a plumber is to use a product called Liquid Fire, which is basically a fuming nitric acid. Vishino says it can be particularly harmful, even in small doses.

“Many times even the pipes you are trying to clean won’t stand up to even two or three ounces of Liquid Fire,” she says. “And even with that small amount, the fumes are overpowering. There may not be enough windows and ventilation in a house for that.”

However, not all products on the shelves are as potentially dangerous. Using orange-oil type cleaners instead of regular degreasers; vinegar and water in place of glass cleaner; Simple Green as an all-purpose cleaner; and conservative amounts of baking soda and vinegar instead of drain cleaners are all ways of reducing the risk of harmful, or even fatal, results, Vishino says.

She recommends using the following alternate methods or cleaners to commercial cleaners. In several cases the alternatives will be cheaper, they are generally safer to store and because they are natural substances, they won’t harm the ecosystem.

Aphid (or plant lice) killer: Spray thoroughly with water, repeat three times weekly

Aerosol spray: Use non-aerosol, pump-type sprays

Ant control: Mix borax, sugar and water on a cotton ball

Bathroom cleaner: Mix baking soda and castile soap

Bug spray: Place screens on windows and doors

Chemical fertilizers: Use compost or coffee grounds, bone meal and wood ashes

Copper cleaner: Scrub with vinegar and salt; rinse well

Air fresheners: Simmer cinnamon leaves and cloves

Drain openers: Use baking soda and vinegar, followed by boiling water. Or, use a plumber’s snake

Flea repellent: Use a flea comb, bathe pet weekly, feed pets Brewer’s yeast, vitamin B or garlic cloves

Floor cleaner: Vinegar and water

Furniture polish: For unvarnished surfaces, mix lemon juice and vegetable oil

Glass cleaner: Vinegar and water

Laundry detergent: Use washing soda or a non-phosphate concentrate

Oven cleaners: Washing soda

Rat and mouse poison: Use snap or live traps

Rug and upholstery cleaners: Club soda

Scouring powders: Baking soda or borax; rinse thoroughly

Slug/snail bait: Pan with beer, or a slug hotel

Toilet-bowl cleaner: Baking soda and castile soap

Weed killer: Pull by hand