Guide to Household Chemical Allergens

Chemicals exist everywhere, so it's impossible to completely avoid them. However, you can easily reduce their numbers. Why the need to scrutinize the chemical cabinet? Chemicals can be irritants, and they can be dangerous to touch or inhale. And if anyone in your home has chemical allergies, removing chemicals is a necessity. Below are some products you may have in your home that contain chemicals and known irritants. Ask yourself, "Do I really want this chemical around my home? Do I really need it?"

Formaldehyde

Most of us remember formaldehyde as that hideous liquid surrounding soon-to-be-dissected animals in high-school lab experiments. Little do most of us know that formaldehyde is found not only in the lab, but also in dozens of household products. Formaldehyde is a poisonous, colorless, foul-smelling (in large quantities) gas. (To preserve dissected lab experiments, it is dissolved in water.) Formaldehyde has attracted recent attention as a potential cause of cancer. It becomes a problem for those with allergies because formaldehyde-containing products emit the gas, which can irritate the respiratory system and cause other highly unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, headache, diarrhea, nosebleed, fatigue, dizziness, and memory lapse. Higher exposures lead to more life-threatening symptoms.

Most households only contain minute amounts of formaldehyde, but the level depends on a variety of factors, including humidity, ventilation (how "tight" the home is), temperature, and the number of products releasing the gas. Products rich in formaldehyde include carpets and foam padding; particleboard, plywood, and other wood products used for shelving and furniture; paint preservatives; permanent-press and dry-cleaned fabrics; paints; mothballs; air fresheners; vinyl products; spray starch...and the list goes on.

Allergic people want formaldehyde emissions in the house just about as much as they want that pickled lab experiment for a table centerpiece. There are a few ways to reduce formaldehyde emission, although none is particularly easy or inexpensive. Try the following:

  • Don't use, or limit the use of, pressed wood products, such as particleboard and plywood. Invest in real, solid wood.
  • New carpets expose everyone to formaldehyde, which is used to set the dye, waterproof the fabric, and stiffen the backing. By some estimates, carpets "outgas," or give off the fumes of, the formaldehyde for years. Some carpet manufacturers have become more environmentally aware, producing carpets low in formaldehyde. It's worth looking for them. Otherwise, request that your carpet be aired out for a couple days before it's installed in your home.
  • Don't smoke! First- and secondhand smoke contain higher levels of formaldehyde than any other source Smoke also contains 4,000 other chemicals, many of which are carcinogens (cancer causing).
  • After returning from a clothing store, wash all permanent press clothes before putting them into the closet. Remove plastic bags from all dry-cleaned clothes and air them out outdoors, if possible.
  • Research alternative products.
  • Ventilate. Ventilate. Ventilate.
  • Keep ventilating. Over time, formaldehyde emissions decrease and, depending on the size of the product, should be at lower levels within weeks or months.

As you can see, everybody can benefit from the reduction of formaldehyde emissions but it's especially important for people who have allergies and tend to be hypersensitive.

Other Hazards

We've discussed the dangers of formaldehyde within the home, however the following are several other chemicals allergic people should steer clear of:

  • Spot removers, furniture polish, paint thinners, car polishes, and mothballs all contain petroleum distillates, which can be irritating and are suspected carcinogens.
  • Toilet bowl cleaners and soap scum removers all contain acids that just might make you cry -- or worse. The acids found in bathroom cleaners are corrosive to the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes.
  • Undiluted ammonia is a volatile chemical that can be hurtful (and potentially damaging) to the eyes, airways, and skin.
  • Bleach does the trick to make our clothes sparkling white, but it is a strong corrosive that can also irritate or burn the skin and eyes.
  • Artificial air fresheners can create a sour experience for your poor nose. Most air fresheners work by releasing a nerve-deadening agent or interfere with your ability to smell by coating nasal passages with an oily film. If that's not enough, some air fresheners contain formaldehyde and phenol. Touch phenol and your skin may swell, burn, crack, and peel, or you may break out in hives.
  • Carpet and upholstery shampoos use highly toxic chemicals to dig up and wipe out stains. Some cleaners contain perchlorethylene, a known carcinogen, and ammonium hydroxide, a corrosive agent that irritates eyes, skin, and airways.
  • Baked-on, caked-on stains in the oven are tough to remove. What's even tougher are the chemicals found in oven cleaners, in particular lye, which is caustic, burns eyes and skin, and causes severe tissue damage if swallowed.
  • You inspect the pocket of dirty clothes before throwing them into the wash, right? Why not inspect the detergent and softener that follow? Laundry products may contain sodium or calcium hypocrite (highly corrosive and will burn eyes, skin, and airways), linear alkylate sulfonate (a liver-damaging agent that is absorbed through the skin), and sodium tripolyphosphate (a chemical that irritates mucous membranes and is easily absorbed through the skin). How close to your skin do you want these ingredients?
  • In the current fight against bacteria, the supermarket shelves overflow with new antibacterial cleaners. Some can contain triclosan, which, when absorbed through the skin, might cause liver damage.
  • When considering zapping every insect with powerful pesticides, remember who else is down at ground level. Children, pets, and gardeners live close to the earth, too. Kids roll in the grass, pets recline on the walkway, and gardeners dig around in the dirt. All are easily susceptible to touching or inhaling pesticide residue. These innocents may be exposed to such evil ingredients as diazinon, which impairs the central nervous system, and organophosphates, a class of toxic substances that are easily transported into the lungs with every breath.
  • Flea powder contains chemicals that will cause more problems and more damage than any flea could ever inflict, most notably skin, respiratory, cardiovascular, liver, kidney, spleen, and central nervous system damage.

Allergy-proofing your home is the best nonmedical means to improve allergy symptoms. Whether its the bedroom, bathroom or garage, remembering to clean with environmentally friendly products and being careful not to introduce unnecessary chemicals into the house will go a long way toward improving life for allergy sufferers. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

©Publications International, Ltd.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.