Reducing Hazardous Products In The Home

Prepared by:
Wilma Hammett
Extension Housing Specialist
North Carolina State University

Published by: North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service

Publication Number: HE 368-2

Last Electronic Revision: March 1996 (JWM) with minoir edits for Web site by Ronald Lee Still on 6/2/97.

There are thousands of households products sold each year that contain toxic ingredients. Drain cleaners, oven cleaners, pesticides and furniture polish are a few examples. Improperly used, these products can endanger our health and the air quality in our homes. Improperly disposed of, they can pollute our drinking water.

What can you do to reduce the amount of hazardous products in your home?

1. Use multi-purpose cleaners.

Contrary to what advertisers would have you believe, you do not need a different product to clean each surface in your home. There are many products that will clean a variety of different surfaces.

Selecting and using multi-purpose cleaners can reduce the number of cleaners you use, reduce the number of hazardous products in your home and save you money, too! Read and follow label directions carefully.

2. Buy the least harmful product available.

Do you know the difference between a product that is labeled "poison" and one that is labeled "danger"? These signal words are regulated by the federal government. Any product that contains hazardous substances must be labeled as such. The front label must include a warning and a description of the hazard.

POISON. . . highly toxic or poisonous

DANGER. . . extremely flammable, corrosive or highly toxic

WARNING or CAUTION. . . moderately or slightly toxic

The product must include a statement telling you how to avoid the hazard and how to use the product safely.

To reduce the dangers in your home, buy cleaners labeled "warning" or "caution" and pesticides with "caution" on the label. These products are less harmful.

When reading labels, do not be fooled by the words "non-toxic." This is an advertising term. It is not defined by the federal government, so it can be used on toxic products.

It is very important that you know as much as possible about products before you use them, so that you can protect yourself and your family. If a product label doesn't give a list of ingredients or adequate instructions for its safe use, choose another product.

Pesticides Are Different

Regulations concerning pesticides are different. On pesticides, the word "warning " means that the product is moderately toxic. This means that one teaspoon to one ounce can kill an average adult.

The word "caution" means that the product is slightly toxic. It would take over one ounce to kill an average person.

3. Use preventative measures.

There's an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That's true for cleaning and polishing. If soil is allowed to accumulate, the task of removing it becomes more difficult. Thus, wiping spills when they occur can prevent stains and eliminate the need for tough specialty cleaners, which often are more toxic and more harmful to surfaces.

(For example, harsh abrasives gradually scratch the shiny finishes of sinks, bathtubs and appliances. Chlorine bleach can dull the shiny finishes on sinks, bathtubs and other porcelain enamel surfaces. Once the surface becomes dull and rough, it will get dirty faster and stain deeper. Then it becomes almost impossible to keep clean.)

Wipe away grease and spills in the oven after each use, or put a liner on the oven bottom to catch spills and you can reduce the need for an oven cleaner.

Cover sink and shower drains with a screen to keep out food scraps and hair. Don't pour grease down the drain. Collect it in an empty can and put it in the trash. These steps will reduce your need for a drain cleaner.

Open windows to air out the house occasionally to avoid the use of chemical air fresheners.

4. Use alternative or less toxic homemade products.

One way to get a safer product is to make it yourself. Homemade products have definite advantages, but they also have disadvantages. Be sure to consider the following:

What do you gain by making your own products?

What are the problems related to homemade products?

If you decide to make your own cleaners, you must use and store them safely. While the ingredients in homemade cleaners are safer, they are not all non-toxic. Keep these guidelines in mind:

  1. Be careful what chemicals you mix. Some chemicals, such as chlorine bleach and ammonia, produce a very toxic gas if they are mixed together.

  2. Do not mix more than a month's supply at a time. The chemicals may lose their effectiveness.

  3. Mix solutions in a well-ventilated area.

  4. Store all cleaning solutions out of reach of children.

  5. Store solutions in unused, store-bought containers. Use permanent storage containers that are kept in a permanent location. Never put them in old food containers. They may interact with residue from the original contents or they may be mistaken for food or beverage.

  6. Label containers carefully. This is especially important if other people in your home clean or have access to the cleaners.

Managing Hazardous Cleaners

It may be impossible for you to eliminate hazardous cleaning products in your home, but you can still reduce the risks to your family and your environment by making wise buying decisions and by handling products properly.

When Buying:

Recipes for a Healthy Home

All-Purpose Cleaner I

4 tablespoons baking soda
1 quart warm water

Dissolve baking soda in warm water. Apply with a sponge. Rinse with clear water.

All-Purpose Cleaner II

Apply baking soda to a damp sponge. Rinse with clear water.

All-Purpose Cleaner III

1 tablespoon ammonia*
1 tablespoon liquid detergent
1 pint water (2 cups)

Mix ingredients and put in spray bottle. Spray on surface. Wipe. Rinse with clear water.
*Ammonia is a toxic ingredient. Handle it with care and store it safely.

Drain Cleaner*

1/2 cup baking soda
1/2 cup white vinegar
Boiling water

Pour baking soda down the drain. Add white vinegar and cover the Mix together until well blended. drain, if possible. Let set for 5 minutes. Then pour a kettle of boiling the furniture. water down the drain. (the vinegar and baking soda break down fatty acids into soap and glycerine, allowing the clog to wash down the drain.)
*Do not use this method if you have used a commercial drain opener and it may still be present in the drain.

Drain Opener*

Use a plunger (plumber's helper). It may take a number of plunges to unclog the drain.
*Do not use this method if you have used a commercial drain opener and it may still be present in the drain.

Drain Cleaner and Opener

Use a flexible metal snake. The mechanical snake may be purchased or rented. Thread it down the clogged drain, and you will be able to push the clog away.

Furniture Cleaner and Polish I

3 cups olive oil
1 cup vinegar

Mix together until well blended. Use a clean, soft cloth to apply to furniture.

Furniture Cleaner and Polish II

Wet a washcloth. Wring out as much water as possible. Wipe furniture surface with damp washcloth. Dry immediately with a clean, soft, dry cloth. (You can remove sticky fingerprints and dust safely from wood surfaces, but furniture with an oil finish needs an oil-based cleaner.)

Lime and Mineral Deposit Remover

Soak paper towels in vinegar. Apply the paper towels to the lime deposits around the faucet. Leave them on for approximately one hour. The deposits will be softened and can be removed easily.

Aluminum Cleaner

2 tablespoons cream of tartar
1 quart water

To clean aluminum cookware, combine ingredients in cookware. Bring solution to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Wash and dry as usual.

Brass Cleaner I

Lemon juice
Baking soda

Make a paste about the consistency of toothpaste. Rub onto brass with a soft cloth. Rinse with water and dry. Recipes for a Healthy Home

Brass Cleaner II

Lemon juice
Cream of tartar

Make a paste about the consistency of toothpaste. Apply to surface, leave on for 5 minutes. Wash with warm water. Dry with a soft cloth.

Chrome and Stainless Steel Cleaner

Dip soft cloth in undiluted white vinegar. Wipe surface.

Oven Cleaner I

Baking soda
Very fine steel wool
Sprinkle water on oven surface. Apply baking soda. Rub using very fine steel wool. Wipe off scum with a damp sponge. Rinse well and dry.

Oven Cleaner II

While oven is still warm, sprinkle water on the spill, then sprinkle salt on it. When the oven cools down, scrape the spill away and wash the area clean.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner I

Lemon juice
Mix lemon juice and borax to make a paste about the consistency of toothpaste. Flush toilet to wet sides. Rub paste on the toilet bowl ring. Let sit for 2 hours and then scrub thoroughly.
*Borax is a toxic ingredient. Handle it with care and store it safely.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner II

Baking soda

Sprinkle baking soda into the toilet bowl. Add vinegar. Scour with a toilet brush.

Toilet Bowl Cleaner III

Pour 1/2 cup liquid chlorine bleach* into toilet bowl. Let stand for 30 to 45 minutes. Scrub with a brush.
*Do not mix bleach with vinegar, toilet bowl cleaner or ammonia. Chlorine bleach is a toxic ingredient. Handle it with care and store it safely.


There are several ways you can reduce the amount of hazardous products in your home and protect your air and water.

Reducing the number of hazardous products you buy reduces the sources of household hazardous waste later. Wise buying decisions and good management practices can reduce the hazards in the home, in the air we breathe and in the water we drink.


Homrich, Alicia M. Keep It Clean, Keep It Safe: Less Toxic Cleaning Products for Your Home. Leader Training Materials, Orlando, Fla.

Hammer, Marie. Hazardous Household Substances: A Primer for Extension Professionals. Gainsville, Fla.: Florida State University.

Hammer, Marie. Common Household Products/More Than One Use. Gainsville, Fla.: Florida State University.

The World Is Full of Toxic Waste. Your Home Shouldn't Be. San Diego, Calif.: Environment Health Coalition.

Guide to Hazardous Products Around the Home. Springfield, Mo.: Household Hazardous Waste Project.

Consumer Tips. Household Hazardous Waste Fact Sheet #1, Springfield, Mo.: Household Hazardous Waste Project.

How to Reduce, Recycle and Safely Dispose of Household Hazardous Wastes. Seattle, Wash.

Household Waste: Issues and Opportunities. Washington, D.C.: Concern Inc.

Know Your Chemicals: Alternatives and Precautions. Vermont Agency of Environmental Conservation.

Hazardous Household Products: A Guide to Safer Use and Disposal. Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. Employment and program opportunities are offered to all people regardless of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. North Carolina State University, North Carolina A&T State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.

HE 368-2