From a scientific point of view, a toxin is a very specific type of poison, one which is produced via living cells. For instance, a poison produced by a spider would be considered a toxin. A manmade poison, on the other hand, would not be considered a toxin.
In the modern world, most people think of toxins in a more general sense, simply as substances which are poisonous to humans and/or animals. They refer to poisons which are produced by living cells as bio toxins or natural toxins.
For the purposes of this post, we’re going to take the more general view of toxins, and think of them as substances which poisonous to humans and/or animals.
Toxins can be found in even the most innocuous of places, such as common household items including different kinds of cleaning products, scented products, and garden items.
The difference between toxins and chemicals
Chemicals are simply substances that are made up of “stuff”, and are clearly unique, distinct, and pure compared to other substances. For instance, table salt, sodium chloride, is a chemical; wood, as in the material used to make a table or chair, is not. Many everyday substances are chemicals, or comprised of chemicals, such as:
- dishwashing liquid
- laundry detergents
- essential oils
- body washes and shampoos.
Toxins are specifically chemicals which can be harmful when used incorrectly or in high amounts, such as bleach, fertilisers, and essential oils.
What does toxicity mean?
One of the key points to remember when thinking about toxins and toxicity is that how a substance is used, and how much of the substance is used, matter. Some things are always poisonous, such as the plant aconite, more commonly known as monkshood. Despite its beautiful blooms, this should always be planted with care in a garden. On the other hand, many substances, such as nail polish remover (acetone), can be used safely, and are only considered toxic when encountered in very high amounts.
Toxicity refers to how poisonous a substance is. So something with very low toxicity is only toxic when there’s a lot of it; something with high toxicity is toxic even in very small amounts.
Toxicity in the home
There are many ways toxins can creep into the home. Some are more obvious than others – e.g. cleaning products. The method of exposure for toxins is one of the key factors to be aware of – if you know the toxin, the potential for exposure, the way the toxin is most likely to be released (e.g., via heat), and the amount at which a substance is considered toxic, it’s much easier to mitigate the risk.
Toxins in physical features of the home
Physical features of the home include things like:
- flooring – carpets and tile
- shower curtains and regular curtains
- building materials, e.g., wood, brick, cement rendering etc.
- painted surfaces
For flooring, fabric curtains, and furniture, the most common toxins are found in flame retardants. There are different kinds of flame retardants and there is research into the toxicity of the different kinds. In general, however, if possible it’s best to avoid flame retardants which fall into the category of polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs – these are sometimes referred to as brominated flame retardants.
For shower curtains, it’s important to watch out for the coating on plastic and plastic coated curtains – this can contain BPA.
Building materials can vary; the most common issues are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and lead. In the case of VOCs, it’s best to talk to builders and contractors if you’re having work done. For older homes, it’s a good idea to have lead testing done, especially if the paint is older, and particularly if there are children in the home. If there’s lead in the home, it’s also a good idea to have the surrounding soil tested in case of leaching – if lead has leached into the soil, it’s vital that no edible foodstuffs are grown in the ground and later consumed.
Appliances and their use are also an important consideration. Gas ovens and stoves can release toxic fumes if not properly ventilated, which can make the air inside the house worse than outdoor smoggy skies. When using gas, ensure exhaust fans are on and windows are open.
Toxins in cleaning products
There are toxic components in many common household cleaners. Ammonia and chlorine-based cleaners are common, but these can also be detrimental to health if used improperly over a long period of time. It’s important to use them only in well-ventilated areas and properly diluted. Generally, their use should also be limited – for instance, no one should be exposed to ammonia every day if it can be avoided. Pay attention to any reactions from cleaners – headaches, dizziness, rash from skin contact, and more. Use gloves for protection when using strong cleaners.
Alternatives include vinegar-based cleaners, which can be made at home, or cleaners using lactic acid or citric acid, both of which can be purchased.
Tetrachloroethylene can enter the home on clothes that come fresh form the dry cleaners. Benzene can enter the home on clothes form self-serve petrol stations. Oven fumes, nail polish, paint thinner, and especially cigarette smoke can all release fumes which are toxic – consider the smell, and if you’ve ever had a headache or dizzy spell when exposed to these scents. You can mitigate this risk by opening windows and using fans or air filters to increase ventilation.
Another useful method for helping clear the air in the home is to introduce indoor plants. They freshen the air, and research suggests that they can be a valuable tool in removing some airborne toxins. For more dedicated air filtering, however, a good HEPA filter is invaluable; this will help clear pollens, dust, mites, allergens and other potentially harmful contaminants from the air.
Alternatively, ozone generators have been used by many people to reduce the chemical out gassing of new cars and other such products. These generators destroy odours caused by chemicals, tobacco, animals and fires, aerosols; they kill fungus, moulds, spores and mildew, and detoxify buildings. Unfortunately, it is toxic to humans and animals, is unstable, ages fabrics, plastics and rubber, and is believed by some to affect the ozone layer.
Many of the worst household toxins are related to fragrance. These include the more obvious issues, like smoking, but also many seemingly innocuous things such as air fresheners, including the electric type, essential oil use, and scented products including perfumes and lotions.
Electric air fresheners and essential oil diffusers both release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. These can be harmful in higher amounts, particularly the electric air fresheners. It’s important to be careful with amounts for essential oil use and keep the area well-ventilated; for people with allergies and pets these can be especially harmful.
Phthalates are a group of man-made chemicals that are present in many scented products, including cleaning products, grooming products for people and animals (e.g. shampoos) and perfumes and lotions. When a product simply lists “fragrance” as opposed to specific compounds, there’s a high chance the product contains phthalates. Phthalates can also be listed as BBP, DBP, and/or DEP.
Phthalates are still under investigation, but they’re associated with problems in reproductive health, development and possibly endocrine disruption. To help avoid them, look for products labelled “fragrance free”. In the case of scented body products and perfumes, look for products that say “phthalate free” or list “natural fragrances” and/or include the fragrance ingredients clearly, e.g., 100 % perfume oil etc. Note that some countries have regulations around statements used in the use and declaration of phthalates.
Be careful of indoor pests and ways they are treated, e.g, dealing with cockroaches, ants etc. Pesticides are full of toxins which are also dangerous for humans. Some pest treatments which have often been considered safe, such as borax, are also quite toxic.
Natural pest controls include remedies such as chilli, garlic, salt sprays, citrus, and certain herbs (e.g. mint) and other plants (e.g. marigolds) depending on the type of pest. Neem oil can also be used, particularly on plants requiring pest control, both indoors and outdoors.
Hairsprays are another potential issue, as they may contain methylene chloride which has been found to be carcinogenic to animals and is suspected to be dangerous to humans; the fact that hairspray is an aerosol makes this more problematic. Check the ingredients and look for hairsprays without methylene chloride.
Talcum powder has been used by many women to help reduce moisture and odour, particularly in warmer weather. Research shows, however, that it has a strong link to the development of ovarian cancer if used around intimate areas. It’s best to try and avoid powders in general, but if something must be used, finely milled cornstarch with no additives is a potential option.
There are a variety of lotions and moisturisers on the market which use petroleum products. Avoid these: paraffin, propylene glycol, isopropyl myristate, TEA and DEA whenever possible. Sodium lauryl sulphate, or SLS, is also used to create lather in many shampoos and body washes. It’s not a toxin to humans but can be a skin irritant, so should be used with care by people with sensitive skin; it is also potentially an environmental toxin, which means it should also be used with care to protect the environment.
There are potential toxins in a variety of places around the home, but with a little care and planning, risk can be significantly minimised.
Have peace of mind, knowing what chemicals are safe for your home, study Healthy Buildings, or try the course counselling system.