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Goodbye Winter Grime, Hello Safe Spring Cleaning!

The Bottom Line

A clean home provides a healthy environment for your family, but household cleaning products can contain hazardous chemicals. Acid, alkali, bleach, polish, detergent? It’s important to be aware of the most common cleaner ingredients, what they are intended (and not intended) to do, and how to use them safely. 

The Full Story

Spring cleaning can be more of a safety challenge than everyday cleaning. It could involve rearranging things in the home and leaving multiple cleaning products out longer than usual. It’s wise to anticipate that it will be tiring and disruptive and to plan for safety in advance. Leaving cleaners containing strong chemicals within reach can lead to poisoned children who not only get these products on their skin, but swallow, inhale, or get them in their eyes, resulting in serious toxicity or injury.

Familiarize yourself with these major categories of household cleaners along with their dangers if handled by children or improperly used by adults:

Acids

Acids used in cleaners can be very mild to very strong. Acid-containing household cleaning products include toilet bowl cleaners, tub and tile cleaners, tarnish removers, and metal cleaners. Always read labels carefully when choosing acid-based products for cleaning!

Mild acid cleaners include those with acetic acid (such as in vinegar) or citric acid (found in lemons and other citrus fruits). Cleaners made with these mild ingredients are generally safe for use around children and pets. They are used to dissolve hard water spots on glassware and other surfaces, eliminate soap scum from sinks, bathtubs, and shower doors and to remove mild rust stains. Phosphoric acid is stronger than acetic or citric acid and is in many bathroom tub, tile, and toilet bowl cleaners. Some other mild acids found in household cleaners are gluconic acid, glycolic acid and levulinic acid. These mild acid cleaners are of low toxicity to humans aside from irritant effects to the skin and eyes.

Strongly acidic cleaners can be very dangerous. They are likely to be corrosive, meaning they can "gnaw" away at metal - or human tissue. These include toilet bowl cleaners, rust removers, concrete cleaners and others with hydrochloric acid, oxalic acid, sodium acid sulfate, or sulfuric acid. All of these are poisonous and can injure skin with direct contact, or eyes and lungs if in direct contact or by strong fumes.

Always follow label directions to avoid injury. Never mix household cleaning products! For example, mixing an acid toilet bowl cleaner with bleach will result in formation of very irritating chlorine fumes that might cause serious breathing problems. Make sure to ventilate the area in which you are working thoroughly by opening a door or window and using an exhaust fan.

Alkalis
Alkalis include sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sodium carbonate (also called washing soda or soda ash), and trisodium phosphate (TSP). These are produced as drain cleaners, oven cleaners, scouring powders, and all-purpose cleaners.

Mild alkalis like sodium bicarbonate are not caustic and are generally safe to use around children and pets.

Moderate alkalis include ammonia and sodium borate (borax). Ammonia is added to many household cleaners for its grease-cutting ability. Ammonia should never be mixed with chlorine or bleach products! This can release a highly irritating gas, chloramine. In fact, never mix any cleaning chemicals since it might lead to a chemical reaction and release poisonous fumes.

Strong alkalis are in products such as oven cleaners, lye (caustic soda or sodium hydroxide), and drain cleaners. They are very caustic and can cause chemical burns on the skin and in the lungs if strong fumes are inhaled. Lye gives off toxic fumes and can cause skin burns and severe eye injuries including blindness if the liquid or fumes come in close contact with the eyes.Trisodium phosphate (TSP) isn’t commonly found in cleaners now since most phosphates have been phased out due to environmental impact concerns. However it can still be found in cleaning products sold primarily through home improvement stores.

Bleaches
Bleaching agents are used as disinfectants, stain removers, and for control of mold and mildew. To be labelled as a disinfectant, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards require that the product must destroy 99.9% of disease-causing organisms within 5 to 10 minutes.

Some bleaching products might not list the word "bleach" on the label, so it’s important to recognize other names for chemical bleaching agents. These include sodium hypochlorite, calcium hypochlorite, hydrogen peroxide, and sodium carbonate peroxide.

Chlorine (as hypochlorite) bleach is a widely available, affordable, and effective disinfectant agent. Chlorine bleach can be irritating to the skin and eyes. The fumes are also irritating to the lungs if inhaled. Plain sodium hypochlorite household bleach is likely to cause limited vomiting if unintentionally swallowed in small amounts. However, some sodium hypochlorite bleach products now have added sodium hydroxide that can make swallowing, skin, or eye exposure more dangerous by causing chemical burns. Bleaches with sodium hydroxide often have the word "ultra" on the product label.

Polishes and Waxes
Furniture polishes and waxes often contain chemicals called hydrocarbons, such as mineral oil, as solvents. When swallowed, coughing and vomiting can follow, resulting in the oily substance getting into the lungs, which is called aspiration. Aspiration can lead to lung inflammation and severe breathing problems.

Many polishes and waxes are packaged in pressurized aerosol cans that must be protected from extreme heat to prevent explosion.

Detergents
Detergents break up and remove grease and dirt. The most significant ingredients in detergents are "surfactants," a short version of "surface active agents." Chemicals called "builders” are sometimes added to increase the efficiency of detergents. When a builder is added, the product is labelled as heavy-duty or all-purpose.

Liquid and granular regular laundry detergents can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea if swallowed but generally don't cause serious poisoning. However, serious poisoning can occur in children after unintentionally swallowing concentrated liquid laundry detergent packaged as small, single-use units ("pods"). Severe vomiting, drowsiness, aspiration, and respiratory distress requiring breathing tubes can develop after swallowing or biting into these packets.

Liquid hand dishwashing detergents are safe to use around children and pets.

If your child swallows or drinks a cleaner or detergent, use the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for guidance or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222 right away. 

Mary Elizabeth May, RN, BA, MPH

Certified Specialist in Poison Information

For More Information

Caution with Caustics (The Poison Post®)

Non-toxic or minimally toxic home cleaners you can make yourself. (Make sure to follow the same safe use guidelines as with any cleaner!) (University of Utah)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ChemView (Use this database to get information on chemical health and safety data received by EPA and EPA's assessments and regulatory actions for specific chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act [TSCA]) 


References

American Association of Poison Control Centers. (2012). News Release: AAPCC and poison centers issue warning about concentrated packets of laundry detergent. Alexandria, VA. 

New Mexico State University Department of Extension Family and Consumer Sciences. (2012). Selection and use of home cleaning products, Guide G-304. . Las Cruces, NM: Koukel.

Stöppler MC, Shiel Jr., WC. (2014). 10 spring cleaning tips for a healthier home. 

U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Office of Information and Public Affairs. (2011). Lock up poisons. (CPSC Publication No. 382). Bethesda, MD. 

Valdez AL, Casavant MJ, Spiller HA, Chounthirath T, Xiang H, Smith GA. Pediatric exposure to laundry detergent pods. Pediatrics. 2014;134(6):1127-35.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Always read the directions for use on cleaning product labels to avoid poisoning or injury.
  • Never mix household cleaning products. Doing so can result in poisonous fumes and serious breathing problems.
  • Ventilate your work area well, especially small spaces such as bathrooms, by opening a window or door and running an exhaust fan.
  • Keep strong acids and alkalis directed away from your eyes and skin.
  • Wear rubber gloves, safety goggles, and protective clothing when using very strong cleaners.
  • Do not leave aerosol (pressurized spray) containers on a stove, radiator or furnace, in direct sunlight, or near other heat sources due to toxic fume and fire hazards.
  • Store cleaning products in cabinets with child-resistant latches. One of the most dangerous places to store cleaners is in an unlocked, low, kitchen or bathroom cabinet.
  • If possible, keep children and pets out of areas where household cleaners are being used. 

This Really Happened

Case 1: A 20-year-old woman suffered burns to her face, chest, and eyes after someone left an aerosol can of oven cleaner on a hot stove. The can exploded and the contents sprayed all over her. She was taken to an emergency room and the emergency physician contacted Poison Control for guidance. The patient's eyes and skin were thoroughly irrigated. An ophthalmologist determined that there was no permanent eye injury. She was treated with an antibiotic burn cream and her burns healed over time.

Case 2: An 18-month-old girl swallowed some liquid furniture polish and immediately vomited and started coughing. Her mother called 911 and the dispatcher connected her to Poison Control. The child’s constant wet cough could be heard over the phone. The child was referred to the emergency room due to probable aspiration of the oil into her lungs. About 6 hours after the incident, the child developed a fever and a chest x-ray showed changes likely due to lung inflamation. The child was admitted to the hospital to monitor her breathing. Twenty-four hours after the child swallowed the furniture polish, her chest x-ray was unchanged, but her symptoms had resolved. She was allowed to go home with close observation by her family. Poison Control checked on the child the following day and she was doing well.

Case 3: A 2-year-old boy was splashed in the face with a lye drain cleaner when someone poured it into a sink full of water. His father called 911 and the child was immediately taken to an emergency room by ambulance with serious burns to his face and inner eyelid. His eyes and skin were copiously irrigated in the hospital. He was examined by an ophthalmologist and a plastic surgeon. Fortunately, the drain cleaner only affected a small area of his eyelid with no injury to the eye itself. He was treated with antibiotics and followed by the plastic surgeon. Poison Control checked back on the child regularly and 5 weeks after the exposure his mother reported that his skin had healed very well, his eye was fine, and no surgery was going to be necessary.