Hesperian Health Guides

Toxics in the Home

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 17: A Healthy Home > Toxics in the Home

Building materials, paint, furniture, cleaning products, and other things used at home may contain harmful chemicals. Asbestos and lead paint have been banned in some countries, but other toxics are still common.

Lead poisoning

Lead is a toxic metal found in common products such as paint, water pipes, some glazed ceramic pots, dishes, and floor tiles, tin cans, gasoline (petrol), and engine exhaust. A single high dose of lead can cause severe health problems. But it is more common for lead poisoning to build up slowly from repeated exposure to small amounts of lead. There may not be any obvious signs of lead poisoning, but over time it causes serious health problems.

Lead poisoning is more harmful to children than adults because it affects children’s developing nerves and brains. The younger the child, the more harmful lead can be. Over time, even low levels of lead exposure can harm a child’s mental development. (See more about how toxics affect children.)

Ways people are exposed to lead

A woman washing her hands at a sink.
Some glazed pottery
An urban garden.
Lead pipes Some glazed pottery Contaminated soil
A child picking paint off a windowsill.
A car with smoky exhaust pipes.
Children playing ball by a factory.
Lead paint Car fumes Industrial pollution

Like other toxics, lead gets into the body through eating or drinking, or being absorbed through the skin. Lead can damage the kidneys and blood, nerves, and digestive system. Very high levels of lead in the blood may cause vomiting, staggering, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma. Health problems get worse as the level of lead in the blood gets higher.


If you think someone has lead poisoning, test her blood at a health center or clinic. By the time a person has signs of lead poisoning, there is already a lot of lead in the person’s blood. This is why it is important to prevent lead poisoning before it starts. Signs of lead poisoning include:

  • being angry all the time.
  • low appetite and low energy.
  • difficulty sleeping.
  • headaches.
  • when young children lose skills that they had before.
  • anemia (weak blood).
  • constipation (difficulty passing stool).
  • pain and cramping in the belly (this is usually the first sign of a high, toxic dose of lead poison).

Preventing exposure to lead is the best treatment:

  • Find out if local health authorities test water for lead. If your water is high in lead, find a different water source for drinking and cooking.
A woman shakes water from her hands.
  • Let tap water run for a minute before drinking or cooking with it.
  • Do not use pottery with lead glazes for eating or cooking.
  • Avoid foods from cans that may be sealed with lead.
  • Throw out old painted toys if you do not know if the paint contains lead.
  • Do not store liquids in lead crystal containers, as lead can leach into the liquid.
  • Avoid growing food, building houses or digging wells on or in soil that may contain lead. If you find batteries, paint flakes, oil drums, and other industrial waste either on or buried in the soil, it is a sign that the soil may be contaminated.
  • Wash hands before eating, especially if you have been working or if children have been playing outside.
Prevent poisoning from lead paint
A man washes down a door in a room where a woman cares for 2 children and prepares a meal.
Cleaning surfaces often with a wet cloth will help reduce exposure to dust and flakes from lead paint.

When paint becomes old or is poorly applied, it breaks down and often peels or flakes off of walls, railings, and furniture. These flakes can be easily breathed in or swallowed by small children. If the paint has lead in it, this is very harmful. The best way to prevent lead poisoning from old paint is to remove it from surfaces and repaint with paint that does not contain lead.

When removing old paint:

  • Always wear gloves, masks, and safety glasses.
  • Keep children away from work areas or from playing in areas that may be contaminated.
  • To keep paint dust out of the air, wet surfaces with water as you sand and scrape.
  • Clean up all paint dust carefully after each work session. Use damp mops and rags, not a broom.
  • Collect paint flakes and dust in a tin can or other strong container, seal in plastic bags, and bury in a safe burial pit.
Prevent poisoning from lead water pipes

Some signs that your water may be contaminated with lead are rust-colored water and stained dishes and laundry. Water from lead pipes should never be used to prepare infant formula, and if possible lead pipes should be replaced with pipes made of iron, copper, or plastic.

Because lead from pipes dissolves in hot water more easily than it does in cold water, it is better not to use hot water from lead pipes for cooking or drinking. Let the water run until it is as cold as possible before using it. Some water filters will filter out lead (see Other Water and Sanitation Resources).

IMPORTANT! Boiling water does not get rid of lead, it makes it worse!
To prevent lead poisoning from outside air pollution

To trap some dust from outside that may contain lead, put damp rags under doors and in windows. To reduce lead poisoning in the air, governments and industry must work together to reduce the use of lead in industrial products and restrict how much air pollution industries are allowed to create.


A man coughs as he removes a dusty tile from a ceiling.

Asbestos is a material that was once commonly used for insulation and fire-protection in buildings, paint, and in some appliances (especially older ones) such as toasters, ovens, broilers, and refrigerators. Asbestos is made of tiny fibers that get into the air and are easily breathed into the lungs where they cut and scar the lung tissue, causing permanent damage many years after the fibers are breathed in. Because asbestos is so dangerous, many governments no longer allow it to be used in new buildings or industrial products. But it remains in many older ones.

Exposure to asbestos leads to asbestosis (a disease that scars and damages the lungs), and lung cancer. Early signs of these illnesses are coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, weight loss, and weakness.

How are people exposed to asbestos?

When asbestos gets old, it begins to break down. If asbestos is used when a house is built, but is sealed off and not touched or moved afterward, it does no harm. When materials or appliances that have asbestos in them are moved or taken apart, dangerous fibers are released into the air. This causes great harm to anyone who breathes them. People who mine asbestos also have a high risk of asbestosis.


Asbestos can be removed from buildings and building materials, but only at great cost. Because removing asbestos can lead to exposure, it must be done by people with proper training and protective equipment.

IMPORTANT! Do not try to remove asbestos without professional help and proper protective equipment.

Once asbestos is breathed into the lungs, it cannot be removed. It takes years for signs of asbestosis or lung cancer to appear, and these diseases cannot be reversed once they have started. Treatments can make a person have less pain, but will not cure the disease.

Toxics in furniture and fabrics

A dog sleeps on a carpet beside a child who sleeps on a bed
Children, and also household pets, spend a lot of time on carpeting and furniture, and can develop health problems if these contain toxic chemicals.

Some carpets, curtains, clothing, and furniture made with fabrics are made with toxic chemicals. Some of these chemicals, called BFRs (brominated flame retardants), prevent fabrics from catching fire or wearing out quickly. However, they can be harmful to our health when our skin is in contact with them for long periods, when we breathe dust that carries them, or when they burn and we breathe the fumes. (To find out more about these chemicals and ways to reduce harm from them, see Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals and Chapter 20: Preventing and Reducing Harm From Toxics.)

Home cleaning products

Many cleaning products are made with toxic chemicals that make people sick. When these toxic products are breathed in, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin, they can cause health problems right away or illnesses that may appear years later, such as cancer.

Containers of bleach, paint thinner, paint, degreaser, hair perm, and flea and tick dip.
Some common home cleaning products are harmful to health.

The labels on most products do not say if they are toxic, or how to protect yourself. Some labels sometimes say “caution” or “keep out of the reach of children.” That is a good sign you may want to change to a different product. But lack of a warning on the label does not mean you should not be careful.

Usually, if a product smells very strong and makes your eyes water, your chest hurt, or creates a bad taste in your mouth, it is toxic. The best way to get rid of the health risks from chemicals used in the home is to safely get rid of the chemicals and use safer cleaning products. Often, cleaning with soap and water is just as good, safer, and less costly than using harmful products.

A woman holding a mop speaks.
Cleaning without toxic chemicals leaves the house smelling good, and it doesn’t harm my health!

Safer cleaning products

Unlike some chemical cleaners, natural cleaners work more effectively when you let them soak in before scrubbing, use tools like scrubbers and spatulas to lift grease and scum, and apply the cleaner more than once.

Soap is better than detergent because it is not made from petroleum and does not leave toxins in the water. Borax and washing soda (sodium carbonate) are safe for cleaning surfaces. White vinegar or lemon juice can be used to clean away kitchen grease, and vinegar and baking soda to unclog drains. These cleaners can be stored more easily because they are safe, do not go bad, and do not need to stay cold. But they still should be kept out of the reach of children.

How to make safer cleaning products

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All-purpose cleaner

1 teaspoon liquid soap, 1 quart of water, plus ¼ cup undiluted white vinegar or washing soda to clean away grease

Mix all the ingredients and store in a spray bottle or a bottle with a lid. Shake until mixed. Use for cleaning walls, stoves, cooking or food preparation areas, carpets, and upholstery.

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Laundry starch

Corn or yucca starch, 1 pint cold water

Put starch in a bottle with a small amount of water and shake until all the starch dissolves. Fill the bottle with water and shake again. Seal bottle with a sprinkle cap or lid to store. Sprinkle damp clean garment with starch, lay flat or hang to dry.

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Glass cleaner

1 quart water plus
¼ cup white vinegar or
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Mix ingredients and store in a spray bottle.

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Surface disinfectant

½ cup borax, 2 liters water

Dissolve borax in water. Wipe the surface that needs cleaning with the solution on a sponge or rag, followed by water. To prevent mold or mildew from forming, do not rinse off the borax solution.

Natural home cleaning protects health

When Maribel came to the United States from Nicaragua, she found a job with a cleaning company. Every night she cleaned 3 offices, washing floors and windows. Sometimes she got dizzy, nauseous, and confused after several hours of work. She went to a doctor who gave her some medicine that only made her feel worse. As long as she worked, her sick feeling did not go away.

One day her job ended. Though she was out of work, she soon began to feel better. Then she learned about another cleaning company, the Natural Home Cleaning Professionals, which used nontoxic cleaning products. The women at Natural Home Cleaning said that many cleaning products people used were harmful and made people feel ill. Suddenly Maribel knew what had made her sick!

A woman mopping.

Natural Home Cleaning is a worker-owned cooperative. The women who are the cleaners own the business, so they decide what products to clean with. The workers decided to use only healthy products like vinegar, baking soda, liquid soap, and warm water. With practice, they learned how to make these materials more effective by using cleaning tools like spatulas and scrubbing sponges. As part of their work, they also trained other women to clean using natural methods.

When Maribel started working with Natural Home Cleaning, she told her neighbors, friends, and even strangers at the market how to replace toxic cleaners with natural ones. Cleaning with natural products is sometimes harder than working with chemicals, but it is healthier. While she works, Maribel remembers how her grandmother used to clean, and she wants to hand this knowledge down to her sons and daughters. For Maribel, training people in natural home cleaning is not just part of her job. It is now an important part of her life as well.