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The Top 5 Most Toxic Substances in Your House

Posted: May 14th, 2013 | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Toxic-HomePoisoning is the second leading cause of injury related death in the U.S.  In Illinois alone, the IPC fields over 74,000 calls on poisoning exposures each year—nationwide, poison centers manage over 2.3 million exposures.  Those stats may surprise you but did you also know that more than 90% of all poisonings happen in the home?  Many of these poisons are things we all use or come in contact with regularly.  Here are the top 5 most toxic substances that are in your house right now:

  1. Medication.  That’s right, your medicine cabinet contains very powerful chemicals known as drugs.  Drugs/medicine can do wonderful things to improve quality and length of life.  But they can also be very dangerous in the wrong amount, or in the wrong person.   In fact, 91% of unintentional poisoning deaths are due to drugs and medications, according to the CDC.  The type of medication that causes the most deaths, far and away, is prescription pain medications (opioids).
  2. Drain Opener This is Tony’s pick for the most dangerous substance in everyone’s house.   Drain openers are so dangerous because they are caustic—meaning they are either extremely acidic or extremely basic on the pH scale.  A caustic substance can cause significant chemical burn injury to any body tissue it comes in contact with—eyes, skin, mouth or lungs.  A small sip of these products can cause serious damage to the tissues of the esophagus, stomach and intestines.
  1. Windshield Washer Fluid (methanol).   If you own a car, chances are you have a big jug of this in your garage (or trunk).  You probably don’t think twice about this ubiquitous bright blue fluid, but it doesn’t take much of this stuff to do serious harm.  Ingestion of just 100-200ml (3.3-6.7 ounces) without treatment can be fatal to an adult.  Even less can cause permanent blindness.  The liver turns methanol into another chemical which damages the eyes and makes the blood more acidic.  Antifreeze–another garage-lurking poison–contains ethylene glycol, which is a cousin to methanol and is also very toxic.
  2.  Rust Remover/Wheel Cleaner.  Specifically, the ones that contain hydrofluoric acid.  Once it gets into the body (by ingestion, skin exposure, or inhalation), the fluoride in this acid binds up the calcium in your body.  Once it is bound up, the calcium can’t be used for other important things it needs to do in your body…such as allowing your heart continue to beat.
  3. Carbon Monoxide (CO).  This is the oddball on the list because it doesn’t come in a bottle from the big box store with a child-resistant cap. CO binds to your red blood cells and prevents them from carrying oxygen to your tissues.   Carbon monoxide is produced from the combustion (burning) of carbon based substances (wood, paper, natural gas, gasoline, coal, cloth, etc.).  If you have a gas-powered furnace, oven, clothes dryer or a fireplace, your home is producing carbon monoxide.  If these appliances are faulty or ventilated improperly, CO poisoning can result.  House fires and car exhaust also produce carbon monoxide. CO is odorless, colorless and tasteless; they don’t call it ‘the silent killer’ for nothing!  This is why a functioning CO detector is so important (see tips below).

Tips to keep safe:  We’re not suggesting that you rid your house of all of these items, but there are some things you can do to ensure your family stays safe from them:

  • Never take more medicine than instructed to by your doctor.  If you make a mistake with your medicine and take too much, or take the wrong medicine, call the IPC right away at 1-800-222-1222.
  • Don’t share medication.  If you have pills left you are no longer using, dispose of them properly and promptly.
  • To prevent drug interactions, make sure your doctor and pharmacy know ALL of the medicines you are taking (including over the counter and herbals).
  • Always use child resistant caps—but remember, they are child-resistant, not child-proof.  These caps help slow kids down, but it won’t stop them altogether.
  • Store all medications and household products in their original containers away from food products, locked out of sight and reach of children.
  • Always use cleaners and household chemicals as instructed on the label.
  • Never mix cleaning products or any household chemicals; toxic gases can result.
  • Have a working CO detector on every floor in your home; test the unit and replace batteries regularly.
  • Always call the poison center at 1-800-222-1222 if you think someone may have been exposed to any potentially harmful substance or poison.  Our professional experts are here to help, 24-7.
  • Visit www.illinoispoisoncenter.org/resource_center
    for more poison safety tips!

Don’t forget to check out the “My Child Ate…” resource center which gives toxicity level and treatment information for the most common substances/products ingested by children.

Carol DesLauriers, PharmD, DABAT

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Related posts:

  1. “My Child Ate…Something Around the House!”
  2. Ultra-Toxic Poisons May Be Lurking Right Under Your Nose
  3. “So, What’s The Most Dangerous Poison Around The House?”
  4. You’re A “Toxic” One Mr. Grinch
  5. Old Man Winter and Carbon Monoxide


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