Scary Chemicals That Sneak Into Your Home

Air quality studies show that the inside of homes is often worse than the outside, according to Katie Albright of the Sierra Club of Canada. Here’s how to keep the air in your home as chemical-free as you can. 

How They Get In

Companies using toxic chemicals in their cleaning products, building materials, and pesticides tend to focus on the benefits of their products, but they don’t say much about the negative side effects. Air fresheners give off naphthalene, a suspected carcinogen. Ammonia-based window cleaners cause respiratory irritation. And some cleaners contain the nerve-damaging butyl cellosolve (also known as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether), which is absorbed into the skin. These are just a few examples of the harmful chemicals that sneak into our homes. The icing on the cake? The chemical companies charge you a premium for the poisons hiding behind popular brand names.

The Bad Guys

First, familiarize yourself with the chemical culprits, scan ingredient labels on all household products, and avoid these substances whenever possible:

  • butyl cellosolve
  • cresol
  • formaldehyde
  • glycols
  • hydrochloric acid
  • hydrofluoric acid
  • lye
  • naphthalene
  • PDCBs (paradichlorobenzenes)
  • perchloroethylene
  • phenol
  • propellants
  • TCE (trichloroethylene)
  • petroleum distillates
  • phosphoric acid
  • sulfuric acid

The Good Guys

Next, keep healthy alternatives around the house. Not only will you reduce indoor pollution, but you’ll save money while doing your body a favor. Here’s the all-star team of effective chemical alternatives:

Baking Soda

Effective mineral with mildly abrasive cleaning, whitening, and deodorizing properties. It’s very inexpensive, and great for carpet pet odors.


Derived from the fermentation of fruits or grains, vinegar has a high acid content that makes it great at killing germs, cutting grease, and dissolving mineral deposits.


A naturally occurring mineral (containing water, oxygen, sodium, and boron) with tremendously useful antiseptic, antifungal, deodorizing, and disinfectant properties. It stops the growth of mold and mildew and kills roaches.

Vegetable Oil–Based Liquid Soap

This biodegradable alternative to petroleum-based detergents can be found in health food stores.

Washing Soda

Sometimes called soda ash, this mineral (sodium carbonate) cleans grease, oil, dirt, and lots of petroleum products. It is also a water softener and soap booster. Look for it in the supermarket laundry section.

Essential Oils

The boiled-down essences of different plants—peppermint, lavender, and lemons, for instance—these oils can be used as natural air fresheners and to add pleasant scents to homemade cleaners. You can find some in the baking section of the grocery store.

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