By Firefighter Marc Hagerman
Hazard Materials Specialist
Thinking of “hazardous materials,” one envisions trucks full of chemicals, manufacturing plants, dumps, and other products of our “modern” society. But, medicines, pesticides and more common household items hold the important distinction of being “hazardous. “
The average household contains between 2 and 10 gallons of materials that are classified as hazardous. Why are these considered hazardous?
Just read the label
A product is hazardous if it has at least one of the following properties:
Poisonous or causes long-term illness (such as cancer) or death. Pesticides, paint thinners, many auto products and some cleaners. Look for words on the product label like:
- “Harmful or fatal if swallowed”
- “Use only in a well-ventilated area” (this means product fumes are toxic or possibly flammable)
Burns easily. Paint, thinners and other solvents, and auto products are the most flammable home products. Look for words on the product label like:
- “Do not use near heat or flame”
- “Do not smoke while using this product”
Eats through materials (acids or strong lye, for example). Oven cleaners, drain cleaners, toilet bowl cleaners, and auto batteries are common corrosive products. Look for words on the product label like:
- “Causes severe burns on contact”
- “Can burn eyes, skin, throat”
It can spontaneously ignite or create poisonous vapors when mixed with other products (therefore NEVER mix household products). Some may also explode when exposed to heat, air, water, or shock. Fortunately, there are few consumer products still on the market that are explosive (except for fireworks). Some older explosive products might still be stored in homes or outbuildings. DO NOT TOUCH OLD EXPLOSIVES! CALL 9-1-1!
We spend millions of dollars annually on cleaning projects to scrub, scour, soak, dust, wash, wax, clean and disinfect our homes and cars. Unfortunately, if used improperly, these products can endanger our health, family and the air quality in our homes, and pollute the water we drink. We also seem to collect these products and store them long after they are needed.
How to reduce the potentially hazardous products in your home
Buy the least Harmful Product Available
According to the federal government, any product that contains hazardous substances must state this on the label. The manufacturer’s front label must include a warning, a description of the hazard, and a statement instructing users how to avoid the hazard or instructions for safe handling. Remember, most chemicals used in cleaning products occur in nature; it is the concentration and the mixture of the chemicals in products that is dangerous. To reduce danger in your home, purchase products that either need no warning or those that are labeled “warning” or “caution.” These products are less harmful than those labeled “danger” or “poison.” Signal words for potentially hazardous household products include:
- Poison: Highly toxic or poisonous
- Danger: Extremely flammable, corrosive or toxic
- Warning/ Caution: moderately or slightly toxic (Could be very toxic to small children)
Read and Follow Label Directions Carefully for Proper Use, Storage and Disposal
Read the label; make sure the product will do the job you want it to do and that you will feel safe using that product. If ingredients are not listed, choose another brand that does list ingredients. Do not be fooled by the phrase “non-toxic,” as this is an advertising term. “Non-toxic” has yet to be defined by the federal government; therefore, the term can be used on any product.
Follow label directions regarding safe handling to avoid potential hazards (e.g., “use in a well-ventilated area”). Wear protective equipment when using potentially hazardous products.
Follow label directions and always leave the product in its original container with the original label attached. Never store a hazardous product in a food or beverage container, in containers subject to corrosion, or in unlabeled containers. Store incompatible products separately, (i.e. flammables and corrosive products). Keep products that produce vapors and fumes in well ventilated areas. Never store hazardous products in the same area as food products. Store them up high away from curious little people.
Preparation for Disposal
Try to use all of the product until empty according to the directions, or share with a friend or neighbor. Follow label instructions for preparing the empty container for safe disposal. If necessary, keep the product for a collection day. If you have a large amount that you will no longer use or it is old, bring to Waste Management’s recycling area. They will take it for free.
14679 McCourtney Road
Grass Valley, CA 95945
Buy Only As Much As You Will Use
Decide how much you will need for a certain project, or what can be used in a short period of time, then purchase only that amount. Buying a larger size (perhaps at a lower per unit cost) does not save you money if the materials remain stored unused in your home for years.
Alternative or Less Toxic Homemade Products
Look for the words Poison, Danger, Warning, or Caution on the product label. Poison and Danger indicate the highest hazard levels:
Poison means that a product is highly toxic, and can cause injury or death if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
Danger means that a product is highly toxic, flammable, or corrosive. Look for the word danger on cleaners, polishes, paint strippers and pesticides. Danger means the product could poison you, cause serious damage to your skin or eyes, or easily cause a fire.
Warning and Caution both indicate that a product may be mildly to moderately toxic, corrosive, reactive, or flammable. Products that don’t have any of the above words on the label are the least hazardous but may still cause a problem for a child if consumed.
If someone in your home is exposed to a hazardous material call 9-1-1.
Additional reference information at