When the fire department arrives shortly after midnight at the three-story apartment building in Duisburg, a room on the second floor is on fire. The fire is rapidly extinguished, the cause identified just as quickly: A tenant had varnished his balcony furniture with linseed oil and left the rag in a room. He hadn’t expected that the oil-soaked rag would react with oxygen overnight so violently that it would go up in flames. After all, how can linseed oil present such a risk? ‘Natural product’ was written in large text on the front of the container – with a very small warning on the back: spontaneously combustible!
More and more people are trying to make their everyday lives as environmentally friendly as possible and to avoid pollutants. In everyday parlance, harmful substances include substances and compounds that are found in nature, and that can be harmful to humans, animals, plants or other organisms as well as entire ecosystems. These may include car emissions, for example, or fine dust pollution.
Pictograms identify hazardous substances
Hazardous substances under the definition of the CLP Regulation (EC No. 1272/2008 CLP) are substances and mixtures (products) that have ‘hazardous characteristics.’ For example: toxic, irritant, corrosive, carcinogenic, highly flammable or dangerous for the environment. The hazards are marked on product packaging with a rhombus-shaped pictorial icon. They are found on many cleaning products but are often ignored in everyday life. This can sometimes be to disastrous effect, exemplified by the sad case of a 30-year-old woman from Madrid. She had spent two hours cleaning her kitchen in the Summer of 2018, inhaling ammonia vapors from the cleaning products, explains a spokesman for the Agencia de Seguridad y Emergencias. Following this, she felt very unwell and called the emergency services. Sadly, the paramedics arrived only to testify her death.
Often, poor ventilation results in the dangerous accumulation of hazardous substances in the air. Besides ammonia, there are numerous other substances that pose similar threats. Chlorine-based cleaners not only irritate skin, eyes and the respiratory tract – they can become downright dangerous when they are used in conjunction with acidic cleaners or de-scalers. This can cause the formation of toxic chlorine gas. Chlorine gas can be irritating and even caustic to the skin, eyes and respiratory system. High concentrations can even lead to death. On the other hand, toxins without any warning label are often found in ornamental plants such as daphnes, lily-of-the-valley, castor oil plants and laburnum, the berries of which are easily mistaken for peas or beans by children. Incidents of such occurrences regularly occupy emergency physicians.
While rarely as severe, but not without consequence is sipping from fruity-fragranced bottles of shampoo. The cocktail of harmful substances within should not be taken lightly, even if the initial impact is only nausea. An acute risk is presented by carelessly placed medicines, be they painkillers or grandparents’ heart medication. The poison emergency hotline of the Berlin Charité University Clinic alone receives in excess of 50,000 calls each year due to such mix-ups or cases of children imitating adults. Curiosity and an appetite for sweet treats led to a dramatic increase in childhood accidents when the now-popular detergent pods were introduced. Between 2011 and 2013, the number of detergent poisonings in the US tripled from 2,862 to 9,004 cases, reports online magazine fortune.com. The American Association for Poison Control Center (AAPCC) blamed the colorful pods for 80 percent of accidents in 2017, despite only commanding a market share of 16 percent.
There are also hidden dangers in many cosmetics. For example, lipsticks often owe their smooth texture to paraffins, which are considered suspected carcinogens in their frequent combination with mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAH). American firm Raw Natural Beauty has calculated that women swallow up to three kilograms of these substances during their lifetime.
For a Safe Home
Be it harmful compounds in toys, ambient air or in the ground; dangerous household cleaning products or building technology: DEKRA works to ensure a safe home with on-site inspections, laboratory analyses and product tests. In handling hazardous substances too, DEKRA is at your side.
Let furniture dry out
Pollutants that can be harmful over long exposure times can be found in buildings and their fittings: floor coverings, wallpaper and furniture can leach solvents such as formaldehyde over many years. Some older buildings also still have lead water pipes. More serious are cases in which entire schools need to be closed after asbestos fibers or mold strains are detected. Hundreds of cases of school closure due to the discovery of asbestos, PCB, radon and mold can be found in the archives of the European Society for Healthy Construction and Indoor Hygiene (EGGBI). Kindergartens are also not spared. In 2013 in Hürth, Germany, a brand-new kindergarten was temporarily closed due to contamination of the new building with the carcinogen butanone oxime. According to the local building authorities, the toxin was present in a substance used to seal floor joints.
10 Common Hazardous Substances in the Home
1. Mercury from energy saving lamps can have massive health impacts, even in minute doses. Energy saving lamps must not be allowed to break, and are to be disposed of in the recycling bin. Mercury evaporates quickly. Ventilate immediately!
2. Asbestos was previously used in residential construction due to its insulative characteristics. The fibers are carcinogenic, and their usage prohibited in many countries, e.g. Germany, France, Italy, Australia, Japan, South Korea and South Africa. Asbestos-contaminated materials from older buildings need to be removed by trained specialists.
3. Chemicals are found in cleaning products – alkalines, for example, dissolve fats and oils. Biocides tackle viruses and fungi. Enzymes, silicates, detergents etc. – the list is long. Human life and the environment benefit from the use of biodegradable products.
4. Lead in drinking water can lead to health issues. The usage of lead piping for drinking water has been prohibited in Germany since 1973, but these pipes are still found in older buildings. If lead is suspected, health authorities or water corporations perform analyses.
5. Mold is the nightmare of any household. It is caused by moisture in poorly ventilated spaces. Breathing the spores in large quantities can lead to respiratory illnesses and allergic reactions.
6. Formaldehyde is processed into many everyday products, out of which it leaches into the air over time: Paints and lacquers, adhesives, disinfective and cleaning fluids, furniture, carpets and particle board. Cigarette smoke also contains formaldehyde.
7. Plasticizers are often found in plastic goods, making these soft and flexible. Phthalates and other such substances can be found in floor coverings, wallpaper, gym shoes, packaging and even cosmetic products. Plasticizers can leach out of these items and transfer on contact with fats and oils.
8. Solvents are predominantly found in places where you would also find plasticizers and formaldehyde: on floor and wall coverings, but also in the interior trim of vehicles. Trust your nose – out into the fresh air with anything that smells strongly of plastic!
9. Pyrethroids are used in textiles, in order to prevent them becoming moth-eaten. They can cause skin irritation and headaches. They are also highly toxic to water-borne organisms.
10. Carbon Monoxide is an odorless gas and often responsible for fatalities in poorly ventilated rooms that are heated with wood-burning stoves or open gas flames.