Home is where the toxins are – the hidden poisons we live with

Some houses can be susceptible to a buildup of formaldehyde created by cleaning products. Which other everyday items can leave a harmful chemical trail?

Does your house smell pine fresh? If so, you might want to open a window. This week, the country’s biggest household cleaning manufacturer began publishing every ingredient it uses, in response to fears that the chemicals we use in our homes could be harming us.

Fragrances such as limonene (which smells like lemon) and pinene (which smells of – yes, you’ve guessed it – pine) are used in an increasing number of products. But they create small amounts of formaldehyde – a carcinogen. While this might not be a problem in the majority of homes, for clean-freaks living in modern, energy-efficient homes, there can be a serious buildup.

Alastair Lewis, professor of atmospheric chemistry at York University, says the decision by SC Johnson to publish a list of ingredients in products such as Mr Muscle and Glade air fresheners, was helpful for scientists trying to track why high concentrations of formaldehyde are found in some homes. Lewis points out that while pinene is naturally occurring, and cleaning products are heavily tested and regulated, there has been little research on the effects of the secondary chemicals they produce, because it was always assumed they would disperse quickly.

But according to the charity Chem Trust, which looks at the damage caused by manmade chemicals, there are many more hidden pollutants in our homes. Michael Warhurst, an environmental chemist at the organisation, says: “When people think of the dangers of chemicals, it is often cleaning products or cosmetics that spring to mind, but actually the biggest worries are chemicals in things such as packaging or furniture.” So what other dangers are lurking in our homes?

Pizza boxes

While the chemicals in plastic packaging are regulated, cardboard packaging is not. A Danish NGO randomly tested three pizza boxes and found chemicals from the recycled material they were made from, alongside chemicals suspected of being carcinogenic.

Till receipts

Thermal receipt paper can contaminate your hands with hormone-disrupting bisphenol A (BPA), which can then be absorbed into your body. BPA is a hormone that has been linked to a wide range of medical problems, from cancer to diabetes, says Warhurst. Receipts can also be recycled, and then turn up in packaging such as pizza boxes.


Carpets can be covered in brominated flame retardants to make them less flammable, some of which can be hormone disrupters, according to Warhurst.

Microwave popcorn

Denmark’s largest retailer, Coop, stopped selling this because it couldn’t find a way to get rid of the fluorinated chemicals in the packaging. The chemicals are linked to certain cancers, hormone disruption, organ problems and lower birth weights.


The German NGO Foodwatch found mineral oils in rice, pasta and cornflakes thanks to cardboard packaging. Mineral oils can accumulate in the body, and are said to damage the liver, heart valves and lymph nodes.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Homa Khaleeli, for The Guardian on Wednesday 25th May 2016 18.07 Europe/London

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