What are Some Common Household Toxins?

Bronwyn Harris

Toxins can be found in many seemingly innocuous items in the home. Although there are many household toxins to be found in homes, especially old homes, there are three that are the most common. Mercury, phthalates, and formaldehyde are found in furniture, clocks, lamps, and plastics, so consumers need to be aware of exactly what they are getting.

An MDF shelf may contain formaldehyde.
An MDF shelf may contain formaldehyde.

Mercury can be found in many old clocks and lamps. Pendulum clocks often have mercury — one of the common household toxins — in the pendulums to provide weight. Mercury is also used to weight the base of many older lamps. Some barometers and thermometers contain mercury, which indicates a change in pressure and temperature, respectively. Finally, antique mirrors used mercury to provide a reflective surface behind the glass.

A barometer containing mercury.
A barometer containing mercury.

The danger of mercury is found in its vapors. Although odorless, mercury vapors can cause high blood pressure, diarrhea, vomiting, chest pain, shortness of breath, headaches, memory loss, and muscle tremors, among other symptoms. If mercury is spilled, all fans and heaters should be turned off, and all the windows open. If the spill is very small, it can be collected with an eyedropper and double bagged, if you are very careful not to let it touch your skin. For larger spills, or if the spill is difficult to clean up, a hazardous materials or environmental contractor should be called.

Thermometers often contain mercury, a toxin.
Thermometers often contain mercury, a toxin.

Phthalates are another category of household toxins, found in many plastics. Shower curtains, tablecloths, beanbag chair coverings, and other flexible or soft plastics are just a few items that often contain phthalates. These compounds are most dangerous for pregnant women, acting as hormone disruptors. When an item has a strong plastic-like smell, it probably contains phthalates. Exposing the plastic surface to air and sunlight breaks down the chemicals faster.

Many items of furniture that contained pressed wood have another one of the common household toxins, formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is found in the adhesives used in plywood, medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and particleboard. Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, and also causes eye irritation, respiratory allergies, nausea, asthma, wheezing, chest tightness, and coughing. For this reason, it is typically recommended that neither pressed wood nor MDF be used for furniture in children's rooms.

A face mask and eye protection should be worn when working with MDF.
A face mask and eye protection should be worn when working with MDF.

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Discussion Comments

anon127412

I recently spent a week in a very old home in the basement apartment. After a few days I got a tickle in my throat and when I got home I had to go to the ER because my throat was closing up and I had a severe sore throat. It's been three days and I have the worst sore throat, laryngitis, and I have a severe headache. Do you think it could be from this old basement?

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