Safe and Healthy Living

Chemicals are an integral part of our lives. Most are found in products used for cleaning, automobile maintenance, home improvements, hobbies, personal care, lawn and garden care, and a variety of other tasks.

However, many common chemical products in the home (basement, kitchen, garage, workshop, and garden shed) contain hazardous ingredients which need to be used, stored, and disposed of responsibly. Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) is that portion of a household product which is no longer usable or wanted and has to be disposed of. HHW can also be described as discarded solid or liquid materials or containers holding gases which may cause an adverse, harmful, or damaging biological effect in an organism or the environment.

There are multiple reasons to be cautious about our exposure to some chemicals. An increasing number of studies have indicated that environmental toxins, including those chemicals found in typical household products, can have detrimental effects on human health and the environment, both from immediate, acute exposures as well as long-term, low-dose exposures.

Why It’s Important To Use, Store, And Dispose Of Chemical Products Responsibly

How Can You Tell If A Product Is Hazardous?

Look for precautionary words or phrases on the product label (Products that don’t have any of these words on the label are considered the least hazardous.):

  • Poison – The highest hazard level. “Poison” means that a product is highly toxic, and can cause injury or death if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin.
  • Danger – “Danger” means that a product is highly toxic, flammable or corrosive. Products labeled “Danger” could poison you, cause serious damage to the skin or eyes, or start a fire.
  • Warning or Caution – These terms indicate that a product is toxic, corrosive, reactive, or flammable.
  • Flammable – These products have a number of different labels to denote them as “flammable”, or easily able to ignite or burn. Examples include:
    • Do not use near heat or flame
    • Combustible
    • Do not smoke while using this product
  • Reactive – “Reactive” products can spontaneously ignite, explode, or create poisonous vapors when mixed with other products, or when exposed to heat, air, water, or shock.
  • Corrosive – Products labeled as “corrosive” eat through materials. Other labels for this term include “causes severe burns on contact.”
  • Toxic – “Toxic” substances can either induce immediate poisoning or may cause long-term illness. Poisoning can occur if toxic substances are inhaled, eaten, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. Look for additional words on the label like “harmful or fatal if swallowed” or “use only in a well-ventilated area.”

Here are seven factors to determine if a chemical is hazardous:

  • Toxicity – Amount of substance and how much damage it can cause. If a small amount can be harmful the chemical is considered toxic.
  • Route of Exposure – How chemicals can enter your body. Examples include inhalation, ingestion, or contact with the skin or eyes.
  • Dose – How much will affect by body. The greater the amount of substance that enters the body, the greater the effect on the body.
  • Duration – How long is too long. The longer you are exposed to a chemical, the more likely you will be affected by it.
  • Latency – How long it takes for a toxic effect to occur. The time between the start of exposure and appearance of reactions or disease is the latency period. Some chronic effects have very long latency periods.
  • Reaction and Interaction – Exposure to more than one chemical. A reaction may occur around multiple chemicals.
  • Sensitivity – Some people are more affected. Age, sex, inherited traits, diet, pregnancy, health, medication, drug or alcohol use can factor in how an individual will react to a chemical and at what dose.

Common Examples Of HHW

Cleaning Products

  • Aerosol sprays
  • Bathroom Cleaners
  • Chlorine Bleach
  • Floor Polish
  • Oven Cleaners

Auto Maintenance Products

  • Antifreeze
  • Batteries
  • Brake Fluid
  • Gasoline
  • Motor Oil
  • Polishes and Waxes

Home Environment Supplies

  • Kerosene and lighter fluid
  • Oil-based paints and stains
  • Paint thinners and strippers
  • Pool Chemicals

Hobby Products

  • Glues and contact cement
  • Paints, stains, and finishes
  • Photographic Chemicals

Personal Care Products and Pharmaceuticals

  • Hair Coloring Products
  • Nail Polish and Remover
  • Mercury Thermometers
  • Prescription Drugs

Lawn and Garden Products

  • Chemical Lawn Fertilizers
  • Pesticides including herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides

How HHW Affects Health & The Environment

Many aerosols contain isobutenepropane, and butane. Studies indicate that these chemicals are toxic to the heart and central nervous system.

All purpose cleaners may contain ammonia or chlorine. Ammonia can irritate lungs, while chlorine forms carcinogenic compounds. Mixed together they form deadly chloramine gas.

Drain cleaners contain lye and hydrochloric and sulfuric acids that can burn human tissue, causing permanent damage. If not used precisely according to directions, they can also spontaneously explode.

Most glass cleaners emit ammonia mist, which can be toxic if inhaled. Note that most glass cleaning products do not have warning labels.

House and Garden Pesticides exposure can drastically increase the risk of childhood leukemia and are linked to birth defects and cancer.

Toilet bowl cleaners contain chlorine and hydrochloric acids which can burn skin and eyes. Ingesting these products can cause death.

Note: Effects from these Household Chemicals typically occur with low-dose, long-term repeated exposure. Reduce your risk by avoiding frequent use of these chemicals, or stop using them altogether. 

Nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia, found in many cleaners and fertilizers are dangerous water contaminants which can lead to algal blooms, elevated toxin levels, and mass die-offs of fish and other aquatic life.

Leaking or spilled automotive fluids, as well as pesticides and fertilizers can reduce soil fertility and contaminate crops. Soil contamination is difficult and expensive to remediate and can persist in the environment for centuries.

Nitrogen, phosphorus, and ammonia from household cleaners and fertilizers can react in the atmosphere with other chemicals to produce harmful tropospheric ozone, which can trigger breathing problems, and fine particulate matter, which contributes to heart and lung disease. Aerosols may also contain “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) which adds to global warming and ground-level ozone. They can also contaminate ground and surface waters.

Metals and contaminants in antifreeze,  many fertilizers, and cleaners are toxic to pets, wildlife, and aquatic life. Amphibians, like frogs and salamanders, are especially sensitive to the impact of household chemicals. Diethyltoluamide (DEET), a common ingredient in insect repellents, can be fatal to pets as it harms the neurological systems. Products that contain nicotine (like e-cigarette liquid) can cause serious impacts on dogs including seizures and death.

Minimize Negative Environmental & Health Impacts

Be wary of labels with the words caustic, corrosive, danger, explosive, poison, flammable, toxic, or warning.

Safer products can be found in many chain and independent stores. Also consider making your own products at home.

Only purchase the amount of product needed for a job.

Follow label directions on how to use and store products. Use safety equipment such as gloves, protective eye ware, or ventilating fans when recommended to avoid skin and eye contact, or inhalation of vapors.

Responsibly dispose of or recycle materials in your area. Contact your municipal/county office or call the PA DEP Recycling Hotline at 800-346-4242 to find Household Chemical Collections in your area.

Keep in original containers with readable labels. Close lids tightly and store hazardous products in a cool, dry area away from children, animals, and food products.

Store HHW away from heat, sparks, and flames. Separate flammables, corrosives, and poisons and place on separate shelves. If a product’s container is deteriorating, place the entire container in a plastic bucket with a tight-fitting lid and surround it with a non-flammable absorbent, such as kitty litter.

HHW is not safe to be burned, buried, thrown in the trash or backyard, or poured in the drain or storm sewer.

Teach children the dangers of chemicals. Keep emergency numbers near the phone. The Poison Control Center central toll-free number is 800-222-1222.

Do not reuse containers for other purposes.

HHW Collection Events

Non-Toxic Alternatives

Handmade versions of many common cleaning products can be prepared at home. These easy-to-make products are inexpensive alternatives that are just as effective as store-bought materials.

1 quart warm water
1/4 cup undiluted white vinegar
1 teaspoon liquid soap
1 teaspoons borax

Mix ingredients thoroughly and store in a spray bottle. Use for cleaning counter tops, floors, walls, carpets, and upholstery.

1 quart warm water
1/4 cup white vinegar
(or 2 tablespoons lemon juice)

Mix ingredients and store in a spray bottle. Dip a wet sponge in baking soda to clean a glass oven door.

Mix 1/2 cup of borax in one gallon of hot water and clean surfaces thoroughly. To prevent mold or mildew from forming, don’t rinse off the borax solution.

1 quart warm water
2 tablespoons liquid soap
2 teaspoons borax

Mix ingredients in a spray bottle. Spray on solution, wait 20 minutes, then clean. You can also pour salt on spills as their occur and wipe up while your oven is warm.

Pour 1/4 cup baking soda down the drain, followed by 2 ounces of vinegar. Cover the drain and let sit for 15 minutes. Rinse with 2 quarts of boiling water.

Use the treatment regularly to prevent clogged drains and keep them smelling fresh.  Also, pour boiling water down drains on a weekly basis to prevent grime buildup.

Put 1/4 cup borax in toilet bowl and let set overnight. Next day, scrub.

Set out a dish of vinegar, or boil 1 tablespoon white vinegar in 1 cup of water to eliminate unpleasant cooking odors. Pour vanilla extract of essential oils on a cotton ball in a saucer.

Managing Paint Waste

All paints, including both latex and oil-based products, can pollute groundwater, so never throw liquid paint products into your trash. However, there are methods that will allow you to legally and safely dispose of latex paint in your regular trash.

If the paint is usable consider sharing it with a friend, neighbor, or relative.

Latex Paint (water based) in a solidified form is not a hazardous waste. The following are instructions for preparing the paint to be disposed with your household trash. Remember, it must be dried and solid before disposal.

  • Add kitty litter, sand or shredded newspaper into liquid latex paint and mix well
  • Leave the lid off and set aside
  • Allow it to completely dry
  • Dispose of the dried paint in the trash.


Purchase packets of “waste paint hardener” at home improvement stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot or select independent hardware stores. Each packet will treat up to 2/3 of a gallon of latex paint. Simply empty the packet into the paint and stir (as per manufacturers instructions).

Oil-based paint, stains, and varnishes are hazardous in any form and should be taken to a Household Chemicals Collection event.