Can you lessen your own personal chemical burden?

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Follow the directions

It’s a well-known fact that consumers are very bad at reading product information and are especially careless when it comes to warnings even though the product might be harmful. This was very clearly demonstrated in an interview study performed in Great Britain. The parents of small children were asked about how and where they used pesticides in their households. One third of parents said that they did not follow the directions and warnings when using pesticides and 10% of parents did not even read the directions at all. Every second householder thought that directions were both inadequate and not very comprehensible. For example, less than half of the British subjects used protective gloves when using the pesticide and it is likely that the situation is similar in most countries.

Another British study revealed that more than 60% of children involved in suspected pesticide exposures were aged 2 years or less. The most common scenario for acute accidental exposure was exposure after application or due to poor storage. About 95% of exposures were to products for non-professional use in the home or garden. Surprisingly often a therapeutic error was involved; typically head lice treatment was mistaken for an oral medication such as paracetamol reducing fever.


The ordinary consumer can be exposed to chemicals while doing hobbies not realising what is happening and without knowing how to protect himself or herself by making sure there is adequate ventilation or personal protective equipment. Hobbies are often done in small, cramped, poorly ventilated spaces such as basements, garages, and storage rooms that have not been planned for handling vapourizing and toxic chemicals.[1]


One example of misuse of consumer products is the sniffing of gases or easily evaporating solvents to get a rapid and cheap intoxicating effect. Sniffing is most common among 10 to 17 year old adolescents, who are not able to purchase alcohol. It is most clearly associated with deprivation, but there are also cultural backgrounds. Practically all possible chemicals have been used that vapourize and can inebriate the user when inhaled.

The most often “recreationally” used compounds are toluene, trichloroethylene, xylene, benzene and n-hexane (in glues, paints, permanent markers, cleaning products, solvents), acetone (e.g. in nail polish removers), petrol, kerosene (fuels), butane, propane (in cigarette lighters, small campstoves), hydrofluorocarbon propellants (in spray cans of air fresheners, deodorants). These are common everyday products, most of which are easy to buy in any department store.

The consequences of sniffing are similar to those of alcohol intoxication (drunkenness, nausea), but they are usually short-lasting and depend on the type of chemical. It is difficult to control the dose if it is being breathed into the lungs, and the risk of overdose is significant. Overdose may result in unconsciousness and even death. The risk of death is especially high if the solvents are inhaled from a plastic bag, because the lack of oxygen may cause suffocation. Death from suffocation may also result from vomiting if the subject is lying unconscious.

There are many signs of intoxication, for example confusion, hallucinations, decreased impulse control, blackouts, delusions and outbursts of rage. Permanent damage to the central or peripheral nervous system, liver, kidneys and the heart may be caused by repeated use of chemicals. After prolonged use, if the subject abruptly stops using the solvents, this can cause abstinence symptoms such as malaise, headache and nausea that can last for several days.


In many countries, fireworks are in strictly controlled products which cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18, and their use may also be restricted to certain times of the year. Their greatest risks are injuries due to explosions and fire with eye injuries being especially common. Since they are mostly used outdoors, exposures to chemicals are usually fairly low and short lived. However fireworks emit burning gases, fine particulate matter and oxides of metals.

It is logical to ensure that the manufacturers and authorities are responsible for chemical safety, but often the consumer may not follow the precautions and thus end up taking unacceptable major risks. Parents should be aware of what their children are doing.

Notes and references

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