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5 Popular Home Products That Can Be Surprisingly Toxic

If you thought you were safe from pollutants around the house, think again.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Mikele Dray / Shutterstock

 
 
 
 

We love the convenience and the comfort they bring us, but some of our most popular consumer products can come at a heavy price to our personal health. We all try being careful, removing the known hazards from our households, yet there are many products that you likely have in your home that you probably didn't know were toxic. Here are five that might shock you:

1. Candles. Few things are better at adding atmosphere to a room than candles. But as those candles fill the room with warm light, they're also filling it up with harmful gases and sediments. And it doesn't always matter whether the candle is paraffin, vegetable oil, or beeswax based. During combustion, all candles release some soot carbon particles that can lead to respiratory problems.

But paraffin wax comes with its own problems. It starts out as a byproduct of petroleum, coal, or shale. After it's extracted from the mix, the paraffin bathes in industrial-strength bleach to give it its signature whiteness. However, this also infuses paraffin with dioxins. Another chemical, Acrolein, a compound linked to the risk of lung cancer from cigarette smoke, is added to paraffin as a solidifying agent.

While the candle industry insists that the final product is inert, studies have shown that the burning of paraffin candles releases benzene and toluene — both known carcinogens — into the atmosphere. And even if you buy a high-end candle, it doesn't make it any safer. Candles from retailers like Bed, Bath & Beyond, Yankee Candle Store, and Crate & Barrel are mostly made from paraffin.

To add to all this, artificial dyes and synthetic fragrances are often added to candles, especially those used in aromatherapy. The recipe varies from candle to candle, but the fragrances and dyes — which are often synthetic — can contain toxic plasticizers and solvents, which should be avoided. Also, those extra ingredients also burn, which means additional soot.

If you can't live without your candles, consider those made of beeswax or vegetable oils, and with natural dyes and perfumes.

While most candles have all cotton wicks, a small percentage still have metal wire cores. Before 2003, many of those metal-cored wicks contained lead, but the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned lead in wicks that year. Today, these wire cores mostly contain zinc. But if you're worried that you have an old candle with a lead-core wick, try this test: Take a piece of notebook paper and rub it at the top of the unburned wick. If it makes a mark resembling that of a graphite pencil, it's likely has lead. Otherwise the wick itself is likely safe.

2. Dryer Sheets. There are few scents as addictive as warm laundry pulled from the dryer, thanks to the olfactory magic of fabric-softener sheets. They're simple enough products, nothing more than thin polyester sheets coated with chemicals to soften fabric fibers and give clothes that irresistible scent.

But like with candles, the fragrance found in sheets from brands such as Downy and Bounce might pose health risks, as toxins can permeate those sheets and transfer to your clothes and skin. It is also released into the air from dryer vent emissions, which are not regulated. And because the fragrances the manufacturers use are trade secrets, have no way of really knowing exactly what they contain.

A study, published in the August 2011 issue of the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere and Health, indicates that scented laundry items can contain numerous carcinogens, including acetaldehyde and benzene.

It's probably best to ditch the dryer sheets altogether, but there are less toxic options if you insist on using them. Seventh Generation makes dryer sheets out of chlorine-free recyclable paper, instead of polyester. The company also discloses all the ingredients of their sheets, which includes a plant-derived softening agent. They contain no fragrances or masking agents.

 
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