15 Common Items With Hidden Health Risks
When do sneakers cause injury or clothing hampers get dangerous? Read our guide for when to replace them and other common products in order to stay safe.
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Riskier than you think
You probably already know that many everyday things pose security risks, including home hazards. But you may not realize that other favorite products—ones that make our lives easier or allow us to live more healthfully—can also pose a health risk. “A number of common everyday household items that one might think are innocuous can become hazards,” says James H. Dickerson, PhD, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. You might be surprised to learn that the following helpful—or even healthful—items can actually be deadly if used incorrectly.
These germ killers have become staples of life during the coronavirus pandemic. “The active ingredient for most proper hand sanitizers is ethanol or isopropanol,” Dickerson explains. But with demand for hand sanitizers at an all-time high, some companies have begun manufacturing knockoffs using a different type of alcohol, called methanol. Dickerson says methanol can be lethal if too much is absorbed through the skin.
What’s more, even some perfectly legitimate hand sanitizers have become potentially hazardous by adding fruity or floral scents, making them appealing to children. “We’ve heard reports across the country of children drinking hand sanitizer,” he says. Frighteningly, the alcohol concentration can be even higher than in hard liquor and can poison a young child. To be safe, buy hand sanitizers from verified sources that will stand behind their product, and keep the product away from children or others who might be tempted to ingest it.
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These “cool mist” humidifiers have grown in popularity in recent years, thanks to their nearly silent operation and affordable price points. They’re great at making dry rooms more comfortable by turning water into mist—but they can pose considerable respiratory risks if not used properly. That’s because they aerosolize everything that’s in the water—from minerals in hard tap water (often seen as a white dust that lands on nearby objects) to mold and bacteria that may build up without routine cleaning. Dickerson recommends following any manufacturer instructions carefully, particularly if they advise using distilled or filtered water. He also recommends cleaning humidifiers frequently.
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There’s something about heavy, sturdy furniture that makes us feel like we’re buying quality products. But in fact, heavy and sturdy aren’t always the same thing. “You cannot look at a piece of furniture and tell if it’s going to be intrinsically stable under normal use,” Dickerson says. “It’s one of the biggest home hazards in terms of injury or death. Each year,” he adds, “2,500 people are injured by a piece of furniture falling over on them.” Dickerson says Consumer Reports is actively working with manufacturers to design products with stability as a focus. In the meantime, he says, consider anchoring heavy pieces, such as dressers and bookshelves, to a wall to prevent accidental tipping.
So-called “forever chemicals,” scientifically known as PFAs or perfluoroalkyl substances, are present in everything from reusable food storage and takeout containers to the liners on bottle caps and paper-based food packages, Dickerson says. Heating (or reheating) food in such containers is especially problematic. “As you increase the cooking temperature,” he explains, “the chemicals can leach from containers into the food.” These chemicals are also present in many nonstick pans, which is why you should never heat them to more than 500° F or use utensils that could scratch the coating and release the chemicals. Exposure to these forever chemicals—which never break down and accumulate in the body over time—may have detrimental health effects, such as low infant birth weight, thyroid problems, immune system issues, and may even contribute to cancer. You won’t be able to tell if the food packages you purchase contain PFAs, but you can resolve to use glass storage containers at home and never reheat food in plastic.
Many people rely on backup power generators when their electricity goes out during a storm. But an average of 180 people die each year from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning due to improper use. “Portable generators should never be used inside your house” or your garage, says Dickerson. Instead, it should be placed at least 20 feet from your home and any neighbor’s home, with the exhaust pointed away from any dwellings. “If people have less than 20 feet between houses, point it toward the street,” he advises. Another important tip: Don’t allow snowpack to build up, or it can allow the CO to accumulate. Learn more about what to do when the power goes out.
The flat, circular batteries commonly found in everything from watches and hearing aids to TV remotes and video games pose a choking risk to small children and pets. Even worse, says Dickerson, is that once swallowed, the batteries are exposed to stomach acid, which breaks them down and releases toxic chemicals. This can lead to severe burns and other injuries in the digestive tract. In the first seven months of the pandemic, ER visits for swallowed batteries rose 93 percent among children ages five through nine. The best approach is to keep them completely out of reach of anyone who might be at risk for swallowing them. Some companies are also starting to add a bitter coating to reduce their appeal to kids.
We’re all guilty of making certain common kitchen mistakes. But these handy tools, also known as stick blenders, can pose a danger to home cooks who attempt to scrape something off the blades while in use, or who accidentally turn the device on (usually with a button on the side that’s easy to trigger) while cleaning or changing blades. Those blades, however, are exceptionally sharp, and can make mincemeat of the user’s fingers, even severing nerves and tendons. If you must clean the blades, make sure the device is unplugged first.
Collapsible clothing hampers
Collapsible clothing hampers are usually girded with wire frames tucked inside canvas or another sturdy fabric. Kids love to play in these makeshift tunnels, but those internal wire frames have been known to come loose, causing severe eye injuries. If you buy a collapsible hamper or tote, make sure kids are supervised when using them, and replace them at the earliest signs of fraying.
Laundry and dishwashing detergent pods
Bright candy colors, a fun squishy texture, and shiny packaging–what’s not for a kid to like? Unfortunately, many kids are drawn to these pods, and with dire consequences. Once the pods are exposed to saliva or even wet hands, they begin to dissolve and release their liquid. People who have swallowed them have died from poisoning and respiratory failure. It’s not just kids, though, who are at risk. Deaths among elderly people with dementia have also occurred. Some manufacturers have changed the packaging to look less appealing, and some have also added a bitter coating to deter accidental ingestion. If you use detergent pods, it’s best to keep them in a locked cabinet. These are the safest laundry detergents.
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Inclined infant sleepers
Sleepers with an incline of 10 to 30 degrees make it difficult, if not impossible, for babies to lift their heads or otherwise reposition themselves. Furthermore, the plush materials prevent babies from gaining any leverage to move, and therefore pose a suffocation risk. A recent report by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that none of the inclined sleep products they tested is safe for infant sleep. Babies should be put to sleep on flat, rigid surfaces with inclines of less than 10 degrees.
Everyone appreciates a clean-smelling home, but commercial air fresheners are not the healthy way to achieve it. Air fresheners release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, including formaldehyde and other gases. VOCs are considered indoor air pollutants and can trigger allergies, asthma, migraines, and more. In addition, they often contain a class of chemicals called phthalates, which are known hormone disruptors, meaning they can cause birth defects and other medical problems.
Cosmetics and personal care products
Each day, the average woman uses 12 personal care products, including makeup, lotion, cleansers, conditioners, fragrances or dyes, and the average man uses six, according to the Environmental Working Group. The effect? Exposure to hundreds of chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled. While many of these chemicals are perfectly safe, others—like parabens and phthalates—have been linked to reproductive harm, breast cancer, immune system deficiencies, and more. Some products even contain heavy metals, such as lead and mercury, or PFAs like those in plastics. To find out if a personal care product has concerning ingredients, check EWG’s SkinDeep database.
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Running or walking shoes that are past their prime increase your risk of injury. The average sneaker life span is 300 to 500 miles, or about six months, if you exercise regularly. If you’ve had them longer than that, or if your shoes show obvious signs of breakdown, it may be time to give them the boot. A couple easy-to-spot clues: worn out treads, or once-rigid shoes that you can now twist or bend. If the internal structure or even the cushioning has worn down, you could develop problems ranging from a sprained ankle or blisters to plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendonitis, or other foot conditions caused by a lack of support.
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If you have allergies, your safe haven for sleep might actually trigger symptoms. It’s not just that sleeping on dirty sheets can make you sick. Dust mites love snuggling into mattresses and bedding, so use an airtight plastic cover on your mattress if you’re prone to sneezing. Some mattresses are also made with chemicals such as polyurethane and formaldehyde that can off-gas while you sleep. And if your mattress is more than eight or ten years old, consider replacing it. Otherwise, it may no longer provide the support you need and lead to back pain. Rotate your mattress frequently, and when it’s time to buy a new mattress, look for one made with organic materials.
We love our electronic devices and appliances, and we love the convenience of having them within arm’s reach. Many of us use extension cords throughout our homes for this reason. But using an extension cord incorrectly could be a hidden fire hazard or cause electric shock.
Before plugging in an appliance, make sure the cord is designed to handle its wattage, and never use an extension cord for more than one major appliance, warns the Electrical Safety Foundation International. Also, don’t try to hide them by running them under a rug or furniture. And if you’re using an extension cord outdoors, be sure it’s plugged into a GFCI outlet to protect against shock in the event of rain or snow.
Don’t miss these other hidden home dangers you’ll want to address to keep your family safe.