Chemicals are used as drugs and in industry, and they have just as important a place in our homes. Some chemicals may, however, be unwanted contaminants of the home. In this chapter I shall consider a selection of chemicals used in the home in more detail to explore some of the substances we may be exposed to.
Taking a look under the sink in my own home, I found a range of products with an array of chemical constituents:
a range of cleaning products, containing non-ionic detergents and preservatives; ant killer, containing the insecticide chlorpyrifos; bleach (sodium hypochlorite); dishwasher powder, containing disodium silicate; hydrogen peroxide;
insect spray, containing the insecticide permethrin and also pyrethrum and deltamethrin; kettle descaler (formic acid);
methylated spirits (ethyl alcohol and methyl alcohol); oven cleaner, containing caustic soda (sodium hydroxide).
A number of these products contain chemicals that are irritant acids or alkalis, namely sodium hydroxide, disodium silicate, formic acid, and bleach. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong oxidizing agent. Oxidizing agents are reactive chemicals that cause chemical changes in other molecules. They can alter cells and damage skin and other tissues if they come into contact with the body. They are particularly hazardous if taken in by mouth, as the mucous membranes lining the mouth and oesophagus are more sensitive and delicate than the skin, which has an outer layer designed to protect the body.
The insecticides could have various effects on the nervous system but are unlikely to cause harm unless drunk in significant quantities. Chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate insecticide, and so could inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase in the blood and nervous tissue. It can have a cumulative effect, and so after repeated use, say on a daily basis, the level of inhibition may be sufficient to cause unpleasant or even life-threatening effects (as described on pp. 98-103). These include difficulty in breathing, muscular weakness, and convulsions. Organophosphates vary greatly in their potency, however, and the more toxic are now less readily available. Those for home use are the least poisonous to humans and other mammals.
The methylated spirits would cause first inebriation and then drunkenness. Depending on the dose, more serious effects could occur as a result of the methyl alcohol content (see below).
A tour round my garage revealed some more chemicals:
antifreeze (ethylene glycol);
herbicide (paraquat and diquat);
paint stripper, containing sodium hydroxide and methylene chloride;
screenwash (methyl alcohol);
white spirit (solvent).
The herbicide would be irritant to the skin but potentially lethal if taken by mouth (see pp. 104-6). Both the antifreeze and the screenwash would also be potentially lethal if drunk (see below). All the solvents (white spirit, petrol, and paraffin) would be hazardous if drunk, especially as they could be drawn into the lungs. Cases of children drinking white spirit have occurred, in which the main effect was in the lungs, where the solvent easily spread through the small air spaces and changed the ability of the lungs to function properly. Creosote is irritating to the skin and can cause acne-like eruptions with repeated exposure, like other solvents and chemicals used in industry (see pp. 122-30).
The use of paint stripper may lead to damage to the skin from both the sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) and the solvent, methylene chloride. Another, more serious hazard from the paint stripper is the danger of using it in a confined space and inhaling the solvent fumes. Apart from the possibility of being overcome by the fumes, the solvent will find its way into body fat, from where it can then be slowly released, perhaps to cause serious toxic effects later, as illustrated by the case below.
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