Harmful Substances: What Are They and How to Avoid Them

By Sijé Vargas

reviewed by amadou barrow

Many chemicals, when used properly, can contribute significantly to the improvement of our quality of life, health, and wellbeing. However, some chemicals are very hazardous and can negatively impact our health and the environment when not properly managed.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, harmful substances can be dust, gases, or fumes (that we can breathe in), as well as liquids, gels, or powders. Depending on the individual, exposure to toxic substances can result in either no harmful effects, reversible effects, or effects that have permanent consequences. Illnesses caused by these substances can be prevented, but it’s important to be able to identify which substances we’re being exposed to, in order to carry out a risk assessment and apply necessary safety measures accordingly.

Risk effects on our health 

Avoiding household products that contain harsh chemicals and being aware of hazardous materials that don’t belong in a home environment can make a difference not only to your personal health and the health of those who live or work around you, but also to the environment. 

Cleaning supplies, household products, and some products used in many industrial, agricultural, and medical organizations can be harmful to your health. These products release substances that can damage your respiratory tissues if they are inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. 

Short-term effects can include:

  • Eye or throat irritation
  • Headaches 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin rashes (dermatitis)
  • Chemical burns


With elevated or extremely high doses of a toxic substance, you may experience the following long-term effects

  • Lung, kidney, and liver disorders 
  • Cancer
  • Nervous system disorders
  • Brain damage
  • Birth defects 
  • Death


Better Health Channel lists the following as the most common hazardous substances used in the workplace:

  • Acids
  • Caustic substances
  • Disinfectants
  • Glues
  • Heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium, and aluminum
  • Paint
  • Pesticides
  • Petroleum products
  • Solvents


Harmful substances

Many common products that you may be using could be harmful to your health:

  • Air fresheners: According to a study, air fresheners contain formaldehyde and other potentially dangerous chemicals that can lead to chronic respiratory problems, allergic reactions, and dysfunction of the lungs. Some air fresheners also contain flammable chemicals, and something as small as lighting a cigarette nearby can lead to painful burns. 
  • Pesticides: Most of the products used to eliminate pests, unwanted plants, fungi, bacteria, or viruses contain chemicals that can harm people or the environment. According to the Australian Department of Health, these products can poison the land, the water, and the air. For this reason, it’s very important to only use pesticides in accordance with the label directions.
  • Furniture polish: Besides being extremely flammable, some polishes may contain nitrobenzene, which is a chemical used to mask unpleasant smells and is extremely toxic to the skin.
  • Antifreeze: This car product is extremely poisonous if ingested: even breathing it in can cause dizziness. Due to the ethylene glycol, most antifreeze has a pleasant smell, which may be attractive to pets and children. For this reason, safe storage is highly recommended.
  • Bleach: It’s a very useful but also dangerous product that has strong properties that can cause serious damage to the body. According to Science Daily, bleach and derived cleaners emit chlorine-containing compounds, such as hypochlorous acid (HOCl) and chlorine gas (Cl2), which can accumulate to high levels in poorly ventilated indoor environments.
  • Cleaning products and fertilizers: Most of the products for cleaning include chemical ammonia which, in the case of inhalation, can irritate the respiratory system and mucous membranes and cause chemical burns to the skin. If mixed with products such as bleach, it can produce a toxic gas that is potentially fatal.


Generally, if a product smells very strong, causes tears and chest pain, or tastes bad, it’s mostly considered toxic. If you work with any of these products, you must take action to eliminate or reduce the risks as much as possible, for example, by always using the required protective equipment. 


Avoiding harmful substances

There are many harmful substances found in the home environment that are best left out or avoided altogether. 

WebMD: Better Information. Better Health suggests that you check the labels before you buy a product, and make sure they do not contain chlorine or ammonia; instead, choose cleaning products that say “petroleum-free,” “biodegradable,” or “phosphate-free.”

Be very careful if the product has the labels “poison” or “warning,” as this means that it contains very high amounts of toxic substances. Avoid using air fresheners altogether. One thing is for sure: chemical substances are part of our daily lives, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be careful about the products we use.


Here are some tips for cleaning your home:

  • Soap is better than detergent because it isn’t made with petroleum and doesn’t leave toxins in the water. 
  • Borax and crystallized soda (sodium carbonate or baking soda) are safer for cleaning surfaces.
  • White vinegar or lemon juice can be used to clean grease from the kitchen, and vinegar mixed with baking soda can be used to unclog pipes. 


These cleaning products can be stored easily because they’re safe, don’t spoil, and don’t have to be kept in a cold place. 


In your workplace you can:

  • Purge or ventilate storage areas.
  • Suggest to your manager/team leader to prepare safety procedures in case of an accident.
  • Ask for personal protection equipment such as respirators, gloves, and goggles. 
  • If possible, perform tasks without using harmful substances.


If you are a vulnerable worker (young people and pregnant or breastfeeding employees) we recommend that you follow the guide created by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

Sijé Vargas
Through different social projects related to Human Rights, my education background in Literature and personal experiences as a migrant I came to the conclusion that words can help us to move forward and heal. I use writing as a method to spread the word about topics that help us imagine alternative ways of living where we are all included. I highly believe that in order to have an inclusive world we must focus on communicating the importance of holistic health and wellbeing as a key part of achieving a better life.

Amadou Barrow

My areas of expertise center around climate change and global health; Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH); environmental and occupational health; health education and promotion; and health risk communications. I have experience as a lecturer at both university level in the area of health psychology, health education & promotion, water supply & sanitation, biostatistics, epidemiology and research methodology. I have published several scientific manuscripts in various reputable journals on maternal & child health morbidities and mortalities in LMIC settings. I am a passionate digital health enthusiast with a special focus on holistic wellbeing at all levels.

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