Biological and chemical terrorism are everyday concerns in the news now--a constant reminder that human beings and their environment can be fragile.

"If nothing else, that's made lots of people feel frustrated ... helpless ... at-risk," said Barbara Johnson, coordinator of the Home*A*Syst program with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

Johnson believes Americans could effectively channel some of those feelings, however, and have a big impact on health and safety, particularly for children.

"We can do so much more about everyday household products that we tend to take for granted--too often forgetting or simply ignoring just how dangerous they can be," she said.

Close to 90% of the 2.1 million toxic exposures reported last year happened in or around someone's home, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

In contrast, food poisoning at a restaurant or food service accounted for less than 1% of the exposures. Schools were the site for 1.6% of the year's poisonings and the workplace for 2.5%.

"At home, most of us are surrounded by hazardous materials," Johnson said. "All we have to do is look under the kitchen sink, in the medicine cabinet and on garage shelves to know that's true.

"In large part, that why more than one-half of last year's poison victims were children under age six. In fact, 40% of those cases were children younger than three years old."

Johnson said a few safety measures could go a long way toward reducing those alarming figures:

--Read the fine print. If a label carries such words as "danger" or "warning," the product can be toxic to children (and/or harm the environment). So, it merits safe use, storage and disposal.

"This safety measure includes reading all product labels, not just those for known risks, such as bug spray and oven cleaner," Johnson warned. "For example, I doubt many people know that the Environmental Protection Agency classifies kitchen and bath disinfectants as pesticides. Even so, those products' labels can provide the needed warnings."

Other household products with harmful pesticidal properties include chlorine bleach, septic tank additives, swimming pool chemicals, many pet shampoos, and most pressure-treated lumber (for outdoor building projects)--as well as roach baits, wasp sprays, pet dips, weed killers and the like. And the pesticides are just a fraction of the potential household hazards.

Before buying, reading labels also may direct homeowners to safer alternatives, Johnson said. Oil-based paints, for example, emit harmful fumes and their cleanup produces hazardous waste. Water-based paints are comparatively safe.

"But keep in mind that absence of a warning on the label does not necessarily mean a product is safe. For example, you may already own something that is old or something that is intended for other than household use," the pollution prevention specialist said. "So, when in doubt, get more information, if you can. Otherwise, err on the side of caution with any chemical product."

--Buy child-resistant packaging, but don't rely on it. That type of packaging is designed to prevent or at least slow down the access of most children under age 5.

"But the phrase 'most children' tells us that some toddlers--by accident or design--may be able to get into them. Besides, curiosity doesn't disappear when children reach age six," Johnson said. "The best child-resistant packaging is and always will be a locked door, preferably four to five feet above ground level."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has underscored the importance of safe storage, even in households without youngsters. The EPA was disturbed by 1995 figures indicating 79 million U.S. children had been exposed to or poisoned by common household pesticides. Of those cases, 13% had occurred in a home where the child did not live.

The EPA followed up on these findings with its own survey of household pesticide use. It learned that almost half of homes with children under age 5 had at least one pesticide stored in an unlocked cabinet less than 4 feet off the ground. Three-fourths of households without young children kept pesticides in too-low, unlocked storage.

--ALWAYS think in terms of "what if." For example, what if you spray a pesticide when children's toys or pets are nearby? Will the spray carry to and coat them with poison? Or, what if the phone rings while you're measuring out bleach for the washing machine? Will an unclosed bottle or one that's left within reach tempt a child to investigate?

What if you transfer cough syrup into a plastic pop or water bottle that's easier for you to open? Could a youngster see the bottle and think it's a cherry-flavored soda?

What if you leave properly-stored chemicals unchecked for long periods and their container starts to leak? Could a leak create toxic vapors? Corrode your air conditioning system? Drain into your water system or near a fire source? Eat through other containers? Combine with another chemical to produce deadly results?

"The 'what-if' game also applies to disposing of hazardous materials. Unless you think ahead and follow label directions exactly, you may pour leftover lawn chemicals into the street gutter--which takes them straight into the storm drain system and on to the nearest stream or lake," Johnson said. "You may put leftover paint thinner in the trash, where it could attract playing youngsters or accidentally harm sanitation workers."

Products in home or garage can be dangerous even when they do not contain a pesticide. Among those that can be hazardous to children and the environment are: most medications; shoe polish; mothballs; fluorescent bulbs; transmission fluid; antifreeze; machine oils; cleaning solvents; lead-acid batteries; gasoline, bottled gas; roof coatings; lubricants; drain cleaners; many paints/stains (and thinners and strippers); sealants, including many adhesives/glues; photo development chemicals; wood floor/panel cleaner and polish; everything dispensed as an aerosol; all strong acids and bases.

Also, beware of vague, possibly misleading terms on labels, warns Johnson.

The Federal Trade Commission has given manufacturers guides on the use of such vague phrases as "ozone safe" and "environmentally friendly."

But use of such terms is not regulated on any products except pesticides, she said.

Everyone who has cleaned a fireplace knows ashes can be a mess. But a potential poison?

By nature, any strong acid or strong base (alkaline) can cause harm if eaten, inhaled and/or exposed to skin in sufficient strength and amount, Johnson said.

"That includes many hobby and craft supplies," she said. "Even wood ashes have enough lime [alkaline] to make them dangerous around kids who put everything in their mouth."

Johnson provided these ways of identifying whether a product is a strong acid or base:

1. The label's hazard warning recommends skin and/or breathing protection.

2. The product is intended for commercial use (for example, industrial-strength cleaner). Or .

3. The product is intended for treating difficult stains, particularly on hard surfaces (rust or lime removers).

Her Home*A*Syst program includes an in-depth look at managing hazardous household products. As part of that, it provides a list of Kansas county contacts for how and where to dispose of hazardous "trash." That list is available through every Kansas county Research and Extension office, as well as the World Wide Web. The Web includes the entire Home*A*Syst manual, with versions for rural dwellers, www.engext.ksu.edu/ppi/homeasyst/guide_for_home/welcome.htm, and urban homeowners, www.oznet.ksu.edu/ library/ageng2/h_a_syst/homeasst.pdf . The hazardous waste disposal contacts are at the end of Chapter 5. Home*A*Syst is part of a national self-help program, developed by Extension engineers and safety specialists. Covering everything from indoor air quality to storm water drainage, it helps people assess all the ways in which their home management can add to or subtract from the safety of their family and their nearby environment. Kansans can learn more about the program by calling Barbara Johnson at 800 578 8898 or 785 532 6501 (Manhattan).

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