Types of Hazards
Personal Care Hazards
Websites about Hazardous Substances and their Health
The hazards of ingredients in personal care and household products are
varied. The following are some of the most common types of hazards, many of
which will not become apparent for many years. Many chemicals have more than one
adverse health effect.
Carcinogen: Cancers result from genetic alterations which generally develop
years after exposures. Substances may be categorized as known, suspected or
possible human carcinogens, based on the amount and type of research done on
Developmental toxin: A substance which has an adverse affect on a developing
child, sub-category of reproductive toxin. Developmental toxins are also known
as teratogens. They usually result from pre-natal exposure experienced by the
mother, but can also result from pre-natal exposure by the father, or post-natal
exposure of a developing child.
Endocrine or hormone toxin: In recent years, scientists have discovered that
certain commonly used chemicals can disrupt our delicate endocrine systems. The
endocrine system produces hormones in a variety of organs known as endocrine
glands. These hormones travel in the bloodstream carrying messages from one part
of the body to another. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can upset this
communication system in a variety of ways. They can mimic natural hormones and
send false messages, or block hormone receptors that receive messages. While
researchers are only beginning to understand the health effects of these
chemicals, they have already observed that hormone disruptions can result in
damage to the brain, immune and reproductive systems.
The unborn child is particularly susceptible. Miniscule amounts of chemicals
that may not harm an adult can have devastating effects at critical stages of
development of the fetus. There is evidence that hormone-disrupting chemicals
can result in learning disabilities, testicular cancer, impaired thyroid
function, declining sperm counts and male genital defects.
Because hormone-disrupting chemicals mimic estrogen, it is suspected they are
linked to the growing incidence of breast cancer. Very few ingredients are
tested for reproductive or developmental effects caused by hormone disrupting
Immune system toxin: A substance which has an adverse effect on the functioning
of the immune system. Altered immune function may lead to increased incidence or
severity of infectious diseases or cancers. Allergens are considered to be immunotoxicants, which can cause hypersensitivity reactions like asthma,
rhinitis and anaphylaxis, as well as allergies.
Liver toxin: The liver functions as a center for metabolism, processing
chemicals we are exposed to so they can be utilized, detoxified or excreted. The
liver is exposed to toxicants that enter the body from ingestion and from
absorption into the blood. Some chemicals are known to cause a variety of types
of liver damage, from liver cell death to chronic liver damage to cancer.
Kidney toxin: Kidneys (like the liver) are vulnerable to chemical exposures
because they process a high amount of the chemicals circulating in the body.
Mutagen: A mutagen is a substance which changes genes which are subsections of
the DNA of cells. These mutations can be passed along as cells reproduce,
sometimes leading to defective cells or cancer.
Neurotoxin: A substance which adversely effects the central nervous system or
the peripheral nervous system resulting from exposure to chemical substances.
These can include a wide range of effects from impairment of learning, memory, judgement and other mental functions, to fatigue, irritability and other
behavioural changes. Effects can be short term or permanent. Peripheral nervous
system damage can cause weakness in lower limbs, prickling or tingling in limbs,
and loss of co-ordination. Personal care and household cleaning products are
rarely tested for neurotoxic effects.
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (Quats): Listed on labels as
benzalkonium chloride, cetrimonium bromide, quaternium-15 and quaternium 1-29,
these compounds are caustic and can irritate the eyes. Quaternium-15 is a
formaldehyde releaser and the number one cause of preservative-related contact
dermatitis. There is concern about their potential as sensitizers. For about 5%
of people, quats are an extreme sensitizer and can cause a variety of
asthma-like symptoms, even respiratory arrest. When they are used with hot
running water, steam increases the inhalation of vapours. These compounds are
used in a wide range of cleaning products and disinfectants as germicides,
preservatives and surfactants.
Reproductive toxin: A substance which has adverse effects on the male or female
reproductive system. This may include early puberty, decreases in fertility or
miscarriages. Developmental toxicity is a sub-category of reproductive toxicity.
Reproductive toxicity is a relatively new field of study which is of growing
concern. Very few chemicals have yet been tested for reproductive or
developmental effects. A chemical may be categorized as a known or suspected
reproductive toxin, depending on the amount and types of studies done.
Respiratory toxin: A substance which has an adverse effect on the functioning or
structure of the respiratory system. Respiratory toxicants can produce a variety
of acute and chronic effects, from local irritation and bronchitis to lung
damage resulting in emphysema or cancer. Asthma and respiratory infections are
other possible effects of exposure to respiratory toxins.
Sensitizer: A sensitizer is a substance which may, after repeated exposure,
trigger severe allergic-type reactions to even a small amount of the substance.
Some doctors now believe that some substances may also trigger sensitization to
a wide number of substances, the condition known as multiple chemical
sensitivity (MCS). Organochloride pesticides and formaldehyde are two substances
suspected of triggering MCS.
Skin toxicant: A substance which can result in short term or chronic skin
irritation or damage. Contact dermatitis is the most common, but other possible
effects include photosensitization, chloracne and skin cancer.
Sense organ toxicant: The senses of smell, vision, taste and hearing may be
injured by a variety of physical, chemical and biological agents. Airbourne
chemicals can cause eye irritation and in some cases result in permanent harm to
vision. Some substances can result in hearing loss.
Teratogen: is a substance which can cause malformations of an embryo or fetus.
This is a type of reproductive toxin.
Sources: Scorecard.org, Labour Environmental Alliance Society, Toxins and
Cleaners brochure, Physical and Theoretical Chemisty Laboratory, Oxford
For more information on types of adverse health effects, go to
click on Health Effects. Scorecard also provides information on health effects
of a variety of chemical substances; click on About the Chemicals. Scorecard is
a site of the Environmental Defense Network.
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Websites about Hazardous Substances and their Health
Environmental Defense Organization
US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services
National Library of Medicine
US National Safety Council, Environmental Health Center (EHC)
Vermont Safety Information Resources Inc (SIRI)
Vermont Safety Informaton Resources Inc (SIRI) - extensive list of links to
sites with information from MSDS sheets and hazardous chemical information
Agency for Toxic substances and Disease Registry, Center for Disease Control, US
Another useful source of informaton is Environmental Health Perspectives [EHP],
a peer reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental
Health Science. EHP is now an open access journal - all content is freely
available to everyone online.
To use PubMed to find articles in EHP, follow the link below and use a search
strategy that includes the journal name (Environmental Health Perspectives) AND
the subject you are looking for. The [ta] following the journal title limits the
search to articles within that journal, a process that has obvious limitations
but that can be very helpful for journals that offer full access.
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