Dangers May Be Lurking In Home Cabinets

By: Karen Ravn
By: Karen Ravn

Your cabinets are always there for you, faithfully storing whatever you cram into them. But "out of sight, out of mind" can end up meaning "out of date" — and that's just one of the unhealthy situations that could be developing behind those closed doors. Mold may be growing. Poisons may be lurking. Accidents may be waiting to happen.

So follow our expert-approved cabinet-by-cabinet guide on which household items to keep, toss, or even to add to your shopping list. Give your storage centers a makeover — and protect your family's health in the process.

Under the kitchen sink:
Mold spores are everywhere, scouting for a damp place to settle down and raise a big family. Don't let them: Mold irritates eyes and airways, contributing to chronic sinus infections and asthma. So keep your cabinet dry. Then, stock it right:

Keep: All-purpose cleaners:
Pick ones with an EPA Design for the Environment label, which indicates that the ingredients are as safe as possible for the environment and you. Or go natural: Mix equal parts white vinegar and water in a spray bottle to clean glass, says Anne Steinemann, PhD, professor of civil and environmental engineering and public affairs at the University of Washington. For wood floors, add 1 teaspoon each vegetable oil and vinegar to 1 quart of water; mop, then rinse with fresh water.

Toss: Oven cleaner:
The chemicals in it can burn skin on contact, and the fumes hurt airways. Instead, sprinkle a generous amount of baking soda in a cool oven and spray with a mix of water and some liquid soap to dampen. Scrub with fine steel wool. "It takes a little longer, but it's as effective as chemicals," says Kevin Kennedy, a certified indoor environmental consultant in Kansas City, MO.

Toss: Antibacterial soap:
Antibacterials offer imperfect protection against illness because they don't kill viruses, says Kenneth Rosenman, MD, a professor of medicine at Michigan State University. And some people are allergic; for them, antibacterials in household cleaners may cause asthma. Experts also believe that by killing only some bacteria, these soaps give rise to more dangerous strains. For most of us, soap and water is best.

Keep: Rubber gloves:
They protect your hands from hot water and cleaners that can irritate or dry out your skin. Choose ones that reach at least halfway up your forearm.

Toss: Sponges:
Germs breed fast on these when wet. Also, "antibacterial" sponges aren't a good option; they're likely treated with triclosan, an antimicrobial that might irritate sensitive skin and may harm the environment.

Keep: Dishrags:
Longer-lasting than sponges, they are an environmentally friendly option for washing dishes and wiping counters. But bacteria can grow on dishrags, too, so launder them at least three times a week.

Keep: Plastic scrubbers:
Bacteria may not attach as easily to plastic as they do to sponges and dishrags, says Stuart Levy, MD, a professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine. Rinse thoroughly and air-dry before storing.

Keep: Disinfectants:
Use these to clean a countertop where you've worked with raw meat or poultry. (Look for an EPA registration number on the label — it means the product really kills germs.) But be picky: You can't sterilize air, so skip aerosol disinfectants.

Keep: Paper towels:
They are better than dishrags or sponges for wiping up germy messes. To reduce the environmental toll, choose an unbleached, 100 percent recycled variety.

Keep: Shelf liner:
Use self-sticking paper that won't let water leak through. If something does drip and mold develops, it's easier to replace liner than it is to replace the shelf.

Keep: Garbage can with lid:
The lid is key — it contains odors and keeps any mold spores on your trash from escaping and starting a colony in the cabinet. Empty the bag daily.

In the medicine cabinet:
Yes, it's called the medicine cabinet — but you should get the medicine out of it. The humidity in your bathroom can degrade medication, warns Cynthia LaCivita, PharmD, director of education and special programs at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP). Move your meds to a cool, dry spot, such as the linen closet or pantry. Here's what else should and shouldn't be in the cabinet:

Toss: Expired drugs:
Most medications (about 90 percent, according to FDA tests) still get results after their expiration dates. But since crucial meds (including insulin and nitroglycerin) lose effectiveness soon after they expire, experts say it's safest to get rid of outdated medicine, as well as any leftover prescriptions.

Keep: Pill organizer:
It's an easy way to keep track of your weekly meds, and research shows it helps improve adherence to complicated drug regimens. To store meds, however, keep them in their original containers, says Kathy Besinque, PharmD, an associate professor of clinical pharmacy at the USC School of Pharmacy. That way you have access to the label information and expiration dates.

Toss: Ipecac:
For decades, this was used to induce vomiting in poison victims, but today, experts recommend against it — there's no evidence it actually helps, and it may make you less able to tolerate other poison treatments.

Keep: Tweezers:
Clean them with rubbing alcohol before using to remove splinters, for example, and toss at the first sign of rust. No need for a supersharp pair: "You shouldn't be doing surgery at home," says Besinque. Instead, look for a flat, angled tip — the safest, and best for precision eyebrow plucking.

Keep: Mouthwash:
Those with and without alcohol work equally well. Just be sure to check your mouthwash for the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance label. To receive the seal, manufacturers must supply studies supporting label claims, like antigingivitis and anticavity. (For a list of products, go to ada.org/seal.)

Keep: Electric toothbrush:
Power-assisted types are more effective at removing plaque than brushing by hand, says Diane Melrose, RDH, chair of dental hygienics at the University of Southern California.

Toss: Frayed toothbrush:
If you prefer a regular toothbrush, change it every 3 to 4 months or as soon as the bristles start looking spread out, says Kerry Maguire, DDS, MPH, director of the professional advocacy team at Tom's of Maine. A frayed brush can damage gums and doesn't clean well.

Keep: OTC pain relievers:
Generic acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen are as reliable as brand names. Buy a bottle you'll use up before it expires, and store it with other meds in a cool spot. Other staples: antacids, antibiotic cream, and antihistamines.

Toss: Mercury thermometer:
Break it and you can inhale vaporized mercury, a neurotoxin. Even the small amount in a thermometer can be a health risk, especially if you use a vacuum cleaner on the spill. Some pharmacies offer a safer digital model in exchange for a mercury one, says Catherine Tom-Revzon, PharmD, former clinical pharmacy manager at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in Bronx, NY. Don't just throw your mercury thermometer away. Call your local recycling center for disposal instructions.

Toss: Dental floss:
Waxed floss slides easily between tight-spaced teeth and is gentler on gums than the unwaxed type.

In the bathroom vanity:
Though a spray of air freshener can make your bathroom smell like vanilla, think twice before using it. In an as yet unpublished study, 25 scented products — including air fresheners and cleaners — were found to emit a toxic chemical, says Steinemann, author of the study. Instead, place cinnamon sticks in a small basket. More tips:

Keep: Hairbrush:
Natural bristles remove more hair-product buildup than synthetic brushes; they're also better at spreading your own natural oil evenly along hair shafts. Clean your brush with shampoo, rinse, and air-dry.

Toss: Old makeup:
Because of infection risk, throw away eye products — mascara, eyeliner, shadow — after 6 months of daily use. Foundation lasts for about 2 years; dry face powder and lipstick stay safe for about 3.

Keep: Rubbing alcohol:
It's a great antiseptic for cleaning the unbroken skin around minor cuts, scrapes, and burns. It'll hurt if applied to open wounds, though — use soap and water instead, suggests Besinque.

Toss: Chemical drain de-clogger:
Most emit harmful fumes and can burn skin on contact. Safer options: a plunger (and a little elbow grease) or a declogger made from bacteria that eat the kinds of gunk that block your pipes, such as Drainbo (drainbo.com). "Bacteria-based drain cleaners aren't speedy, but they're environmentally friendly and work well," says Kennedy.

Toss: Bathroom cleaners:
Most commercial toilet bowl, tub, and tile cleaners give off nasty fumes and can be fatal if ingested. Products with a Design for the Environment label are the safest available — except for those you make yourself. First, wipe surfaces with vinegar, then sprinkle on baking soda. Let stand for a few minutes, then rub with a damp sponge and rinse. "Vinegar is a mild acetic acid, and when it reacts with baking soda, it can help loosen surface scum," says Kennedy.

Toss: Aerosol sprays:
People who use spray cleaning products are more likely to develop asthma than those who apply cleaner directly to the surface. Choose a pump-style hairspray, too.

In the garage cabinet:
The garage may hold the most potent and hazardous products in your home; keep cabinets locked if you have children or pets. Store all potentially dangerous materials in their original containers so you can easily access any important safety information. More advice for your garage cabinet:

Keep: Boric acid:
This is an effective bug killer but does not evaporate into the air or pose the more serious health risks associated with synthetic insecticides. Still, keep it out of reach of kids and pets — use it behind appliances or under baseboards.

Keep: DEET-based insect repellent:
It is considered safe by the CDC, but because liberal use may irritate your skin, experts recommend using it only if mosquitoes or ticks are multitudinous, or if Lyme disease or West Nile virus is a threat (follow directions). Otherwise, use natural repellents made from lemon eucalyptus.

Toss: Pesticides:
Accidental exposure can harm a child's nervous system (or even your own if the dose is large enough). Try safer options instead: To protect your garden from plant-eating aphids, for example, drown them in water-filled yellow containers — aphids are attracted to yellow, according to entomologists. For other green alternatives, go to prevention.com/links.

Toss: Ethylene glycol antifreeze:
A teaspoonful spilled onto your garage floor could kill a pet that laps it up; a few tablespoons could be lethal for a child. Antifreeze made with propylene glycol is about three times less toxic than the ethylene variety — check the label before you buy.

Keep: Steel wool:
Use this to plug holes where mice may be getting in. Instead of rat poison, set out traps.

Keep: Goggles:
Every year, more than 1 million eye injuries occur in the home — while people are whacking weeds, say, or using bleach or other toxic liquids, according to a recent study by the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Many of these injuries could be prevented if people simply wore goggles, says Tamara Fountain, MD, spokesperson for the AAO.


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