15 common kitchen items that are secretly toxic
The kitchen is one of the most popular rooms in the house because it’s where most of the cooking and eating takes place. It’s also a place that can harbour hidden toxins and potential hazards when it comes to your health. Many products used in the kitchen, ranging from non-stick cooking pans to plastic storage containers, can pose a health risk at certain levels –and even germ-killing cleaning products can pose a hazard if not used correctly.
Read on to learn about the most common and surprising kitchen items that may be toxic and risky to your health.
Many oven cleaners and drain cleaners contain sodium hydroxide (also known as lye), a corrosive substance that can cause severe burns if it comes in contact with your skin or eyes. Oven cleaners are sprayed, which means you can end up breathing it into your lungs, if inhaled, sodium hydroxide can cause a sore throat that can last for several days. Drain cleaners also contain sodium dioxide and can be hazardous – that’s why they come with instructions with warnings, he says. When cleaning with these toxic substances it is important to always wear gloves, and make sure the area is well ventilated, says Becky Turpin, director of Home and Community Safety. “Turn on a fan if you have one, and open windows. Wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose.”
Multipurpose cleaners promise to make life easier by being able to clean a variety surfaces but many contain the harmful chemical 2-Butoxyethanol, a glycol ether that, according to the Environmental Working Group may cause a variety of ailments from skin irritation and sore throats (when inhaled) to more serious conditions such as liver and kidney damage. “Depending on the type of cleaner, these products may contain ammonia, perchloroethylene (“PERC”), 2-butoxyethanol, or sodium hydroxide,” says Turpin. “All of these chemicals can have negative side effects if ingested or inhaled, and the potential complications range from skin irritation to organ damage.”
When it comes to whitening and disinfecting, bleach is a go-to household staple, but bleach itself is also a dangerous substance that can cause skin irritation, respiratory problems, and even death. “Used properly, bleach is great for disinfecting, but it is usually one of the most hazardous chemicals in the household,” says Dr Rick Sachleben. “Put one drop of bleach in a gallon [4 litres] of water and you can drink it, but five percent bleach will burn your throat.” The biggest risk that involves bleach happens when it is mixed with ammonia (Read on for more on ammonia later.) When mixed, bleach and ammonia react to form chloramine, which evaporates into the air, and can kill you if you breathe it in, explains Sachleben. Bleach also wreaks havoc on kitchen faucets and surfaces. Bleach contains chlorine, and when it reacts to disinfect, it becomes corrosive, explains Sachleben. “If you use it around your house, the faucets will rust from the chlorine.”
These are a kitchen staple, but when they become scarred and ragged from deep cutting with knives, they create a web of fissures that can harbour bacteria and lead to food poisoning. Worn plastic cutting boards are also likely to shed plastic particles that could end up in your food. “With plastic cutting boards, the risk of chemicals coming from the board is low, but the bacteria is always an issue,” says Sachleben. “You need to be able to get the trace of bacteria out of the crevices.” The best way to clean a plastic cutting board is to run it through the dishwasher, but if the crevices on the board become deep and difficult to clean, you should throw it out.
Aluminium foil has been around for more than 100 years and is an ideal product for wrapping and storing foods, but when aluminium leaches from foil or aluminium pans into our food, it can be potentially harmful. Sachleben cautions that risk for aluminium exposure increases when you cook acetic foods, such as tomatoes, in an aluminium pot. A study published in the International Journal of Electrochemical Science suggests that cooking at high temperatures and the use of acidic foods did perpetuate a greater amount of leaching of aluminium. “Follow the rules,” says Sachleben. “Don’t cook acidic foods in aluminium or store orange juice in an aluminium container.”
Many cooks prefer gas cooktops for their quick start, constant flame, and ability to cook food more evenly, but gas appliances, especially if not vented properly, can emit a mix of potentially hazardous chemicals and compounds – nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde – which can worsen various respiratory and other health ailments. These pollutants are usually less diluted within our homes than they are outdoors, and in the absence of ventilation, emissions from gas stove burners can reach potentially harmful levels, a 2014 study in journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests. “Most gas stoves are not vented like your furnace,” says Sachleben, “but you also don’t use them as much, and most homes have carbon monoxide detectors.”
When it comes to the threat of formaldehyde, he says that you are more likely to find higher concentrations of the chemical in some of the foods you eat than from the gas flame on your stove. “But the concern is there,” he says. To ensure safe air quality levels, be sure to use a venting range hood, and never use a gas stove as a heat source.
Available in full-strength and in a variety of household cleaning products, ammonia in liquid form is an excellent cleanser. However, despite its cleaning prowess, it can cause serious health problems if not used properly. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), ammonia is highly toxic and can severely corrode the lungs, eyes, and skin, causing blindness, lung problems, and death. Its pungent odour is highly recognisable, and irritating. “You have to be careful not to use ammonia in an enclosed space and breathe it in,” says Sachleben. “And never mix ammonia and bleach – it’s lethal.”
We know what’s in synthetic cleaners, says Sachleben, but the ingredients in some natural products have not been studied and we don’t know the long-term toxicity of the ingredients. While reputable natural cleaning companies such as Method and Seventh Generation list the ingredients on their labels and work to exclude chemicals with known or suspected toxicities, other companies may claim to be green or natural but still sneak toxic substances in their products. Natural cleaners contain plant extracts and their minor components are not well identified, so you don’t know the risk, explains Sachleben. For example, cleaners with orange may seem natural, as orange has natural antibacterial properties, but these sprays may also include d-limonene, which can cause skin irritation.
A sharp knife can be a chef’s best friend, but knives, especially if they are dull, are responsible for the greatest number of kitchen accidents, sending more than 1.1 million people to emergency rooms each year. This common kitchen item falls on the side of dangerous more than toxic. While sharp knives pose obvious risks, keeping knives sharp actually leads to fewer injuries. Blunt knife blades are more likely to slip because they require more pressure to cut. In addition to following proper safety rules, it’s important to have your blunt knives re-sharpened, says Sachleben. “If you do send your knives out to be re-sharpened, be careful when you get them back.”
Non-stick cooking pans make clean-up a breeze but when their surfaces are heated to high temperatures or they become scratched and pieces of the coating flake off into your food, it can pose health risks. Non-stickpans are coated with polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a chemical that has non-stick properties. When PTFE-coated pans are heated to high temperatures, they emit gases that can be toxic, according to a 2017 study in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research. To be safe, one should try to avoid overheating pans that are fluorinated, says Sachleben. It’s worth spending the money on a quality pan for cooking – you want to get something that will hold up over time.
Phthalates, often called plasticisers, are found in everything from vinyl flooring to adhesives to raincoats as well as many personal care products and a popular item found in the kitchen: dish soap. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the health effects from exposure to low levels of phthalates are unknown but in studies, some types of phthalates have been shown to affect the reproductive system of laboratory animals. “There is valid concern about phthalates and long-term exposure,” says Sachleben. While the risk may be low, especially when compared to other products, an existing risk is a good reason to be cautious and find substitutes. “There are other cleaners that allow the chemicals to be effective but with less risk,” he says.
Plastic containers and plastic wrap are common kitchen items used to store food but when placed in the microwave and heated, they have the potential to leak bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates into the food, especially if the food has a higher fat content, according to a 2018 study in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. These two chemicals are known to be endocrine disruptors, which means they have the ability to affect oestrogen and testosterone levels in humans and even impact the development of the brain and reproductive organs in developing fetuses. Temperature and time are also key factors when it comes to heating food in plastic containers.
“Hot foods sitting in a container for longer periods of time, will leach more,” says Dr Gary Ginsberg, author of What’s Toxic, What’s Not. “In general, it is advisable to heat your food in ceramic or Pyrex to avoid the leaching issues you get from plastic trays,” he advises. “When we know something is avoidable, it’s good to take action on it.”
Despite their claims for killing bacteria, the US Food and Drug Administration says there isn’t enough science to show that over-the-counter antibacterial soaps are more efficient at preventing illness than using soap and water. In addition, the long-term use of antibacterial cleaning products, which contain triclosan and triclocarban, may have negative health effects and could make some bacteria resistant to antibiotics, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Chemosphere. Quaternary Ammonium Compounds, another type of antimicrobial often found in antibacterial cleaners, not only have been shown to breed antibiotic-resistant bacteria but they can also cause dermatitis, a separate 2014 study published in the Polish journal Medycyna Pracy suggests. “It’s important for people to understand the hidden dangers lurking underneath the sink and recognise that children are not the only ones at risk,” says Turpin. “Adults need to protect themselves from harsh chemicals and vapours, too.”
Canned foods are a convenient staple in many kitchen pantries, but their linings often contain BPA, a chemical that has been linked to reproductive toxitity. “It is hard to find canned foods that don’t have BPA,” says Ginsberg. Children’s foods are often advertised as having liners that are free of BPA, and parents should look for that and try to lessen the use of canned foods, he says. “It’s better to go with fresh or frozen food, but if the frozen food is in a plastic bag, don’t heat it in the microwave,” says Ginsberg.
From removing grease to warding off ants, petrol may have a variety of household uses, but remember, petrol is made for cars, says Sachleben. “It is not designed to be a cleanser – it is too flammable and too dangerous – and should not be brought in the house.” Petrol can contain benzene (and other aromatic hydrocarbons), which is known to be a human carcinogen, explains Sachleben. Exposure to petrol, either through physical contact or inhalation, can cause several health problems and lead to petrol poisoning. “If you need to clean something, go to the store and spend the money and buy the cleaner that is designed for what you need to do,” says Sachleben.
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