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Hazardous Materials in and around the Home

Hazardous materials can enter your home in many ways, from chemical spills to groundwater contamination to automobile fluids to cleaning materials.  In fact, the average household contains between 3 and 10 gallons of hazardous material at all times, presenting a threat to the health and indoor air quality within the home if handled improperly.  These can be in the form of cleaners, bleach, oil, light bulbs, paints, batteries, medicines, mercury-containing materials and other household items loaded with potentially harmful chemicals. Keeping your home free from these materials or properly controlling them is an important part of keeping you and your family safe, whether it is in an emergency situation or day-to-day living. 

Hazardous materials come in three forms - solids (i.e. rat poison), liquids (bleach, gas, antifreeze), and gases (such as natural gas or propane).  Each form presents its own dangers (consumption of solids and liquids v. inhalation of gases) and all should be properly contained and stored according to manufacturer labels to minimize risk. 

There are several different types of hazardous materials based on how they act and perform relative to their surroundings.  The four most common types are as follows:

  • Corrosive - Materials that chemically eat away substances such as metal or oven cleaners.

  • Ignitable - Materials that are highly flammable and are a fire risk.  This includes matches, alcohols, and lighter fluids, among other substances.

  • Reactive - Materials that react spontaneously with the air, water, shock, or heat including some bleaches and drain cleaners.

  • Toxic - Materials that are chemically threatening to human health if inhaled or consumed.  Many household cleaners are highly toxic if consumed.

For more information, consider taking the free short course from FEMA�s Emergency Management Institute titled Household Hazardous Materials: A Guide for Citizens.

Installation (Getting It Done):
There are a variety of methods you can use to help make your home safer and avoid the dangers of hazardous materials.  The most important thing you can do is to store all hazardous materials properly.  Keep them in the original container with the label for future reference.  Follow all manufacturer suggestions for storage temperatures.  Be sure to store flammables away from the home, any sources of flame or heat, and out of direct sunlight.  Garages and exterior storage sheds offer great places to safely keep flammable materials.  Keep an eye on your designated storage location for fumes or other signs that the materials are not behaving properly.  If you do detect fumes, wear a face mask, remove the leaking material, and ventilate the storage area properly to rid it of all dangerous toxins.  Be sure to dispose of all hazardous materials properly.  Click here to find areas near you that handle hazardous material disposal and visit Earth911's page on Recycling Hazardous Materials.

An easy way to minimize the risks associated with hazardous materials is to only purchase what you need when you need it.  Keeping large quantities of gas, cleaning supplies, alcohols, etc. on hand only increases the chances of harmful exposure.  Look for safer alternative products whenever possible.  For example, instead of using chemical cleaners, use baking soda and a damp cloth to scrub countertops. 

Click here for the EPA's list of hazardous household product alternatives.

Emergency Situations:
If there is a hazardous material spill, explosion, or other emergency in your area, it is important to know how to protect your home and family from harm.  Ask your local fire department about emergency warning procedure and make sure you and your family understand how to react to warnings.  Your local emergency planning committee can help you identify the proper plan for response and inform you about where hazardous materials are stored or used in your area.  Identify a shelter location ahead of time.  The shelter should be indoors in a room with sealed windows and doors.  For more information on creating an emergency plan, visit

During an emergency situation, stay as far away from the incident site as possible.  If driving or walking outside, seek permanent shelter and try to stay upwind, upstream, and uphill from the site.  Listen to directions on the news or radio or from your local fire department to stay safe.  If you are instructed to stay in your home, close and lock all doors and windows and bring everyone into one room.  Be sure all doors and windows in your shelter room are locked and place a towel under the door to help block fumes.  Tape all the way around the door and window frames to seal the room completely.  Close all curtains and stay away from the windows.  When the fire department informs you that it is safe again, open the doors and windows in your house to help ventilate it and remove any lingering hazards.  The most important thing to remember in an emergency situation is to listen to authorities and keep your family inside and away from the hazard.  Always report any contact with hazardous materials and seek immediate medical attention.  Consult the following links for more information on staying safe in an emergency:

U.S. Fire Administration - Residential Hazardous Materials Safety

Jefferson County - Emergency Preparedness Guide


Videos on This Topic:

Residential Hazardous Material Safety (1:35) - FEMA - This short video offers a few tips for reducing hazardous materials and keeping your home safe. 


Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day (1:53) - In Bergen County, New Jersey, local authorities have started collection days for hazardous materials such as paint, antifreeze, thinners, and other harmful materials.  Find out what the collection day looks like and learn about some products that can be taken to such collections in this video. 


More Information on This Topic:

Guide for Handling Household Chemicals


EPA - Household Hazardous Waste


FEMA - Hazardous Materials


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