Activity - Household Chemicals

Skills: Fact finding through Surveys, Tabulation, Analysis.
Activity - Household Chemicals - Articles



People often do not realize that "chemicals" are an integral part of our lives. The term "chemicals" is commonly used to mean manufactured chemicals that are made from various ingredients and formulated together in a new way for a specific human use. While useful, many of these chemicals can have adverse effect on people or the environment, either in manufacture or by the way people use them or improperly dispose of them. Long lists of many different types of toxic chemicals are found in our waterways in North America.

A toxic is any substance that is capable of harming a person if ingested, inhaled, or absorbed through any body surface, usually the skin. Toxic substances vary widely in the types of harm they may cause and the conditions under which they become harmful. The effects of the toxic substances vary widely, too. Acute reactions are sudden ones such as vomiting, dizziness or even death. Chronic reactions occur over longer periods and include symptoms such as decline in mental alertness, change in behavior, cancer, and mutations that can harm unborn children of exposed parents. Because toxics can cause both acute and chronic reactions, they are a broader category than poisons, which produce acute reactions only. For this reason, the words toxic and poison are not interchangeable.

Nobody is "for" toxic chemicals in the sense of wanting to endanger ourselves and others, and yet many toxic substances seem to be a necessary part of our lives and have come to be considered essential in our homes, our workplaces, and our schools. This predicament of needing substances that sometimes produce undesirable effects forces people to make choices about what is acceptable to them. Different people are willing to take different risks related to toxic chemicals and have varying concerns about the effects of toxins on themselves and people around them. Some people know that many of the products they use are potentially toxic but consider the risk worthwhile. Others try to avoid toxics and thus forgo the benefits of certain products.

Many people do not realize that household chemicals can be toxic. Most of the dangerous substances in the home are found in cleaners, solvents, pesticides, and products used for automotive care. In this activity, students survey themselves and their families to find out attitudes and beliefs people hold about toxics. Older students are also introduced to the term toxic, risk, and benefit. A risk is a possible danger; a benefit is an advantage.

Learning Objectives:

  1. To realize that chemicals and potential toxics are all around us
  2. We can make a choice whether or not to use some of these chemicals
  3. Understand that it is important to read the label on products
  4. Understand that people have different philosophies about risk-taking

Materials Needed:


  1. Collect four or five familiar cleaning products. Tape the lid on so students cannot open the containers. Prepare a chart on butcher paper entitled "Toxics Survey Results" that students can use to record the results of their surveys. The chart should list all of the survey questions and allow space for recording the responses.
  2. Introduce the activity and the unit by displaying the household products you have gathered. Ask students investigatory questions such as:
    • What chemicals are in these products?
    • What are they used for?
    • What does the label on the container tell you?
    • Is there anything dangerous about using them?
    • What don't we know about these products that might be important to know?
    In order to find out more about what we as a class think about toxics, complete the Home Toxics Survey.
  3. Hand out one Home Toxic Survey to each student and explain that the survey is not a test, students do not need to write their names on the survey; there are no right or wrong answers. Give the student a few minutes to complete the survey.
  4. Divide students into groups of four. Have each group discuss the following questions using their survey results:
    • What are toxics?
    • Where do we find toxics?
    • Who uses toxics? Why?
    • Are we always aware of the presence of toxics?
  5. Have each group share their responses to these questions with the class. Accept all responses; do not provide answers at this point. This is a time for students to begin thinking about toxics and for you to assess their initial understanding and attitudes. Talk with students about the idea that nobody is "for" toxics but most people think these substances are a necessary part of their lives. Tell them some people know many of the products they use are toxic yet consider it beneficial to continue using them, while other people avoid toxics by using an alternative or doing without certain products altogether.
  6. Introduce the words risk and benefit. Help students discuss the meaning of these words.
  7. Tell students that people's knowledge of toxic differs, as do their opinions, and that over the next two days the students are going to learn more about toxics. They will interview their family to find out what they know and think about toxics.
  8. Ask students to interview one of the adults in their home.

Discussion questions:

  • Are most people concerned or not concerned about toxics?
  • What does toxic mean?
  • What ideas did most people in the survey agree on?
  • What else have we learned?
  • Was there anything that surprised you?
  • What does opinion mean?
  • What is the difference between fact and opinion?
  • What would you like to learn about toxics?
  • What choices can we make that are more beneficial to the environment and therefore to all of us?