How to Identify Household Hazardous Waste Items and Use Them Safely

Woman reviewing the hazardous symbol on the back of a bottle

Most Canadians have plenty of products around the home – in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, garages or sheds — which can be very effective for a variety of purposes but also quite hazardous to human health and the environment. These household hazardous waste items include paint and paint thinners, furniture polish, cleaning liquids and powders, laundry detergent packets, barbecue starter fluid, car antifreeze, pesticides, bleach, cooking sprays, drain cleaners and more.

Many are toxic, poisonous, corrosive, flammable or can explode, and need to be stored and handled correctly. In Canada, potentially hazardous materials for the home are labelled using an easy-to-understand hazard symbol system that outlines the risks associated with each of them.

How Well Do You Understand Hazardous Symbols on Common Household Products? [Quiz]

What do the different shapes of hazard symbols mean?

Hazard symbols have three parts: The picture, frame and caution words underneath the image.

The picture tells you the type of danger associated with a product.

  • The exploding symbol is meant to show people that the product can explode if exposed to heat or is punctured. An explosion would send pieces of plastic or metal around the room, and that can cause injury, especially to the eyes. Aerosols are a good example of products that explode, such as cooking spray and hair spray.
  • The skeleton hand symbol means the product is corrosive, and can burn your skin or eyes if it gets onto your body. It can also burn your stomach and throat if it’s ingested. Bleach or a drain cleaner are good examples here.
  • The flammable symbol tells you the product will catch fire easily if it’s exposed to heat, flames or sparks. Paint thinner, nail polish, lighter fluid, gasoline and aerosol cans are examples of this.
  • The skull and bones symbol is meant to tell you the product is poisonous. If you breathe in or ingest the product, you could become very sick, or even die.

The frame around each picture helps you understand the potential danger. The triangle means the container is dangerous if it’s not safely disposed of (it can explode), and the octagon means the contents are dangerous (flammable, poisonous or corrosive).

The words underneath the hazard symbol explain the degree of risk. “Caution” means temporary injury may result, but death is possible with extreme exposure. “Danger” means a product might cause temporary or permanent injury, or death. “Extreme danger” means exposure to very low amounts may cause serious injury or death.

How to use hazardous household products safely

It’s important to be cautious using hazardous products around the home and garden. Know the hazard symbols and read product labels carefully so that you know how to use these products safely and for the right applications. Make sure you understand the ingredients and any special handling instructions, which might include wearing protective gear such as gloves or safety glasses. And always wash your hands with soap after use.

How to store products properly

Hazardous household products need to be stored safely away so children or pets can’t get access to them. Place hazardous products off the floor and high up on shelves, far out of the reach of curious kids and pets. Look at childproofing your home and consider locking up the more dangerous products.

Always follow the product label instructions for storage. Regularly check containers for leaks or damage. If possible, store products with harmful fumes or at risk of fire or explosion outside the home. Be careful when storing in areas with fluctuating temperature – sometimes a cooler and dry environment is best. Store corrosive products in a hard plastic container.

Another storage tip: If you have several opened containers of the same brand and type of household product under a sink, for example, combine them and recycle the empty container. Never mix different cleaning brands, which might cause a toxic chemical reaction.

How to dispose of products safely

Make sure you are disposing of household products correctly. Most of them can’t go out with regular garbage or recycling, or poured down the drain. Hazardous waste like paints and cleaning products have toxic substances and chemicals, which are harmful to groundwater and soil, and need to be handled differently. Check with your municipality or region to learn where the nearest drop-off location is and how to properly dispose of these products in your area.

What to do if someone in the home been harmed by a chemical product

If you or a family member become exposed to a chemical product in some way, reach out to a Poison Control Centre, get to a drop-in clinic or call your family doctor as soon as possible. If your pet has been exposed, take it to the vet immediately. In both cases, bring the product container with you.

Prevention is always preferable, so teach your children what those hazard symbols mean – the Health Canada has a fun Stay Safe activity book for young kids. Have emergency phone numbers nearby, or program them into your phone.

Hazardous household products have many useful purposes. With knowledge of how to use, store and dispose of them properly, you can also help ensure that they’re safe for you, your family and the environment.

This information has been provided for your convenience only and should not be construed as providing legal or insurance advice.