Safer Solutions Safer Solutions Education
Safer Solutions
. .
Home arrow Education Resources arrow Module 2: The ABC of hazardous chemicals
Module 2: The ABC of hazardous chemicals PDF Print E-mail

Regulation, environmental and health effects, and understanding exposure pathways

Application – This module is designed to raise learners’ awareness about the different types of hazardous chemicals in the home and their environmental and potential health effects.

Learning outcomes

After this session, learners will:

  1. Identify the four classes of chemicals, their regulatory bodies and their labeling requirements  
  2. Understand and be confident to explain the environmental benefits of reducing and eliminating hazardous chemical use around the home
  3. Understand the different pathways of exposure and the unique vulnerability of children to hazardous chemicals
  4. Understand risk and discuss examples of how risk is a combination of both exposure and harm
  5. Understand why some chemicals receive a lot of  media attention and public scrutiny

Learning outcome 2.1

Identify the four classes of chemicals, their regulatory bodies and their labelling requirements


The regulatory system is often referred to as a chemical maze. This section will give you a brief introduction into how chemicals are assessed and registered in Australia.

Four different federal government agencies are responsible for chemicals in Australia (see Australian Chemical schemes at a glance). They are broken into industrial, agricultural and veterinary, pharmaceutical and food additives. Each of these has a different way of assessing the hazard of chemicals and each scheme has different labelling requirements.

To learn more about chemicals the regulatory agencies also insist that each chemical has a material data safety sheet (MSDS). MSDS’s include information such as chemical name, toxicity to humans, toxicity to plants and animals and how long they can last in the environment. It is a responsibility of the manufacturers of chemicals to provide MSDS’s upon request.


Activity 2.1: Provide the group with a sample of labels and MSDS from different chemical products. Prompt the participants to discuss if they normally read labels and follow the safety instructions. Get a sense of how useful people find the labels and if they have ever read an MSDS.

Ensure the group is aware that more information can be provided by chemical manufacturers by calling the 1800 number listed on products or requesting information from shop assistants.


Resource 2.1: Domestos material safety data sheets, chlorpyrifos label and sample labels from Domestos and Homebrand Caustic Oven Cleaner.

Find out more

The National Chemical Information Gateway provides comprehensive links to information about chemicals in Australia.

Part 3: Resources and handouts

2.1 a): Australian Chemical schemes at a glance
2.1 b): US EPA: Read the label first information sheet

Learning Outcome 2.2

Understand and be confident to explain the environmental benefits of reducing and eliminating hazardous chemical use around the home


Understanding the environmental effects of hazardous chemicals will allow participants to make more informed decisions about the selection, use and disposal of the chemicals used in and around the home. The follow section details the environmental impacts upon air, water and land.


Releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paints, cleaning products, carpets and furnishings can generate ozone that contributes to ground level smog that can stunt plant growth and result in their death. VOCs also contribute to poor indoor air quality which can lead to sick building syndrome.


Water can be contaminated either by passing through the sewerage system or by running directly into the stormwater system. Stormwater is not treated and flows straight from your street to waterways inhabited by fish, frogs and other aquatic animals and plants.

  • Studies of urban streams often find levels of pesticides greater than those found in agricultural regions. Pesticide can cause direct toxicity on the plants and animals that live in natural waterways
  • Highly caustic and acidic cleaners can disrupt the natural balance of plants, insects, fish and birds within waterways
  • Chlorinated cleaning agents when mixed with organic material can form carcinogenic compounds called trihalomethanes
  • High levels of phosphates can cause rapid algal growth that can disrupt the balance within the waterway causing fish death due to eutrophication


Incorrect disposal of hazardous waste into landfills or soils can cause soil contamination, create toxic fumes and can contaminate groundwater through leaching.


Activity 2.2: Display poster of catchment and discuss the potential sources of inputs from hazardous chemicals from the home.


Resource 2.2: A3 poster, Know where it Goes. The poster is a representation of a catchment and will identify the key sources of water pollution.

Learning outcome 2.3

Understand the different pathways of exposure and the unique vulnerability of children to hazardous chemicals


A healthy environment contributes to healthy people. Reducing and eliminating the exposure to hazardous chemicals in the indoor environment is a vital component of keeping a home healthy. Exposure to hazardous chemicals can occur through the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and through direct contact with surfaces.


Concern about the quality of the air we breathe inside our homes has increased over the past two decades. There are two key processes that have led to an increase in the overall load of chemicals inside our homes and the air within them.

1) Increase in synthetic building materials and consumer products within our homes. It has been estimated that the average home contains between 20-40 chemicals used for cleaning, pest control and renovations.  This is combined with various household consumer products such as electrical goods, unflued gas heaters, couches and carpets that can all add contaminants to the inside environment.

2) Increased sealing of buildings and reduced ventilation rates in order to save energy and the installation of air conditioners.


Many fruits and vegetables contain low levels of pesticide residues. Food Standards Australia and New Zealand conducts a survey of metal and pesticide residues on fresh fruit and vegetables every 2-3 years. The findings of these studies indicate that produce such as tomatoes can have up to 8 different types of pesticides.


The two main chemicals that are added to domestic water supply in NSW are chlorine and fluoride. Chlorine is added as a disinfectant and is added in various forms including chlorine gas, liquid sodium hypochlorite and calcium hypochlorite tablets. Fluoride is added up to a concentration of 1mg/L and is added to encourage the hardening of teeth in children.

Did you know?

Children have a unique vulnerability to hazardous chemicals as:

  • They eat more food, breathe more air and drink more water per kilogram of body weight
  • Hand to mouth activity increases ingestion from soil, dust and surfaces
  • Likelihood of playing close to the ground
  • Nervous and immune systems are not fully developed and may be less capable of eliminating or sensitive to hazardous chemicals

  • The peak government scientific body CSIRO estimated the economic cost of  indoor air pollution to be as high as $12 billion a year in ill health and lost productivity
  • The average Australian spends between 80 - 90% of their time indoors
  • A study conducted in 2003 by the US-based Breast Cancer Fund, found that complete safety testing is available for only 7% of all chemicals
  • The Australian government’s Department of Environment and Heritage collected 173 samples of breast milk from 12 regions of Australia. In all samples they found detectable levels of the pesticide DDT and its break down products. The levels were found to be comparable to international studies. They also tested for flame retardants (PBDEs) and found concentrations higher than those found in Europe and Japan
  • Studies on dust collected from homes in the US identified over 6 different classes of chemicals that have been linked to causing adverse health effects


Activity 2.3 a): Ask the participants to discuss the different times and places where they may have been exposed to chemicals in the last 48 hours. Ask them to discuss what strategies they may have taken to avoid the exposure. Ask the group to discuss their attitudes towards ventilating the home versus the use of air conditioners during summer months.

Activity 2.3 b): Hold up a range of different household products and discuss how they may contribute to indoor air pollution. Discuss how the exposure to each pollutant can be reduced.


Resource 2.3 b): Make up A5-laminated flashcards with pictures of computers, couches, carpets, pesticides, air fresheners and plywood. Pass them around to the group and ask them to identify how they may contribute to indoor air pollution. On the back of each flashcard will be the strategy for avoiding each product’s potential hazard eg. air freshener = open the windows and ventilate your home, carpets = replace hazardous carpet cleaners with bicarbonate of soda and ask your carpet layer to air your carpet for 48 hours before laying in your home.

Part 3: Resources and handouts

2.2 a): 21st  Australian Total Diet Study
2.2 b): Thorax (2004): Association of domestic exposure to volatile organic compounds with asthma in young children

Learning Outcome 2.4

Understand risk and discuss examples of how risk is a combination of both exposure and harm


The amount of harm a chemical can cause is based on the level of exposure that occurs to an individual or the environment. Only when a hazardous chemical is released can it present a risk to the environment or human health.

Exposure and hazard = risk

Acute exposure is when a person is exposed to a high concentration of chemicals over a short period of time, for example, scrubbing a bath with bleach in an enclosed bathroom for 15 minutes.

With acute exposures it is often easier to link the adverse health reaction with the chemical. Depending on the chemical the symptoms can include vomiting, headaches, dizzy spells and aching muscles.

Chronic exposure is when a person is exposed to low levels of chemicals over a sustained period of time, for example, slow release of formaldehyde from plywood in kitchen shelves that occurs over 2 years or exposure to asbestos whilst working in a  mine.

Due to the longer time frame it is often more difficult to link the onset of a health or environmental effect with chronic exposure.


Activity 2.4: Facilitate a discussion on the different methods that the participants use now for avoiding exposure from hazardous chemicals.  Ask them what chemicals are in their homes that may cause acute or chronic exposure. Facilitate the group to develop strategies to avoid/reduce/eliminate exposure.

Learning outcome 2.5

Understand the characteristics of chemicals that receive a high level of public scrutiny and community concern


Total Environment Centre, the National Toxics Network and other international non-government organizations have identified two classes of chemicals that they believe represent the greatest threat to the environment and potentially human health. They are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBTs) and endocrine disruptive compounds (EDCs).

1. PBTs include chemicals that have the ability to build up in your body, pass through plants and animals to increase in concentration and are very toxic to humans, animals and plants.

Examples include:

Mercury, which is emitted from coal fired power stations, and returns to earth and oceans in the rain. The mercury is then converted to a more toxic form called methylmercury that can enter the food chain through algae in the ocean.

DDT is a classic example of a PBT. DDT was used extensively as an insecticide since the 1950s until it was totally banned for use in Australia in 1987. Although banned for use it is still found in the breast milk of Australian women.

Currently there is concern amongst the NGO sector that newer chemicals are showing similar characteristics as DDT. These include:

PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers): used as flame retardants in computers, curtains and furnishings. The government regulator has recommended industry to substitute their use of two types of PBDEs.

PFC (polyfluorinated chemicals): is a class of chemicals used in the production of cookware, Teflon, stain resistant fabrics and Gore-tex. These are of particular concern as scientists have not been able to determine how these chemicals break down in the human body or the environment.

Triclosan: found in a wide array of consumer products including shampoo, toothpaste and anti-bacterial cleaning products. Triclosan has been detected in human breast milk studies and breaks down very slowly in the environment.

2. Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) :  EDCs are chemicals that mimic or prevent the normal function of the hormone system in animals. Of particular concern is that some chemicals with weak EDC activity may act together to produce a much greater (i.e. synergistic) effect.

Where and how are people exposed?

EDCs have been identified in personal care products, including hair sprays, nail polishes, perfumes and are used to soften plastics particularly PVC (for example, in children’s toys).

They include chemicals such as alkylphenols, artificial musks and phthalates.

Environmental Harm

Scientific studies on wildlife populations reported that high exposure to EDCs had resulted in feminisation, masculinisation, infertility and birth defects in species of fish, birds, reptiles and some mammals.

Human health harm

A recent study conducted in the US provided further evidence to the theory that prenatal exposure to phthalates can cause adverse effects on male reproductive development.


Activity 2.5: Discuss with the group how they can find out more about the chemicals in their products. These techniques may include web research, calling or writing to the manufacturers for more information and speaking to retailers about their policy towards PBTs and EDCs.


Resource 2.5: Letter writing kit (paper, envelopes, stamps) for participants to request from their retailers or manufacturers more information about their policy towards PBTs and EDCs in their products.

Find out more

National Toxics Network (NTN) is Australian’s peak community based network working for pollution reduction, protection of environmental health and environmental justice for all. For more information about PBTs and EDCs within Australia visit

Safer Products Association is a US-based coalition of non-government organisations that have questioned a number of large manufacturers about their use of PBTs and EDCs. Visit to see how different manufacturers of cosmetics, computers, televisions and mattresses scored on their approach to removing these chemicals from their supply chain.

Skin Deep is a database of health and safety information about chemicals in cosmetics produced by the Environmental Working Group.

Part 3: Resources and handouts

2.5 a): Safer Products: sick of dust – executive summary

2.5 b): Friends of the Earth UK. Shop till you drop: Report on survey of retailers and risk chemicals 2003-04

< Prev   Next >
Workshop Resources

Workshop checklist
A3 Home Floor Plan
Domestos Ad
Louie the Fly & Friends
Mr Clean picture
Chlorpyrifos label
Domestos and Homebrand Caustic Oven Cleaner
A3 poster, Know where it Goes
IPM Risk Ladder
A4 picture of ladder

...more resources