Organizing household chemicals

The photograph to the right was taken in 2010 at a client’s home. We called this, “The Scary Cupboard,” and it was in a damp basement laundry room. The constant moisture in the air reacted with the containers. The moisture eventually penetrated and softened the Sani-Flush container and then it started reacting with the Sani-Flush itself.

We weren’t really sure what had been in the white plastic container next to the Sani-Flush, but the plastic bottle had degraded so badly that the contents leaked all over the bottom of the cupboard and started dissolving the wood and the other containers. The rust cylinder with the orange cap was a spray can of Static Guard. It collapsed and turned to powder when I touched it.

I donned my personal protective equipment and placed all of the contents into bins destined for the household hazardous waste depot.

The homeowners were very lucky because there was only some damage to the cupboard. There was the potential for some very dangerous toxic fumes and the heat buildup from the reactions could have started a fire and injured the homeowners.

The following tips are suggestions for organizing cleaning and other caustic chemicals in your home so that you don’t encounter a similar, hazardous situation:

  1. Before you purchase a product think about what you already have in your home that could do the job. Baking soda makes an effective scouring powder and vinegar can remove hard water stains. If these products will work, you don’t need to buy anything more caustic.
  2. If you only need to use a small amount of a cleaning product, for example a little bit of silver polish to shine a piece of jewellery, you may be able to find a jewellery store that would do the cleaning for a very small fee. You could also ask friends or neighbours if they have a bit of silver polish to spare. If you do need to purchase a specific product, only purchase the amount you will use in a reasonable period of time.
  3. Read the label and be sure you understand and follow the directions on how to use the product safely, how to protect yourself when using it, and how to properly store it. If you have any doubts about proper usage or storage, do a bit of research on the product to learn more. The manufacturer’s contact information always is on the label if more information is needed.
  4. When using the products in your home, always leave the product in its original container. Empty soda bottles and margarine tubs may not be capable of storing certain hazardous chemicals. Also, there is always the danger that someone may mistake that bright blue cleaning solution for Gatorade! Do not cover up or remove the labels from chemical products.
  5. Never mix products together unless it specifically states on the label that it is safe to do so. When diluting a product with water, always fill the container with water first, and then add the product. If you add the water to the chemical, it may create heat and melt the container or cause injury. Even mixing different brands of the same product can cause reactions, as the formulations may be different.
  6. It is not a good idea to store hazardous chemicals near food or food products because pots, pans, and cooking utensils can become easily contaminated with a hazardous substance. Consider storing items in a hallway closet or locked cabinet elsewhere in the home rather than under the kitchen sink, which is a damp area. Dampness can cause metal containers to rust and explode.
  7. Ideally you should not store materials or chemicals on shelves above shoulder height. However, if you have no other storage area, always get a ladder to access these items. Remember, do not store liquids on shelves above powders or solids in case of leakage. Do not stack containers.
  8. Avoid storing flammable goods or products inside your home that have the potential to release harmful fumes. These items include paints, solvents, gasoline, fuels, and varnishes. Store them in a separate building or in an area that is well vented to the outside.
  9. If you have a swimming pool, be sure your storage area for the pool’s chemicals is well ventilated. Vapours may build up inside containers in high temperatures. On opening, these vapours may be expelled directly in your face, causing eye and mucous tissue injury. Pool chemicals should not be stored near paint, lawn care products, gasoline, solvents, or flammable materials. You may wish to relocate your gas-powered lawn mower from your garden shed to your garage. See the EPA website for more details on pool chemical safety.
  10. Some chemical products actually taste sweet and can be very attractive to pets and small children, so do not leave chemical products unattended. If you must leave the room in the middle of a task, either put the products away or take them with you. It is handy to carry products in a bucket — or two buckets if the products are incompatible.
  11. Know how to properly dispose of chemical products. If you don’t know how to dispose of the products, contact your local waste management authority. Hazardous household chemicals should never be discarded on the ground or poured into storm drains.
  12. Place empty containers in the recycling or trash in accordance with the regulations in your municipality. If they are partly full, consult your local waste management authority for advice. Also remember to never incinerate or puncture pressurized containers (spray cans).
  13. Finally, when storing chemicals, have all containers facing the same direction (such as the front of a shelf) so it is easy to read labels and identify products.

It came from your clutter: Elephant tusks

The first installment of our new “It came from your clutter” feature is a pretty good one — and a little creepy, scary, too. (Happy Halloween!) It comes from a reader who found himself dealing with an illegal item that his uncle had packed away for years. The contraband in question was a pair of elephant tusks. The ivory trade ban started in 1989, so I’m assuming the reader’s uncle was in receipt of the tusks prior to 1989. From the reader’s email:

I live in the US but have an uncle in Canada; he was recently moved into a nursing home and I had to clean out his apartment. Among his things were two elephant tusks. In doing my research, I discovered that I could neither bring them back with me into the US or sell them in Canada. What to do?? I ended up calling the Natural History division of the Royal Ontario Museum, and they will be acquiring the tusks for their collection. Now my uncle is happy they will not be carved up for cheap trinkets.

Calling the museum was definitely a great idea. Let’s hope that the uncle’s tusks will find a home for a long time in the Royal Ontario Museum.

For those of you who come across a rather odd item while clearing out a basement, attic, or garage, drop us an email. Also, try and take a photo or two if possible.

Oddities abound

If my parents were collectors of arcane historical oddities, I might not mind the chore of having to go through their possessions at some future date. As I read through the article “In a Father’s Clutter, Historic Oddities” from the New York Times, though, I found it difficult to believe how many oddities Evan Lattimer had to sift through after her father’s death. From the article:

When her father, John Lattimer, died in May of 2007 at the age of 92, Ms. Lattimer knew her inheritance would include more than the family tea set. Dr. Lattimer, a prominent urologist at Columbia University, was also a renowned collector of relics, many of which might be considered quirky or even macabre.

Over the course of seven decades he amassed more than 3,000 objects that ranged in age from a few years to tens of millions of years. “He was like a classic Renaissance collector,” said Tony Perrottet, a writer specializing in historical mysteries who spent time with Dr. Lattimer before his death. “Anything and everything could turn up in the collection, from Charles Lindbergh’s goggles to a bearskin coat that belonged to Custer.”

This brings me to a post I wrote a few weeks ago. I asked our readers to send in pictures and descriptions for any odd item that they may have come across while clearing out some of their clutter. Unfortunately, we haven’t yet amassed enough submissions for an inaugural oddity post. So, let this be a reminder for any oddities that you may come across while decluttering your basement, garage, or attic. Please send them to us through our Contact page, we would love to see your discovered oddities!

What oddity lurks in your clutter?

Clutter can take many forms, but there may be some instances when clearing out a closet, basement, or attic leads you to a dumbfounding discovery. In this Guardian article, a “clutter consultant” reviews some of the odd things she has come across while clearing out other people’s homes. Among the most freaky things she has found are a pickled monkey and a stuffed crocodile.

I liked this article so much that I think we should start an Unclutterer feature that highlights some of our reader’s more bizarre discoveries. Whether it be an unidentifiable lump of mystery mold, a monkey’s paw that grants wishes, or a ridiculous old album that you are embarrassed to own, we want your submissions.

Just send us a description and a photo of your freakish find through our Contact page and we will try and feature it here. The more bizarre (but tasteful) the better. We’re looking forward to your submissions. Also, feel welcome to comment to this post about some things you may have come across in the past but didn’t think to photograph!