Always make sure you read the label of potentially dangerous cleaning products

Everyday cleaning products can pose a risk to children, making it vital that parents know and understand what their label warnings mean, writes Andrea Mara

Always read the label

Andrea Mara

Processed food, electric sockets, swimming pools, busy roads, bad TV and the entire internet - these are just some of the many things parents are warned about on a regular basis. There's so much to think about, and there are so many different types of warnings, it can be difficult to analyse them accurately, to differentiate between the minor concerns and the serious risks.

The danger, of course, is that all messages become diluted and we just stop listening. So how do we read the warnings and correctly interpret the risks?

When it comes to household chemicals, it's all becoming a little easier, due to an EU-wide transition to standardised symbols, in place since June 1 this year. However, a number of surveys have shown that consumers know very little about these products and how to use them safely.

The term 'household chemicals' refers to everyday products like bleach, oven cleaner, toilet cleaner, drain cleaner, paint, glue, oil and weed killer - the kind of things most of us have in a kitchen cupboard or a shed. And while we understand that an exclamation mark signals danger, many of us may not be able to say exactly what that means - or we may not be looking at the label at all.

"The exclamation mark means skin and eye irritation. There is usually further information on the individual label - it will tell you to wear gloves or to keep the product out of reach of children for example," explains Majella Cosgrave, Senior Inspector with the Health and Safety Authority.

"The only way to get the information is to read the label - the information is usually very easy to understand, it's kept short and written in simple language."

And of course some products are clearly best kept out of reach. Nobody leaves a container of bleach or a bottle of weed killer within grabbing distance of a small child. But there are many innocent-looking everyday products that can cause serious problems if touched, ingested, or splashed into eyes.

One of the difficulties is that detergents and cleaning products are usually packaged in brightly coloured, attractive containers. They're appealing to children and can give parents a false sense of security - how could something that's pretty on the outside have a harmful substance on the inside?

Liquid detergent capsules, for example, are small and colourful and children can mistake them for sweets. In the period from 2011 to 2014, there were over 720 enquiries to the National Poisons Information Centre at Beaumont Hospital about liquitabs, the majority of which involved children under the age of three.

If the liquid comes into contact with the eyes, it can cause conjunctivitis, eye pain and damage to the cornea. If it's swallowed, it can result in severe vomiting and respiratory distress. So it's best to keep them out of sight, in a locked cupboard if possible.

Similarly, oven cleaner, some shower cleaners and particularly outdoor DIY products can cause serious problems if ingested or splashed in the eyes. Even washing powder and dishwasher tablets carry warning signs - the tablets can irritate skin so it's wise to wash your hands after picking them up.

This is why the HSA is asking consumers to "Read The Back" - turn the bottle or box around and check for hazard symbols.

"The idea behind the Read The Back campaign isn't to scare people," says Cosgrave. "It's to raise awareness among consumers that some products could be dangerous - they just need to read the back. We need to get people used to stopping and thinking again. Products are generally safer than they used to be, but as a result, we've also become more complacent. People have stopped reading labels."

So when it comes to detergents and household chemicals, how do parents decipher warnings and weed out the real dangers?

"When you buy DIY and cleaning products you are bringing chemicals into the home," says Cosgrave. "They are not all dangerous, but some are, and people may not be aware of that. If they have the potential to harm, you need to know that. And the easiest way to do that is to read the label."

So rather than trying to remember a long list of products, contents, chemical names, symbols and hazards, consumers need only remember one thing - read the label. Everything we need to know about the product in hand will be contained there and we can take appropriate precautions.

As well as specifics mentioned on labels, some general guidelines include the following:

l Only use as much of the product as you need

l If the product is dangerous, remove pets, children and their toys from the area

l Open windows

l Do not leave chemicals unattended

l Do not mix chlorine bleach and ammonia as this forms a highly toxic gas

l After using a chemical, wash any part of you that came in contact with the chemical

l Never transfer chemicals into other containers

l Keep all chemicals out of the reach of children

l Never store chemicals near food

And now that the household chemical question is resolved, it's back to worrying about processed food, electric sockets, swimming pools, busy roads, bad TV and the entire internet.

For further information, visit or phone the Health and Safety Authority on 1890 289 389