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5 “Harmless” Things in Your Yard That Are Actually Toxic

Keep your family healthier at home—don't overlook these surprising hazard zones in your backyard.

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Could this be you?

In the early 1990s, Paul Tukey, now 51, was a successful professional landscaper. But by the spring of 1993, he noticed alarming symptoms, like eye twitches and bad headaches, then nausea, nosebleeds, and diarrhea. When his doctor asked him to bring in the labels for the chemicals he used at work, he learned that all the symptoms were known side effects of the products.

Most of us assume that if a product is on the market, it must be safe. But of the most common of the 80,000 chemicals used today in the United States, only 7 percent have been fully tested for safety. Many are found in everyday products we use to maintain yards and gardens, so knowing where they lurk can help ensure your outdoor space is a healthier place for your family. Check out these everyday things that could be toxic.

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Shiny black driveway

The sticky black coal tar sealants that give driveways their well-manicured look may contain carcinogenic chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAH concentrations in these sealants are hundreds of times higher than those in other major sources, such as exhaust smoke. A Baylor University study found that house dust in apartment buildings next to coal tar–sealed parking lots contains 25 times as many PAHs as dust in buildings next to unsealed asphalt lots. Since this is a new area of research, scientists can’t say for sure that exposure to driveways containing PAHs causes cancer in people, but they suspect a strong link. Coal tar sealants have been banned in a handful of cities and counties, but no matter where you live, avoid coal tar varieties and stick with natural pavement or an asphalt-based sealant. If you already sealed your driveway this season, keep off it as much as possible, especially for the first two weeks after sealing, after which the PAH concentration decreases dramatically. Avoid tracking chemicals into your home by removing your shoes at the door and regularly vacuuming.

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Green weed-free lawn

Ingredients in popular pesticides have been linked to cancer, hormonal changes, and liver or kidney toxicity. Now research points to another surprising peril: mental health hazards. Numerous studies have found that farmers who work with pesticides have as much as six times the risk of depression; even farmers’ wives who use sprays in their homes and backyard gardens have nearly double the risk. Use an all-natural herbicide like corn gluten meal to keep weeds at bay. Apply it in early spring (when forsythia or dogwood first blooms) to prevent annual weeds from reseeding; it also fertilizes your existing grass with nitrogen, so it is healthier (and can crowd out weeds). And beware of companies that purport to be organic; they may use the same chemicals as traditional companies. “You have a right to request labels for products they use on your lawn,” says Tom Kelly, a former lawn professional who, like Tukey, switched careers when he started feeling sick and noticing illness in those around him.

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Mosquito-free backyard

Community-wide sprays to destroy mosquitoes help alleviate public fears of bug-borne illnesses such as West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis. But are the sprays themselves dangerous? They contain hormone disrupters and possibly carcinogenic chemicals, though studies documented harmful effects only in higher doses than municipal mosquito spray trucks deliver. Experts also question whether the sprays work: Some research suggests that the chemicals kill only mosquitoes that are airborne when the spray is released; others claim that spraying is the best defense we have. Check your local health department’s spraying policy. Towns typically spray after dusk, when mosquitoes are at their worst and bees, innocent victims of spraying, have tucked in for the night. Stay indoors (with windows closed and window AC units off) to minimize your exposure. You also have the right to request that the trucks skip your house altogether (especially important if anyone in your family has asthma, which can be aggravated by the spray). You’ll get some drift from neighbors’ yards, but your exposure will be less. And bypass backyard fogger sprays—they contain the same chemicals but without the licensed pro to apply them. Don't miss these foods that act as a natural mosquito repellent, too.

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Burning waste

Some may view burning trash in their backyard as an efficient way to dispose of it—some countries can even produce heat and electricity by doing so—but the truth is, burning waste in your backyard (especially when much of our trash is plastics) releases dangerous chemicals that can harm you, those who live with you, and your community. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to these toxins can cause rashes, headaches, nausea, and asthma, and it cam even increase your risk of heart disease. What's more, burning trash can also produce harmful quantities of dioxins, toxic chemicals that can end up in our crops and water supplies and affect the health of entire communities. Find out more about how your fireplace could be toxic.

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Swimming pool

When it comes to swimming, parents with young children put drowning at the top of their list of concerns. But many people don't realize the problems that pool chemicals can cause. Everyday Health reports that nearly 5,000 people were sent to the emergency room after being poisoned by pool chemicals in 2012. These chemicals can be even more harmful in hot tubs, which open your pores and let toxins directly enter your body. Follow the CDC guidelines for handling pool chemicals.

Next, be sure to check out the 11 ways your home might be making you sick.

Originally Published in Reader's Digest