Household hazardous waste: It sounds dramatic, but just take a peek in the storage closet, basement, garage or under the sink. That little old can of paint, paint thinner or finish, that bottle of insecticide, weed killer or oven cleaner, may contain toxins such as benzene, xylene, nervous-system damaging organophosphates and lye. 

While you're in a cleaning and de-toxing frenzy, pick up any old batteries and CFLs (which contain toxic mercury), wood and metal polishes, glues, motor oil, you get the picture. For a full Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) list of household products commonly containing hazardous ingredients, click here. Even the empty cans, EPA points out, can be dangerous due to residual explosive or vaporizing contents. Mothballs qualify as Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) because they offgass either 1,4 dichlorobenzene, which attacks the nervous system and can cause dizziness, headaches and rashes, or naphthalene, which can produce nausea, jaundice and liver and kidney damage. When storing clothes or removing them from mothballs, do it in a well-ventilated place and take care not to inhale, warns the environmental toxicology site of the University of California, Davis.  

How is one to safely dispose of HHW? Pray, not in the regular trash, as it can leach corrosive, toxic chemicals into landfills and ultimately our groundwater, or down the drain, where it can harm aquatic life and wash down to our beaches along with other stormwater. It just doesn't feel like summer when you're swimming in antifreeze.

For how to responsibly get rid of HHW, call your municipal environmental, health or solid waste agency, or go to Earth911. There, if you type in the product and your zip code, you can find the nearest drop-off/recycling place for HHW, along with upcoming "events," or days when HHW, old electronics and other materials are accepted. Some businesses such as Home Depot and IKEA have recycle bins for CFLs.

As greener, safer substitutes for mothballs, UC Davis recommends rosemary, cedar chips or oil, lavender (remember Grandma's sachets?), mint and white peppercorns. To find other greener, least-toxic DIY alternatives to cleaning products and pesticides, click here. Your home will smell better, too.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008