Most calls to poison control centers are from acute exposures. A toddler swallows a handful of pills. A man drinks pesticides stored in an old pop bottle.
It’s the hidden toxins that might be more insidious.
Household cleaners, plastic food containers, even the flame retardant in your sofa cushions leach chemicals into the air and onto your skin. They persist in the blood and make their way into women’s breast milk.
Scientists and advocacy groups admit we don’t know for sure how bad these are for you. Human tests have never been conducted on most of the 18,000 chemicals produced each year. But evidence is mounting. Some of the worst chemicals have already been banned, and states are looking at stricter regulations for others.
Many of these toxins are lurking just behind your front door.
Take a deep breath
Surprisingly, the air inside your home can be more polluted than what’s outside – even if you live in a busy urban area, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Modern building materials, furniture, everyday cleaning solutions, dry-cleaned clothing and other household products release organic chemicals that linger in the still air of a well-insulated home.
Even if you are vigilant, chemicals can enter your home in unexpected ways.
Labels advise using paint strippers, adhesive removers and spray paints in well-ventilated areas, but gases can leak even from closed containers. The products contain methylene chloride, which causes cancer in animals.
Carbon monoxide and benzene – a known human carcinogen present in auto exhaust – can leak from an attached garage right through porous drywall and into the house, said Leeann Sagula, owner of Healthy Home Consulting, a home environment business in Pennsylvania.
“The room above the garage is not the room you want to have for your nursery,” Sagula said. “It’s probably one of the least healthy rooms in your home.”
The glues, paints and adhesives holding your house together can pollute the air, too. Off-gassing from new construction can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, said Dr. Jerrold Leikin, a toxicologist at Rush University Medical Center and author of a toxicology handbook.
Pressed-wood products emit formaldehyde, which at elevated levels can cause wheezing in people with asthma. Usually, there are no permanent effects, Leikin said.
But you could be dosing yourself repeatedly; plug-in air fresheners release a steady stream of pleasantly scented formaldehyde into your home.
Scientists are uncertain how much exposure, or how long, is necessary for many of these chemicals to harm your health. Some people are more sensitive than others. Those with asthma or pulmonary conditions often react more strongly.
“Most people don’t realize that the air can be dangerous,” said Glen Ellyn resident Nicholas Nardella, owner of Environmental Technology Solutions, a firm specializing in indoor air quality. “They figure if you can’t see it and you’re breathing, you feel fine. But sometimes you feel nauseous, you feel weak, maybe your kids are always sneezing.”
Nardella’s firm recently retrofitted several rooms at the Hilton O’Hare Airport with hardwood floors, non-vinyl wallpaper and all- cotton bedding. All the building materials, from the furniture stain to the bathtub caulk, are free of volatile organic compounds. The cleaning staff will use only non-toxic products.
The rooms are so pure that if a maid accidentally sprays Lysol, an alarm will sound. The hotel is planning to replicate its “Enviro Rooms” in other cities to cater to travelers with asthma, allergies and chemical sensitivities.
Nardella is taking the technology home. He’s building an Enviro Room for his 4-year-old daughter, who has asthma.
You don’t have to gut your house to make it healthier. When Sagula built a new home in St. Charles two years ago, she and her husband couldn’t afford hardwood floors in every room. Chemical-free, “green” building materials were beyond their budget.
So they installed air cleaners on each floor, cleaned the ducts before they moved in and kept the windows open so fresh air could flush out chemicals that are more prevalent in new construction. When they moved in, Sagula didn’t suffer any of the headaches, joint pain or respiratory symptoms she experienced in a previous new house.
“It’s just amazing with what little we did the difference it made,” she said.
Sagula has since moved to Pennsylvania, where she advises clients on ridding their homes of toxins. The biggest problem, she said, is the harsh chemicals in cleaning products.
“If it’s ‘fatal if swallowed’ or it has to be used in a well-ventilated area, chances are you can find a safer alternative,” Sagula said.
TV is bad for you
Some toxins arrive incognito, in products without ingredient labels.
The flame-retardant chemicals used in thousands of household appliances and textiles can leach out into your home. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, have turned up in dust bunnies, dryer lint and the gray film that accumulates inside windows. Children, who tend to stick dirty hands in their mouths, appear particularly at risk of exposure.
PBDEs persist in the environment and build up in your body over a lifetime. Scientists have detected them in women’s breast milk, human hair and fat cells. In lab animals, PBDEs disrupt thyroid hormone balance and alter brain development.
This spring Illinois legislators joined five other states and the European Union to phase out penta and octa, two types of PBDEs often used in appliances like televisions, computers and coffee makers. After 2006, retailers can’t order new stock with penta or octa.
It was a largely symbolic victory. Once states like California began banning penta and octa, major U.S. chemical manufacturers quit producing them. The focus has shifted to deca, the third major PBDE compound, which is widely used in upholstery, mattresses and other textiles.
Illinois’ new legislation calls on public health officials to analyze deca’s effects and report to the General Assembly by 2006.
Manufacturers could switch to less-toxic flame retardants, or use chemicals that are bonded to products so they don’t leach out, said Frances Canonizado, environmental advocate for Illinois Public Interest Research Group. Dell, Apple and Sony stopped using PBDEs. Ikea’s furniture is PBDE-free.
“Companies have the ability to use safer materials,” Canonizado said. “We can’t as consumers sit idly by not knowing what we are being exposed to.”
Making life easier
Convenience might come at a cost. Nonstick and stain-resistant coatings typically contain perfluorochemicals, or PFCs. They show up in Teflon, Scotchguard, Stainmaster and Gore-Tex. They’re in cookware, clothing, wallpaper, paint and food packaging, including some McDonald’s paper products.
They’re also in us. PFCs turn up in the blood of more than 95 percent of Americans tested. Yet they remain something of a mystery. Scientists aren’t sure how they get into our cells or accumulate in the environment. The EPA has launched an investigation to find out.
In animals, they cause cancer, birth defects and developmental problems, as well as high cholesterol. 3M, the maker of Scotchguard, has already reformulated its product in favor of less- toxic chemicals, but they remain in other household goods.
These chemicals are turning up in unexpected places, including the water supplies of cities with no large-scale commercial use.
One known source is cooking. Heating Teflon-coated pans to high temperatures releases the fumes that kill pet birds and sicken people temporarily. DuPont says Teflon is safe.
sumer advocates say the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act places too high a burden on the public; the EPA can require a manufacturer to test the safety of a new chemical, but only if the government can prove it poses an unreasonable health risk.
The sheer number of chemicals heading to market mean many have never been tested for toxicity.
“The EPA just doesn’t have the power to get health data before products go on the market,” said Lauren Sucher, spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, a coalition of scientists and public policy advocates.
“Banning a chemical is an uphill battle,” she said. “Consider that asbestos is still legal in the U.S. We can’t even ban asbestos and we know hard-core that it kills people.”
Baby bottle battle
California lawmakers are considering a bill that would ban certain chemicals from plastic baby products.
Phthalates are in some soft vinyl toys and in cosmetics such as nail polish and hair spray. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last month found that infant boys born to mothers exposed to phthalates had a higher chance of genital abnormalities.
The California proposal would also ban products intended for children that contain bisphenol A, or BPA, the key building block of hard, clear, polycarbonate plastics.
BPA is found in baby bottles, food storage containers and water bottles such as Nalgene. It’s also used in resins that coat the inside of food cans and in dental sealants for children.
BPA’s health effects have been hotly debated. Some studies – including all of those funded by the industry – show no ill effects. But evidence is mounting that the chemical causes reproductive abnormalities in lab animals at low doses.
Much of that evidence has come in the past five years, said Frederick vom Saal, a biology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has studied BPA for a decade. The last time the EPA assessed the health risks of BPA was in the 1980s.
“This chemical acts like the estrogen in birth control pills,” vom Saal said. “As an adult man or woman, you are putting a sex hormone into your body that’s going to alter your reproductive system. You decrease fertility. You cause sperm abnormalities.”
No human studies have been conducted, however, and whether BPA harms human health remains controversial. The plastics industry says polycarbonate plastic is safe and that small amounts of BPA pose no health hazard.
In studies, exposing plastic to the heat of a microwave, dishwasher or hot foods caused more BPA to migrate into food. Heating degrades the chemical bond that holds polycarbonate plastic together. But some studies have detected leaching even at room temperatures. Heavily scratched or worn plastic degrades faster.
Polypropelene and polyethylene plastics, which are marked with product codes 1, 2 or 5 on the bottom, appear safer, vom Saal said. The problem is polycarbonate is commonly added to other plastics and might not be on labels.
“There is no such thing as safe microwaveable plastic,” vom Saal said. “As you heat it, you degrade the chemical bond. You can’t see this happening. You can’t taste it, you can’t smell it, but you are getting dosed at a higher and higher amount.”
The long-term health effects of small doses of chemicals are difficult to study. They don’t always show up in blood tests, or if they did, effects might take decades to develop. Animal studies don’t necessarily translate into equivalent effects on human health.
“We need more data,” said Dr. Helen Binns, a pediatrician at Children’s Memorial Medical Center in Chicago and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ environmental health committee.
“The hard thing is sometimes the data come too late,” she said. “The PCBs are out there. The DDT is out there.”
The most common environmental hazards are nothing new. The EPA identifies lead as the top environmental health risk for children. Tobacco smoke is another killer, even when parents only smoke outside.
Other household products that contain potential hazards have in fact made our lives easier. Cooking your eggs in a nonstick pan means you can use less artery-clogging oil. Extra-strength cleaners make housework go faster. Plastic baby bottles don’t break. These are definite trade-offs.
“A lot of these are things that have made it more tolerable to live in our environment,” Binns said. “We always need to approach their use with caution. Where clear, better alternatives exist, we need to choose the alternatives.”
GRAPHIC: You can minimize the toxins in your home.
• Be sure to ventilate your home after installing carpeting or new cabinets, painting your home, applying pesticides or doing other home improvements. Open the windows and turn on fans for several days to clear chemicals from the air.
• Do not let the car idle in an attached garage.
• Be sure the weather stripping is intact on the door leading to the house.
• Follow label directions on chemicals and pesticides. Buy limited quantities, and use up or dispose of unneeded chemicals safely.
• Choose less-toxic cleaning products such as white vinegar, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide.
• Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. Higher-quality vacuums that are sealed around the motor will prevent particles escaping.
• Have furnaces, stoves, dryers and other gas appliances serviced to ensure they are operating efficiently with minimal emissions.
• Air-duct cleaning might help purify your air. The EPA has published a document on the pros and cons of air duct cleaning, available at www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/airduct.html.
• To avoid formaldehyde emissions, avoid pressed-wood products or purchase exterior-grade products, which emit less formaldehyde.
• If dry-cleaned goods have a strong chemical odor, do not accept them until they have been properly dried. Switch dry cleaners if the problem persists.
• Decks and pressure-treated wood purchased before 2004 might contain arsenic. To reduce exposure, seal wood regularly or replace high-traffic pieces like banisters.
• Avoid using nonstick pans on burners set for high heat.
• Avoid subjecting plastic food containers to high temperatures in the microwave, dishwasher or from hot foods. Discard plastic when it becomes worn.