Fri, November 30, 2007
By Toni Davis
Arizona Daily Star

Worst pollution risks increasingly indoors

Not so sweet home: Toxins lurk in air, dust, even cleaning supplies

We clean with them. We build them into our walls and cabinets. We spray them on bugs, weeds and gardens.

We drag them into the house on our shoes and we stir them up when we walk on our carpets.

They’re in our toys, our shower curtains, our clothes, the water bottles we use for hiking and the baby bottles we use for breast milk and formula. They’re in the televisions we watch and some of the computers that entertain us.

More and more chemicals and unhealthful substances are embedded in our daily lives. And they swirl together inside our tightly built personal spaces to create new, and very personal, toxic hot spots: our homes.

Before even stepping outside in the morning, we are exposed to more severe pollution than we get from landfills, hazardous waste sites or smokestacks, say many scientists, including retired Environmental Protection Agency officials.

The health risks from these indoor pollutants are also much greater than the risks outdoors – perhaps 100 to 1,000 times greater, scientists concluded. That’s especially troubling because people tend to spend 90 percent of their time indoors, 65 percent of it at home.

An Arizona Daily Star investigation finds that:

* Household chemicals are linked to various diseases, including cancer, in a growing number of studies of laboratory animals, but experts disagree on their safety.

* Arid Arizona is considered one of the riskiest states in the country for toxic mold inside the home, even though mold is caused by water.

* The United States has regulated chemicals fairly lightly, far less strictly than Europe. In this country, for instance, companies don’t have to label the toxic ingredients they put in consumer products.

* Consumers are left in the dark about the safety of conventional chemical cleaners and other popular products, including a controversial chemical commonly used in hard plastic water bottles and baby bottles.

* People can try to minimize their own exposure at home, but industrial solutions are elusive. For example, it’s been hard for authorities to find and put in place a safe, viable alternative to a cancer-causing solvent used by 85 percent of dry cleaners.

The health risks are a concern for many Tucsonans – ranging from a mother who switched to a different type of bottle for her infant daughter, to a woman who wonders if chemical exposures have kept her from getting pregnant, to a mom who slashed her use of chlorine bleach because she feared it was making her kids sick.

“We have a number of chemicals in our indoor air that weren’t there 50 years ago,” said Charles Weschler, an expert in environmental and occupational medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey.

“We know why we are using them – to make our plastics perform better, to reduce the risk of fire, to kill cockroaches, to help our paint last longer, to make our cleaning products smell good.

“But we often don’t know their long-term health consequences.”

Endocrine disruptors a concern

As the number of studies about chemical risks reaches into the thousands, the toll of diseases they are suspected of causing is also mounting.

Asthma, attention deficit disorder, autism, increasing infertility in women and declining testosterone levels and sperm counts in men all may be caused or aggravated by household toxic exposure.

What bothers many scientists is that the federal government hasn’t put nearly as much energy into combating indoor air pollution as it has put into cleaning outdoor air.

“We’ve spent a tremendous amount of societal resources on studying and cleaning our water and working on outdoor air pollution,” said Glenn Morrison, an engineering professor at the University of Missouri-Rolla. “Frankly, the real known hazard from exposure to air indoor pollution is so much higher that a lot of the time and effort has been misdirected.”

For many years, scientists’ biggest indoor air quality concerns lay in conventional poisons such as tobacco smoke, asbestos, volatile organic chemicals, carbon monoxide, lead, pesticides, formaldehyde and radon. Indoor air levels of many of those have declined since the 1970s.

But today, those toxins are joined by a class of common but not totally understood chemicals called endocrine disruptors or environmental estrogens. They’re found in plastic bottles, metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics and pesticides. They’re in circuit boards in computers, game stations and home audio systems, environmental professor Weschler said.

Many have been used for decades. But unlike lead and tobacco, whose health effects are well-established, numerous problems associated with these compounds have come to light only in the past decade.

As their name implies, endocrine disruptors can adversely affect hormone balance or disrupt organ function and cause developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in humans and wildlife.

Jill Martinez, a Northeast Side mother of four, has a house full of plastic toys – Legos, Star Wars light sabers, a microscope and a piano, to name just a few.

Plasticizers in toys and other products generally aren’t labeled, so consumers don’t know which ones have the controversial chemicals.

Martinez hadn’t heard about health controversies involving plastics, but said if the chemicals turned out to be unsafe, “I would definitely be inclined to slow down on buying them. I would only buy them if I thought they would be educational somehow.”

Similarly, Tucsonan Hector Esquer, 52, has amassed many perks of the modern good life: two big-screen TVs, an Apple TV, PlayStation 3, four computers and more. “I got all the toys, I guess you could say,” said Esquer, who manages an automotive warehouse.

“There’s been a lot of talk that there are lead items made in China, but I wasn’t aware of fire retardants” in household electronics, he said. “I’m not real concerned about it, but maybe we should be.”

If they were proven to be unsafe, “You bet I’d would want to replace the TVs,” Esquer said. “I’d be willing to pay half again as much to make sure they were safe.”

Risk relationships chronicled
In the case of many chemicals and compounds, the risks for humans are inconclusive, and disagreements are heated.

One reason: The vast majority of research comes from animal studies. It’s considered unethical to deliberately feed or inject people with chemicals, although many studies have compared people known to have been exposed to certain chemicals with those who haven’t been exposed. Not all scientists and government officials accept the idea that chemicals have the same effect on humans as on animals.

Beyond that, chemical industry officials say the safety of their products has been affirmed over and over by federal agencies and, in some cases, other countries. They say the studies raising questions about the products aren’t valid, had weak results at best, and didn’t prove cause and effect. They also say advocates for regulation have distorted the significance of their results to push a political agenda.

Federal officials, for their part, say they lack authority to regulate indoor air safety but are making some strides.

But concerns about our household chemical stews keep mounting. In the past year, scientists from Massachusetts to Denmark to Australia have released studies saying:

* Laser printers release ultra-fine particles that can cause heart and lung disease.

* Three organic hazardous chemicals released into indoor air present a cancer risk to the general population about 100 times greater than the EPA considers acceptable: formaldehyde, found in some building materials; chloroform, related to chlorinated water in many cities; and naphthalene in mothballs.

* As household dust gets heavier, the risk that residents will get asthma doubles.

* PFOSes and PFOAs – ubiquitous man-made chemicals used to coat non-stick pans, textiles and carpets and to manufacture insecticides – have a statistical association with decreased birth weight and head size in newborns.

* Flame retardants called PBDEs commonly used in television sets increase the risk of undescended testicles in newborn boys and of feline hyperthyroidism, a leading cause of death in cats.

Together, various kinds of environmental exposures could be one reason that the percentage of children and adolescents in the United States with chronic illnesses lasting more than three months has risen from 1.8 percent in 1960 to 7 percent in 2004, the Journal of the American Medical Association says. Other factors playing a role could be very low birth weights, diet, obesity, lack of exercise and increased television and other media viewing, the journal recently reported.

Tucson alternatives growing
The costs of indoor pollution are skyrocketing, several studies show. It costs about $15.9 billion and perhaps up to $20 billion annually nationwide to prevent and clean up indoor air pollution, says a 2005 EPA study.

In California alone, crummy indoor air costs the state’s economy $45 billion annually due to premature deaths, medical costs, lost worker productivity and other impacts, says the state’s Air Resources Board. Nationwide, just taking care of childhood asthma caused by indoor pollution costs about $2.3 billion a year.

If society could come up with ways to improve indoor air quality, the savings would reach $125 billion annually, said the federally financed Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

“We need to pay attention to pollution sources that are right under our nose,” said William Nazaroff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley.

Some states have banned some of the most controversial compounds in consumer products. Various federal agencies, prodded by public concern, are looking at them more closely.

For consumers in Tucson and elsewhere, choices are growing.

“Green” commercial home cleaners are becoming a big business, although sorting through their claims and hype isn’t easy.

Some Southern Arizonans are finding ways to build less-chemicalized homes. They’re painting those homes with non-toxic paints, and cleaning them with natural concoctions.

But one public health professor says she has learned to live with the uncertainty of the risks even though she’s studied the products in her work and takes the health warnings seriously.

“I use pesticides, eat non-organic food and buy all the cleaning products on the cleaning products aisle,” said the University of Arizona’s Mary Kay O’Rourke. “I follow the directions, make sure the house is well-vented.”

Like many, she does what she can, a little here and there in her busy life, and hopes it’s enough.