Every day we unknowingly—and sometimes knowingly—encounter chemicals throughout our daily activities. Many toxins reside inside our own home, even in the air we breathe.
Fortunately, you can do a lot to reduce your exposure and the potential risk to your health.
A new living room set, new car and newly installed carpet all have one thing in common: volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The “new car smell” many people find appealing is actually due to VOCs that come out of the vehicle’s vinyl and carpeting, and which can be found in nearly all indoor air.
“VOCs are most commonly found in your carpets and furniture, which contain formaldehyde and other organic compounds that vaporize and become part of your indoor air (a phenomenon called offgassing),” says Raymond Casciari, MD, pulmonologist and chief medical officer of St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California.
Offgassing is much more likely in furniture made outside the United States. “Not all carpeting and furniture is manufactured with the same safety standards we have in this country. In other countries you may find higher levels of formaldehyde and even pesticides that you would not find in furniture made in the US,” says Casciari.
Other examples of household products containing VOCs include nail polish, spot removers, dry-cleaned clothes, fabric and leather cleaners, pine oil cleaners, solvents, paint stripper, moth balls, refrigerants from air conditioners, freezers, refrigerators and dehumidifiers, and other common items.
“VOCs can cause all kinds of health problems,” says Casciari. The risk a substance presents depends on the toxicity of the chemical, how much of it permeates the air, and how long and frequently someone breathes the air. The person’s age, health condition, gender and exposure to other chemicals also affect the impact.
Short-term exposure to high VOC levels can trigger headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, drowsiness, nausea, and eye and respiratory irritation, which fortunately go away once exposure to the chemical stops. These sorts of VOC-related health issues are sometimes referred to as sick building syndrome. (To learn more about dangers posed by specific household products, visit the Department of Health & Human Services website: http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/index.htm.)
You can limit your exposure to VOCs. In the case of a major offgassing source such as new furniture, you first want to ventilate your house. Pick a time when the air is cleanest, usually early morning. Open your windows and entrances with screen doors in the early morning and let the house air out. Run a fan to move air and then close up everything when the heat of the day hits. Casciari notes that you don’t want to completely button up the house or else chemical vapors can accumulate, so leave a window or two cracked open. Do this for a week or so after you get new carpeting or furniture to get rid of most of these volatile chemicals.
“Another trick is keeping your house cool and dry,” Casciari advises. “The hotter the house the worse [the offgassing], especially with high humidity.” Air conditioning works well to bring down humidity and cool the air as long as you replace the air filter every three to six months. “Many people change it only every couple of years,” Casciari says. “If you have pets you should replace it twice as often.”
To purify indoor air, you can use a multi-stage air cleaner that contains activated charcoal or, even better, units that employ photocatalysis to neutralize chemicals. Avoid a humidifier with tubing, says Casciari. “It requires you to be meticulous in cleaning it. Otherwise you can develop mold, which then circulates throughout your house.”
Mold inhalation may cause coughing and wheezing in otherwise healthy people. The presence of mold presents a breathing hazard to people with asthma, as it can worsen symptoms significantly. In addition, research published last year in Clinical and Translational Allergy found a link between mold and asthma development.
“People call us and tell us their health symptoms and ask us which home tests we think they need,” says Robert Weitz, a certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental Group, an environmental inspection company in the Northeast. “Although it’s not yet been proven as a carcinogen, mold exacerbates and can trigger respiratory symptoms. The longer you’ve been exposed to mold the worse it becomes. It can lead to long-term respiratory disease.”
Some molds are more dangerous than others. The most widely known toxigenic mold is Stachybotrys atra (chartarum), or black mold. It grows on household surfaces with high cellulose content, such as dust, lint, paper, gypsum board, fiberboard and wood. “You can’t predict how a person will react to mold because it’s very individual,” says Weitz. “Some people can tolerate high exposure with no reaction, where another person can be badly affected by a small amount. In general, about 70% of the population is allergic to mold.” People with compromised immune systems, such as those with AIDS or leukemia, are most likely to have more severe reactions.
About a decade ago Weitz’s company performed one or two weekly mold inspections. Now the company conducts 40 to 50 a week, although Weitz credits consumer awareness and education more than an actual increase in the amount of mold-infested dwellings.
Testing for mold can be pricey, running from $600 to $1,200, Weitz says, adding, “You can get do-it-yourself tests but unfortunately they’re not as good.” It’s worth the investment if you believe mold in your home is compromising your well-being.
Get the Lead Out
Renovating and repainting your home can put you at risk for another environmental toxin: lead. All homes built before 1978 likely contain some lead-based paint, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although its use in paint has been banned for home use since then, the dangers posed by lead are not a thing of the past, says Weitz. “People hire a painting contractor to prime and paint their home and don’t realize that sanding can release poison lead,” he explains. “Lead can be drawn into the bone, which raises the lead in your system, kills brain cells and retards growth.” Children younger than six are at the highest risk, as they’re most likely to put their hands in their mouths after touching a surface contaminated with lead dust. “Millions of dwellings are covered in lead paint,” notes Weitz.
Assume your home contains lead if it was built prior to 1978 unless tests show otherwise. Ask your state or local health department about testing paint and dust from your home for lead.
And make sure your children do not have access to peeling paint. You can rid your home of lead in several different ways, including replacing the windows, doors or woodwork, wire brushing, wet hand sanding or heat stripping, all of which require special precautions and, in some cases, should be done only by an experienced professional.
Like lead, asbestos may seem a thing of the past but it, too, is still around causing serious health issues. “It will be a major problem for at least the next 50 to 75 years,”
Asbestos consists of bundles of fibers that can be separated into thin, durable threads. Its ability to withstand heat, fire and chemicals led to it being used widely in many industries. In building and construction it was used for strengthening cement and plastic as well as for insulation, roofing, fireproofing and sound absorption. “It was the best insulator that had ever been used,” says Weitz. “It was also used in flooring materials and lasted a very long time.”
Home renovation and activities such as removing old insulation can release asbestos fibers into the air. Breathing these fibers in can cause them to become trapped in your lungs. Over time, this can cause scarring and inflammation and even cancer, specifically mesothelioma, which affects membranes that line the chest and abdomen, the most common form of cancer associated with asbestos exposure.
The Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving asbestos-based materials alone, as they are unlikely to cause a problem if left undisturbed. Only trained professionals should remove asbestos (for more information, visit http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos).
Triclosan: The New BPA
Antibacterial soaps, body washes and toothpastes often contain an ingredient called triclosan, which may be the next big newsworthy environmental toxin since BPA (bisphenol A, a chemical used to make certain plastics), says Melanie Eldridge, PhD, assistant professor in the department of biology and environmental sciences at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “It’s the chemical that makes a product antibacterial,” Eldridge explains. “In light it changes to a dioxin, which is a toxic chemical.”
Left behind on the skin after washing, triclosan is easily absorbed in the mouth and GI tract, and shows up in blood and urine. Current research does not show it to be hazardous to humans, although enough controversy over its potential harm has motivated many manufacturers to remove triclosan from their products.
It’s difficult to avoid all chemicals, says Casciari. “If you play golf or stroll through a nursery, pesticides can be in the water on the ground and you bring them in your house. The best thing to do is assume they’re there.”
Do what you can: Take off your shoes when you get home, air out your house, keep pipes and faucets clean, change your air filters and keep your home cool and the humidity low. Casciari says, “You’re not going to avoid all toxins but you can minimize your exposure to them.”