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Avoidable Exposures: Consumers


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Carcinogens At Home

Household Products & Chemicals Q&A
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According to a National Academy of Sciences workshop, approximately 15 percent of the American population suffers from chemical sensitivity. Researchers have traced this increased sensitivity to the proliferation of synthetic chemicals in consumer products and furnishings.

According to the EPA, indoor air pollution is one of the nation's most pressing personal health concerns. Peak concentrations of 20 toxic compounds - some linked with cancer and birth defects - were 200 to 500 times higher inside some homes than outdoors, according to a 5-year EPA study that surveyed 600 homes in six cities.

Residues of more than 400 toxic chemicals - some found in household products and foods - have been identified in human blood and fat tissue. See a list of hazardous ingredients in household products.

Symptoms such as runny nose, itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, skin rash, and respiratory infections are all common reactions to indoor air pollution. Left untreated, long-term exposure to indoor pollution can result in lung cancer, or damage to the liver, kidney and central nervous system. Young children are especially vulnerable to impaired lung function and respiratory infection.

The risk for leukemia increases by four to seven times for children, ages 10 and under, whose parents use home or garden pesticides.

The risk of childhood brain cancer is associated with the use of pesticide "bombs" in the home, pesticides to control termites, flea collars on pets, insecticides in the garden or orchard, and herbicides to control weeds in the yard, including exposure to two common pesticides available in garden shops - carbaryl and diazinon.

In 1990, more than 4,000 toddlers under age four were admitted to hospital emergency rooms as a result of household cleaner-related injuries. That same year, 18,000 pesticide-related hospital emergency room admissions were reported with almost three-fourths for children age fourteen and under.

Methylene chloride, the propellant used in many aerosol products, is carcinogenic. Some products containing methylene chloride have been pulled from the market, but the carcinogen continues to be found in many consumer products such as spray paint and stripper.

Not a single cosmetic company warns consumers of the presence of carcinogens in its products - despite the fact that a number of common cosmetic ingredients are carcinogenic or carcinogenic precursors.

Some experts estimate that 20 percent of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma cases among women are attributable to their use of hair dyes.

Safety Guidelines For Avoiding Carcinogens At home

  • Read all labels carefully before using products. Be aware of their uses and dangers.
  • Leave products in their original container with the label that clearly identifies the contents.
  • Never put household products in food or beverage containers.
  • Do not mix products unless the label directs you to do so. This can cause explosive or poisonous chemical reactions. Even different brands of the same product may contain incompatible ingredients.
  • Use only what is needed. Twice as much doesn't mean twice the results. Follow the label.
  • If you are pregnant, avoid toxic chemical exposure as much as possible. Many toxic products have not been fully tested for their effects on the unborn.
  • Use products in well-ventilated areas to avoid inhaling fumes. Open windows and use an exhaust fan, making sure air is exiting outside rather than being recirculated indoors. Take plenty of fresh air breaks. Be sure to use adequate skin, eye, and respirator protection.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while using hazardous products. Traces of hazardous chemicals can be carried from hand to mouth. Smoking can start a fire if the products are flammable.
  • Clean up after using hazardous products. Carefully seal containers.

Household Products and Chemicals Q&A

Q. What role do chemicals play in household products?

A. Production rates for synthetic petrochemicals skyrocketed from 1 billion pounds per year in 1940 to over 400 billion pounds per year in the 1980s. Approximately 70,000 chemicals are now in commercial production, many of which are used in household products. Many of these chemicals accumulate in the human body and cause cancer and other diseases, yet they have been inadequately tested or remain completely untested for their safety. Only about 600 of these chemicals are known to cause cancer. Many chemicals used in household products are volatile. That means they become gaseous at room temperature or are sprayed from an aerosol can or hand pump and thus take the form of microscopic particles that are easily inhaled. They can cause damage to the lungs or other organs as they are taken into the bloodstream.

Q. Are hazardous chemicals from household products more dangerous than outdoor pollutants?

A. Because indoor pollutants are not as easily dispersed or diluted as outdoor pollutants, concentrations of toxic chemicals may be much greater indoors than outdoors. Peak concentrations of twenty toxic compounds -some linked with cancer and birth defects - were 200 to 500 times higher inside some homes than outdoors, according to an Environmental Protection Agency Study. Not surprisingly, EPA experts say that indoor air pollution is one of the nation's most pressing personal health concerns.

Q. Have products been pulled from the market because of their chemical hazards?

A. In the last few years consumers have discovered that some of the chemicals in household products whose safety was taken for granted are hazardous. For instance, methylene chloride (also known as dichloromethane), the propellant used in many aerosol products, is carcinogenic. Although some products containing methylene chloride have been pulled from the market, this carcinogen continues to be found in many consumer products such as spray paint and stripper. More recently, it was learned that indoor latex paints used widely for decades contained highly neurotoxic mercury-based fungicides. But it was not until 1990 that manufacturers finally removed most of these potent neurotoxins.

Q. What are some of the symptoms caused by chemicals in household products?

A. Symptoms such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, a scratchy throat, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, skin rash, and respiratory infections are all common reactions to indoor air pollution. Long-term exposure to indoor pollution can result in lung cancer, or damage to the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. Young children are especially vulnerable to impaired lung function and respiratory infection.

Q. What types of products have the biggest cancer risks?

A. Certain cleansers and many brands of cat litter contain the carcinogen crystalline silica. Some car cleaning products contain formaldehyde. Fortunately, there are safe alternative household products

More…
Cleaning Products Risks

Recommended Reading:
Steinman, David and Samuel Epstein, MD, The Safe Shopper's Bible, Macmillan Publishing Company, 1995.

Steinman, David, Diet for a Poisoned Planet, Ballantine Books, 1990, $12.50.

Berthold-Bond, Annie, Clean & Green, The Complete Guide to Non-toxic Housekeeping, Ceres Press, 1989, $8.95.

Dadd, Debra Lynn, The Nontoxic Home & Office, Jeremy Tarcher Press, 1992.

Harte, John, Cheryl Holdren, Richard Schneider and Christine Shirley, Toxics A to Z: A Guide to Everyday Pollution Hazards, University of California Press, 1991.

Needleman, Herbert and Philip Landrigan, Raising Children Toxic Free: How to keep Your Child Safe from lead, Asbestos, Pesticides and Other Environmental Hazards, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Cancer Prevention Coalition

c/o School of Public Health, M/C 922
University of Illinois at Chicago
2121 West Taylor Street

Chicago, IL 60612
(312) 996-2297, Fax: (312) 413-9898
Email: epstein@uic.edu

 


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