Pollution at home often lurks unrecognized

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Many people may be surprised by the number of chemicals they are exposed to through everyday household products, a small study finds, suggesting, researchers say, that consumers need to learn more about sources of indoor pollution.

In interviews with 25 women who’d had their homes and bodies tested for various environmental pollutants, researchers found that most were surprised and perplexed by the number of chemicals to which they’d been exposed.

The women had been part of a larger study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute in which their homes and urine samples were tested for 89 environmental contaminants — including pesticides and chemicals found in plastics, cleaning products and cosmetics.

An average of 20 chemicals was detected for each study participant.

Much is unknown about the possible health effects of the array of chemicals in everyday household products. But certain chemicals — like phthalates and bisphenol-A, found in plastics — have been linked to potential risks, including hormonal effects and higher risks of certain cancers, though the evidence mainly comes from research in lab animals.

Other household chemicals are known to irritate the skin, eyes and airways, and may exacerbate asthma, for example. Many more chemicals found in cleaning products, cosmetics and other household staples remain untested.

Chemicals that accumulate in household dust or urine likely come from a range of sources, so it is not always clear how to reduce people’s exposure, according to Dr. Rebecca Gasior Altman, the lead researcher on the new study.

However, there are still measures that people can take, Altman, a lecturer in community health at Tufts University in Boston, told Reuters Health.

In the original study, she noted, women were given advice based on their particular chemical exposures — such as reducing pesticide use or using fragrance-free detergent and personal-care products.

The term “fragrance” on household-product labels can signal the presence of potentially harmful chemicals. One of the uses of phthalates, for example, is to stabilize fragrances.

For the current study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Altman and her colleagues interviewed two dozen women who’d taken part in the Silent Spring study to see how people tend to react to information on their household chemical exposure.

They found that the women were generally surprised at the range of chemicals detectable in their homes and bodies. They were also surprised that even some banned substances, such as the pesticide DDT, were detected (as these chemicals persist in the environment).

With many unanswered questions about the health effects of household chemicals, some experts worry that giving people information about their everyday exposures will provoke unnecessary fear, Altman’s team notes.

However, the researchers found that women in their study were typically not alarmed, and instead wanted “more rather than less” information on the issue.

SOURCE: Journal of Health and Social Behavior, December 2008.

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