Dangerous Chemicals in the Home
A "Most-Wanted" list of five common household contaminants.
We all want our homes to be clean, safe places to live -- sanctuaries away from the chaos and cares of the outside world. But toxic invaders may lurk inside your home, putting you and your family at risk. Here are five household pollutants to watch out for, and tips on how to minimize your exposure.
1. Cigarette Smoke
Cigarette smoke is a toxic pollutant, made up of more than 4,000 chemicals. In smokers, it causes a variety of deadly cancers, as well as asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, heart disease, respiratory allergies and complications during pregnancy. In addition to the 440,000 American smokers who die every year from illnesses caused by cigarette smoke, thousands of nonsmokers die from health problems caused or aggravated by secondhand smoke, including heart disease, lung cancer and sudden infant death syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control ranks smoking as the leading preventable cause of death and disease in the United States each year.
What You Can Do: Quit smoking, and urge your loved ones to do the same. Short of that, don't allow smoking indoors or in areas where others may be exposed.
More than a quarter century after the 1978 ban on lead in paint, nearly half a million American prekindergarten children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. That's largely because old lead paint remains on the walls in many homes, workplaces and schools. This paint can emit lead-laced dust particles, especially during remodeling and construction. Old, corroded lead pipes are another common culprit. Elevated blood-lead levels in kids increase risk of learning disabilities, behavioral problems, anemia and, in extreme cases, serious brain damage.
What You Can Do: If your house is more than 25 years old, you should have it tested for lead paint. Some state and local health departments provide assistance for lead testing. If there is a significant lead hazard in your home, consider having lead paint removed. This work should always be done by a professional trained and certified in lead paint removal. One of the easiest ways to decrease the risk from lead paint is simply to paint over it -- but avoid scraping, sanding or heating it, which allows dangerous lead particles to escape. Also, you should keep floors, windowsills and other surfaces free of dust, and wash children's toys frequently to remove any lead particles. Lead in pipes is more difficult to handle, but you can have your water tested. Contact your state or local health department for information on local contractors, or obtain a testing kit from a hardware store, and install a water filter if you find lead in your water. Also, ask to have your child's blood tested for lead at his or her next regular doctor's appointment.
The pesticides we use to control weeds and insects in and around our homes can be significant health hazards. Exposure to certain pesticides is associated with health problems ranging from skin rashes to nervous system disorders and cancer. Children are at the greatest risk of harm because of their hand-to-mouth habits and still-developing nervous systems; also, the places they play are often the type of area that is treated with pesticides. In recent years, a number of the most dangerous pesticides have been pulled off the market, thanks to pressure from environmental groups. But that doesn't make the aging supplies in your garage any safer.
What You Can Do: You can prevent pest problems by keeping your home and its surroundings clean and well maintained. Only use pesticides when necessary, read labels carefully -- in the store and in your home -- and follow all of the instructions. Avoid pesticides containing organophosphates, which include ingredients such as acephate, dichlorvos, dimethoate, disulfoton, malathion, naled, phosmet, tetrachlorvinphos and trichlorfon. Carbamates, which include the pesticides carbaryl (Sevin), and propoxur (Baygon), are another class of chemicals that should be avoided. The dangerous pesticide diazinon was banned at the end of 2004, but it could still be lurking in an old bottle of weed killer lying around your house. Likewise, the manufacture of chlorpyrifos (sold as Dursban or Lorsban) was halted as of 2000, but stores were still allowed to sell existing stocks, which were considerable. If you find unsafe pesticides in your home, don't flush them down a toilet or pour them down a drain -- you don't want these chemicals to end up in your water supply, either. Instead, call your local public works department to find out how to dispose of unsafe pesticides. Also, lobby your local government not to use unnecessary or unsafe pesticides in parks, schools and other public places. For more information on pesticides and safer alternatives, see NRDC's Safe Ways to Control Pests Around Your Home, and the Detox Our Homes database.
Formaldehyde isn't just the stuff of high school science labs. It's more common in your home than you might think. Formaldehyde is used in fertilizers, glues, plywood, fiberboard, particleboard and certain types of insulation, as well as in some disinfectants, antibacterial soaps and even beauty products. Formaldehyde has been classified as a probable human carcinogen by the EPA. Its vapors can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin, and also cause asthma attacks in sensitive people. Home exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to respiratory allergies in children.
What You Can Do: If you're remodeling, use exterior- rather than interior-grade pressed wood products. The formaldehyde in exterior grade products is more stable and less likely to break down and get into the air. Also, when you buy wood furniture or fixtures (cabinets, for example) that use particleboard -- many do, even if you can't see it - make sure it is laminated or otherwise coated. And finally, if you have products or construction in your home that could release formaldehyde vapors, make sure you have good ventilation.
Radon is an invisible, odorless, radioactive gas produced by the decay of a naturally occurring element in soil called radium. Radium could be anywhere, and if it occurs in high levels, radon gas can be a serious problem. Radon seeps into homes through cracks in the foundations, accumulating in lower floors, especially basements. The problem is worst where ventilation is poor. Radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, after tobacco, and is responsible for approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths every year.
What You Can Do: Test your home for radon with one of several EPA-approved kits, available for about $35 in hardware stores. Alternately, find a certified contractor to test for radon through the National Radon Proficiency Program or the National Radon Safety Board. If testing reveals high radon levels, you'll want to have a certified professional design and install a mitigation system, which usually costs somewhere in the $1,000 range. And if you're buying a home, have it professionally tested for radon before you close the deal.