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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.


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Home…Is Where the Pollution Is?

Posted on May 29, 2013

By Rebecca Meuninck

For a long time popular environmental discourse focused on the natural world or the pollution that poisons communities and our natural resources. But more recently we’ve begun to examine the pollution within – within our homes, within the products we use every day, and even within our bodies. Many Americans spend an astonishing 90% of our lives indoors. So our indoor environments have a tremendous impact on our health.

It seems like we learn about a new toxic chemical in our household products everyday. In 2007 we focused on lead in kid’s toys after a rash of recalls. Then we learned about BPA in baby bottles, phthalates in cosmetics, and cadmium in kid’s jewelry. As reported in last month’s Policy Institute, states have stepped into the vacuum left by a badly broken federal chemicals law to ban or restrict some of these nasty chemicals.

Yet another class of incipient chemicals is ubiquitous in our built environment, particularly in our homes; toxic flame retardants. Our homes are full of flame retardant chemicals with complex names like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), chlorinated tris (TDCPP and TCEP), and Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD). These chemicals have been linked to certain cancers, thyroid disruption, and neurotoxicity. The also stick around in the environment for a long time and build up in the environment and food chain.

Last year the Chicago Tribune ran an investigative series about the dirty lobbying tactics used by the chemical industry to stop bans on flame retardants. Chemical companies consistently used false testimonies and scare tactics in court to keep these hazardous flame retardants in products.

While flame retardants sound like a good idea at first blush, the industry has vastly overstated their efficacy and downplayed the growing list of health and environmental concerns associated with these chemicals. Flame retardants have consistently been found ineffective in preventing fire when tested in the lab; and firefighters across the nation have come together to protest their use in the home because of the extremely toxic gases that are created when these chemicals catch fire.

Consumers have a hard time avoiding these chemicals because they aren’t listed on product labels and are found in so many of the products in our homes. Over the past few years a host of studies has found toxic flame retardants in electronics, couches, children’s car seats, building materials, and even products made for infants such as nursing pillows. It would be one thing if these toxic flame retardants stayed in the products, but unfortunately many of them actually come out of the products and deposit in household dust.

Our children, our pets, and we breathe in or ingest these flame retardants so they end up polluting our bodies too. Young children and pets have been found to have much higher levels than adults because they live closer to the floor and their natural behavior is to explore their world by putting things into their mouths.

If there’s one thing I know, you don’t cross a mama and you don’t cross a pet lover. Lawmakers and the chemical industry should take heed of this advice. 

The drumbeat to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), our nation’s main law aimed at regulating chemicals used in everyday products, has been steadily growing louder. Parents, health professionals, environmentalists, and health-affected advocates have been calling on congress for reform. Two bills to reform TSCA were introduced this spring; first the Safe Chemicals Act was introduced by Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ) and 28 other democratic co-sponsors and then on May 22nd Senator Lautenberg and Senator Vitter (R-LA) negotiated a rare bipartisan compromise bill called the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

While it’s exciting to finally see bipartisan support for TSCA reform, public health, environmental justice, and environmental groups have some serious concerns about the new bill. These groups are committed to fighting for the best possible reform that preserves states' rights to protect their citizens, communities, and natural resources. We hope that the same bipartisan spirit and concern for public health that brought Senator Lautenberg and Senator Vitter together will continue and the bill’s weaknesses will be addressed.

We all want a safe home for ourselves and our children. As health professionals, we are also concerned with patient well-being. While we can educate families on reducing exposure through simple steps like hand washing and vacuuming with a HEPA filter, we won’t fully address this problem until there are policy changes that prohibit the use of hazardous chemicals in our household products.


Julie said ..

I am concerned about nanoparticles which are used in extracting natural gas which we combust in our furnaces and which will be disbursed throughout our indoor air. I have read that when inhaled, the lung cilia are not able to expel the nanoparticles due to their miniscule size.

March 25, 2014
David Greene said ..

I would like to see lables that clearly state what chemicals are used to make products so we can decide not to buy them.

June 13, 2013

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