When the environmental movement started more than two decades ago, most people associated toxic chemicals with soot-chugging smokestacks or sludge-filled dump sites. No one gave carpets a second thought.
Well, things have changed.
A growing body of evidence suggests that dozens of seemingly benign products found in and around the home, the living room rug included, are daily churning out their own stream of toxic fumes and chemicals.
From pesticides to particleboard, tap water to bathroom deodorizers, adhesives to dry-cleaned clothes, recent studies suggest that many household products may collectively pose more risks to human health and the environment over time than industrial chemical waste.
Far from conclusive, the studies nonetheless add to concerns about the plethora of pollutants in the home and raise questions about the way we live.
“Thirty years ago when a lot of these products were introduced, people thought, gee, isn’t this terrific. … Now we’re paying the price,” said Joanna Underwood, the president of Inform Inc., a New York-based environmental group that analyzed data that chemical companies submitted to federal and state governments for its Toxics Watch 1995.
A 522-page report by Inform released last month found that numerous commercial products released chemicals into the air and the water and that those chemicals remained there for long periods.
For instance, dichlorobenzene, the active ingredient in room deodorizers, was found in blood samples of home owners three days after they had placed fresh deodorizers in their homes. Elevated levels of tetrachloroethylene, a chemical used in dry cleaning, were detected in homes a week after the clothes were delivered.
The report also cited a study by the federal Environmental Protection Agency showing that concentrations of 16 contaminants - some of which caused cancer in rats and mice, and one, benzene, which is a known human carcinogen - were higher inside homes than outside, even when the homes were in highly industrialized areas.
“What we can conclude from all these studies is that the major sources of pollution are small and close to the person. They are literally under your nose,” said Lance Wallace, the project director of the EPA study.
What the health risk to humans from daily exposure to these chemicals is, “nobody in the world knows,” said Wallace, noting he had stopped using many products in his own home. But he said: “Why take a chance? All the evidence indicates if it causes cancer in animals, it doesn’t sound like it’s good for you.”
Others say the dangers have been overstated.
A chemical industry spokesman said there were no “widespread risks” from most chemicals used in commercial products.
“There clearly have been risks posed by specific chemicals in specific uses. Are there widespread risks? Are there reasons for public concern about toxics in products? We think not,” said Mortin L. Mullins, a vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, whose 185 members produce 90 percent of the “building block” chemicals used in modern society.
And Sam Rottenberg, a toxicologist in the EPA’s Hazardous Waste Management Office in Philadelphia, cited chemicals used in dry cleaning as an example of how the risks involved in home products were often misunderstood. While those chemicals pose some risks, he said, “the plastic wrap that the dry cleaning comes in represents a far greater risk from babies suffocating.”
There are many alternatives to products containing harsh chemicals, such as natural cleaners like vinegar, baking soda and citrus, Wallace said. He also advised hanging dry cleaning outside for a few days and using an exhaust fan when taking a shower to avoid clouds of chloroform that can form.
“Most of the things leave the body pretty rapidly. They go into the fat and stay for three or four days if not replenished. The problem is they are replenished,” he said.
As for carpets, Wallace said he would not use them. Besides emitting chemicals, carpets often harbor invisible toxic particles given off by tobacco and wood smoke, unvented gas appliances, kerosene heaters, cars and asbestos.
Moreover, an EPA study of commercial pesticides found traces of DDT, an extremely toxic insecticide that was banned in 1972, in carpets long after the chemical had been taken off the market.
Kathryn Wise, the director of public information for the Carpet and Rug Institute, acknowledged that carpets, a manufactured product, emit chemical fumes. But, she said, “there is nothing to be alarmed about carpets.”
“There is no link between carpet and health hazards.”
Pesticides pose another problem. A new study from the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health found that children exposed to yards that were treated with weed and pest killers were four times as likely to develop soft-tissue sarcomas, malignant tumors of the connective tissue.
The study is the fifth linking childhood cancers and home pesticide use.
Other studies have found that pregnant women exposed to home pest strips during the last three months of pregnancy gave birth to children with three times the risk of developing leukemia. The children exposed to pest strips had twice the risk, studies have found.
Professional home extermination caused a slightly increased risk - 1.6 to 1.8 times - of lymphomas.
A study by the St. Louis University School of Public Health found a twofold to sixfold increase in brain cancer among children who were exposed to home pesticides, flea collars, pest strips and lice shampoo.
Experts caution that the results of the studies are inconclusive and that more testing is needed. But one researcher said the studies raised red flags about pesticide use.
“There’s a tremendous number of chemicals that could be harmful on the market that end up in home. Many haven’t been fully and adequately tested,” said Jim Davis, an epidemiologist who conducted the brain cancer study. “You should not use them if there is any alternative available at all,” he added.
Increasingly, communities are re stricting the use of certain pesticides. Radnor Township, Pa., for instance, no longer indiscriminately sprays pesticides on its playing fields.
Some homeowners are going to court to challenge the public use of pesticides.
One recent case involved a Virginia woman who sued her townhouse association in federal court after it refused to stop spraying. She said she suffered from multiple chemical sensitivity after being exposed to paint thinner and solvents at work.
“It was sort of a desperate measure to maintain some of the health I have left,” said Melinda Lebens, a 39-yearold former teachers’ aide who is virtually housebound, unable to go beyond her yard without a respirator.
In an out-of-court settlement in January, the Country Creek Homeowners Association agreed to establish a no-pesticide zone around her house and to severely restrict the use of pesticides in other parts of the 350-unit complex, about 10 miles from Washington, D.C.
While she hopes her case serves as a model for others, Lebens, whose health has improved since the spraying stopped in January, said she didn’t view herself as an activist.
“I never entered into this as an environmentalist,” she said. “It stemmed from a personal need to stay healthy.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHILDREN AT RISK Studies linking household toxins with health problems have found: Children exposed to yards treated with weed and pest killers were four times as likely to develop soft-tissue sarcomas, malignant tumors of the connective tissue. Pregnant women exposed to home pest strips during the last three months of pregnancy gave birth to children with three times the risk of developing leukemia. Children exposed to pest strips had twice the risk, studies have found. Children exposed to home pesticides, flea collars, pest strips and lice shampoo had twofold to sixfold increase in brain cancer.