When’s the last time you dusted? A new study might have you doing it far more frequently. The first comprehensive analysis of chemicals found in dust in homes across the country was published this week and the results are rather disturbing. It’s hard to imagine dust could hold much, but they identified 45 different chemicals and almost every sample contained 10 especially nasty contaminants linked to a variety of adverse health impacts.
“On the one hand, I wasn’t that surprised,” said co-author Veena Singla, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “And on the other hand, I was surprised to see just how bad it was. I definitely expected to see a number of toxic chemicals when we put the data together, but just the extent of it did surprise me.”
The authors of the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, were especially concerned about exposure to vulnerable sub-populations like children – particularly infants and toddlers who crawl and play on the floor and frequently put their hands in their mouths.
Completely avoiding dust is nearly impossible, but the authors do make some simple recommendations to reduce exposure.
- Remove dust from your hands. Wash your hands and your children’s hands frequently, and always before eating. Use plain soap and water, avoiding fragranced and antibacterial soaps.
- Keep household dust to a minimum. Dust with a damp cloth, regularly go over floors with a wet mop, and use a vacuum with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Use the Silent Spring Detox Me app. This free smartphone app walks you through simple, research-based tips on how to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful chemicals where you live and work, and it keeps track of your progress.
In addition, the most effective way to reduce exposure to these chemicals is by not bringing them into your home in the first place – and not building or renovating your home with products that contain them.
Here are 5 toxic chemicals in building materials you don’t want in your home.
What it’s used in:
Composite wood products (particleboard, plywood, and paneling), carpet, fiberglass batt insulation, paper composite countertops, and laminate countertops. According to the Healthy Building Network, some paints, adhesives, and other wet applied products create formaldehyde as they cure.
Potential health impacts:
- Formaldehyde is listed as a known human carcinogen in the Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens published by the U.S. National Toxicology Program because it causes cancer of the throat, nose, and blood (leukemia).
- It’s a well-known neurotoxin (meaning it’s toxic to the nervous system) that can cause headaches, dizziness, and sleep disorders and potentially affect memory, learning, and behavior (1,2,3).
- Exposure to low levels of formaldehyde (levels common in the indoor air of new buildings and homes) can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and skin (4).
- In women, exposure can cause reproductive issues like menstrual disorders and spontaneous abortion, as well as developmental impacts to fetuses such as chromosome and DNA damage (5,6,7).
- Studies show that exposure to formaldehyde increases the development of childhood asthma (8,9,10).
#2 Chlorinated Plastics
What they’re used in:
This isn’t an individual chemical, but the chemicals used in these types of plastics should be avoided. The most common plastic in this category is polyvinyl chloride (PVC) —commonly referred to as vinyl – and it’s used in vinyl flooring, wall paper, carpet backing, resilient flooring, wall coverings, siding, window treatments, acoustical ceiling surfaces, upholstery textiles, roof membranes, waterproofing membranes, pipes, electrical cord insulation, and more.
Chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC) is a form of PVC with extra chlorine, often used for pipes. Polychloroprene (otherwise known as chloroprene rubber or neoprene) is found in geomembranes, weather stripping, expansion joint filler, water sealers, and other gaskets and adhesives. While most polyethylenes do not contain chlorine, two that do contain chlorine are chlorinated polyethylene and chlorosulfinated polyethylene. These two chlorinated polyethylenes are used to make geomembranes, wire and cable jacketing, roof membranes, and electrical connectors.
Potential health impacts:
- The use of chlorine to make these plastic results in the creation of dioxins, which include some of the most potent carcinogens known to humankind – 10,000 times more potent than the next highest chemical (diethanol amine), half a million times more than arsenic, and a million or more times greater than the rest. 11
- PVC is inherently rigid, so phthalates are added to give it some flexibility. As noted in the first graphic, phthalates have been associated with a number of serious health problems, including reproductive problems, endocrine disruption, obesity, asthma, allergies, and more (11-24).
- To give PVC other types of qualities, heavy metals like lead may be added. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body.
#3 Flame Retardants
What they’re used in:
Not all flame retardants present concerns, but halogenated flame retardants and organophosphorous flame retardants do. They’re often used in insulation, polyurethane foam, carpet cushion, wire, and cable.
Potential health effects:
These flame retardants have been associated with adverse health effects in animals and humans, including endocrine and thyroid disruption, immunotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, cancer, and adverse effects on fetal and child development and neurologic function (25).
#4 Perfluorinated compounds
What they’re used in:
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is used in stain repellent finishes on carpets and textiles, as well as in insulators for electric wires.
Potential health impacts:
PFOA has been associated with reproductive and developmental impacts and hormone disruption (26-28). Despite the fact that PFOA has been found in the serum of every person tested, the U.S. Centers for Disease control states, “The human health effects from exposure to low environmental levels of PFOA are unknown. PFOA can remain in the body for long periods of time. More research is needed to assess the human health effects of exposure to PFOA.”
What they’re used in:
Manufacturers routinely add antimicrobials such as nano-silver and triclosan to paints, tiles and grouts, carpets, solid surfaces, faucets, toilet seats, and more.
Potential health impacts:
First and foremost, there’s no evidence that this use of antimicrobials helps keep people healthier, but there is evidence of harm to the environment and human health. Plus, the overuse of antimicrobials can lead to bacterial resistance. Here’s what Bill Walsh, founder of the Healthy Building Network, has to say about the issue:
In 2014, the Canadian Environmental Law Association and Clean Production Action conducted an in-depth ‘GreenScreen’ assessment of triclosan. They concluded that it is highly toxic in humans, possesses endocrine system-disrupting properties and is highly toxic to organisms living in aquatic environments. The World Health Organization included triclosan in its 2013 state-of-the-science report on endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The Centers for Disease Control found triclosan in 75% of Americans tested, with levels rising from 2003 through 2010. Doctors from Johns Hopkins concluded in 2012 that these levels of triclosan in the human body ‘were significantly associated with allergic sensitization.’ Under certain conditions, triclosan can break down in the environment into a group of dioxins – a class of chemicals known as potent carcinogens and endocrine disrupters. Additionally, Pharos Project research into triclosan process chemistry found dioxin residuals as a common contaminant in this antimicrobial.
Sadly, this is just the tip of the ice berg. These are some of the most common toxic chemicals in building materials, but there are many, many more. Luckily, with increasing awareness and consumer demand, there are tons of safer options. Browse the products here on Elemental Green to get a taste of what’s out there!
Learn more to protect your health:
- How High Performance Homes are Better for Your Health
- Why You Can’t Always Trust a “Zero-VOC” Label
- How to Choose the Best Whole House Water Treatment System
- Tulpule, K., & Dringen, R. (2013). Formaldehyde in brain: an overlooked player in neurodegeneration?. Journal of neurochemistry, 127(1), 7-21.
- Songur, A., Ozen, O. A., & Sarsilmaz, M. (2010). The toxic effects of formaldehyde on the nervous system. In Reviews of environmental contamination and toxicology (pp. 105-118). Springer New York.
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- Lippiatt, Barbara, (2002). BEES® 3.0 Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability – Technical Manual and User Guide. National Institute of Standards and Technology. p. 36 (http://www.bfrl.nist.gov/oae/software/bees/ )
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