What Gives Us Cancer? A Primer on Indoor Air Toxins


Credit: Environmental Defense Fund, 2012

In educating myself about air quality issues in Minneapolis, I’ve become more aware of what most of us don’t realize — how much toxicity we are exposed to in our own homes. Low-income communities in particular tend to be vulnerable because of multiple exposure: 1) they live in areas that have worse outdoor air quality issues, 2) they work in low paying jobs that expose them to these toxins (construction, manufacturing, etc.), and 3) they are subject to disproportionately unhealthy indoor air toxins because of materials used.

At a recent conversation hosted by Healthy Building Network, in collaboration with the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design in New York City, I learned:

  • Green materials don’t have to cost more. This is a refrain I heard in Q&A with a local preservationist architect as well.
  • Umbilical cords of babies include more than 230 synthetic chemicals, according to a Scientific American article. This is not from eating bacon or exposure to smoking, but because of the chemicals that expectant mothers are exposed to. Environmental groups “complain that hundreds of thousands of new chemical formulations are unleashed on an unwitting public every year via America’s store shelves.”
  • Some toxins become dangerous after extended accumulation in the body, but others are endrocrine disruptors, leading to quick impact even with small dosage — similar to the transformation we undergo because of the hormones of puberty.
  • Autism now impacts 1:110, and childhood asthma has doubled in 20 years. This are chemical related. Preterm births, low birth weight, pediatric brain cancer are also associated with increasing exposure to chemicals at a young age. Although we can reduce fatalities, the numbers of these issues are going up. (See more detail from Center for Disease Control.)
  • Although the FDA regulates what toxins go onto our skin, such as for cosmetics, there is less regulation about what we breathe. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), enacted in 1976, gave the EPA a way to address the safety of chemicals in products throughout their life cycle. However, 62,000 chemicals were grandfathered in, and since then, less than 200 of these have been tested for human safety — and only five have been banned since 1990.

Thus, the vast majority of existing chemicals have never been evaluated for potential toxicity to infants, children, developing fetuses, or adults.

For more, read this overview by the Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Did You Know…?

“Pressure treated wood” — including that used in wood preservatives, and in decks and playgrounds — was a primary reason the construction industry was the #1 user of arsenic until 2004, when public concerns mounted. Arsenic is a known carcinogen, especially leading to lung and skin cancer.

Dioxins are one of the most highly toxic compounds we are exposed to regularly, largely through the food chain (causing reproductive issues and affecting organs). According to the World Health Organization: “The developing fetus is most sensitive to dioxin exposure. Newborn, with rapidly developing organ systems, may also be more vulnerable to certain effects. Some people or groups of people may be exposed to higher levels of dioxins because of their diet (e.g., high consumers of fish in certain parts of the world) or their occupation (e.g., workers in the pulp and paper industry, in incineration plants and at hazardous waste sites).”

Formaldehyde can be found in a variety of building and home decoration products (resins, pressboard, fabric treatments). According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility: Automobile exhaust is the greatest contributor to concentrations in the air. Construction materials, furnishings, and cigarettes account for most formaldehyde in indoor air. Formaldehyde is linked to leukemia, and is a known human carcinogen.

Vinyl, flame retardant products, stains, water repellants, and epoxies are a few of the dangerous chemicals we are exposed to in everyday products in our homes.

Read more about chemicals in building materials, and how public opinion has made a difference for some of it.

A Database of Chemicals in Materials

Pharos Project is a database that gives designers and developers insight into the safety of current manufacturer products used in home building. One issue the creators discovered is that many companies do not want to disclose the content. Only 380 products have been completely disclosed by 59 manufacturers.

  • The database includes evaluations for 1,600+ building products and components from 296 manufacturers, across 13 major product categories.
  • It profiles 34,400+ chemicals and materials for 22 health and environmental hazards, including carcinogenicity, mutagenicity, reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption, against 60 authoritative lists of hazards issued by governments, NGOs and other expert bodies.
A big “wish list” item from the speakers at the Healthy Buildings Network conversation in Minneapolis (November 2015): Ask! Until consumers, designers, commercial buyers ask for greater transparency in what is in the products we use in our homes, we will never impress upon manufacturers that we are no longer ignorant, and that we care how these products impact our long-term health.
credit: Dr. Frank Lipman article on "20 ways to detox your home"

credit: Dr. Frank Lipman article on “20 ways to detox your home”

They would also like to see more of us, as house buyers, asking as many questions about the health of materials used in a home as on how many bedrooms and baths it has. Currently, the impression is that we aren’t paying attention to health and environmental factors; without strong regulation, many manufacturers aren’t particularly inclined to revise the way they create products.

Funding toward a “green screen” for safer products might be more plentiful if we start asking more questions about smarter, healthier products. The market economy is a strong motivator.

— Mikki Morrissette, founder, MPLSGreen.com