Sunday, March 27, 2005

Household dust a health concern


Angela C. Grattaroti lives in the town nicknamed “Plastic City” and for years has heard about problems with toxins in plastic. But when the dust from her vacuum cleaner was tested for toxic chemicals from plastic products as part of a national chemical safety study, she was floored by the results.

“I was astounded,” the Leominster resident said of the trace chemical contaminants found in dust from her home and nine other homes in Massachusetts. The contaminants included chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, asthma, and brain and nervous system development problems.

She said she was equally surprised to learn that the United States and Massachusetts are far behind European Union countries in adopting regulations to phase out use in household products of many of the toxic chemicals found in the home tests here and replace them with safer alternatives.

Rosa Fernandez of Worcester, who also had samples of her household dust collected for the study, was upset by the results. “Our top priority as parents is to protect our children from harm,” she said. “It’s inexcusable that my family has been subjected to hazards that could have been avoided.”

The dust tests, part of the national Safer Products Projects, checked for 44 chemicals commonly found in household products, carpeting, toys, pots and pans, and home furnishings, and found traces of 25 of them in dust from homes tested in Massachusetts. Similar findings came from tests in six other states

Although the study did not determine that the presence of the chemicals in household dust posed a specific risk to health, sponsors said it shows that toxics from household products make their way into household dust and that the dust can be an exposure pathway that has not been examined closely enough.

“I’m ready to pull off the shower curtain,” Ms. Grattaroti said yesterday of the findings of trace amounts of phthalate compounds in the dust. Phthalates — used in making vinyl products such as shower curtains, raincoats, toys and furniture, as well as some perfumes, hair sprays and nail polishes — were found in the dust from the Massachusetts homes. Those compounds have been linked to asthma and male infertility.

The tests also found traces of pesticides associated with cancer and birth defects; perfluorinated organic compounds, used in making stain-resistant materials and non-stick pots and pans; brominated flame retardants, linked to nervous system and behavioral system problems in animals; and alkylphenols found in textiles and cleaning products that are suspected of leading to altered sexual development in some animals.

She said she began learning about household toxic chemicals that can damage organ function when a speaker knowledgeable about household toxics talked to the Leominster Special Education Advisory Committee. “We were all shocked by all these things that we buy for our homes that emit toxic chemicals,” said Ms. Grattaroti, co-chairwoman of the committee.

Talking to reporters in a national telephone conference about the test results yesterday, Ms. Grattaroti said she is especially concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals.

“There is a high incidence of autism, asthma and autoimmune illness in our community,” she said. She also noted that about 28 percent of the children in Leominster are experiencing learning disabilities, including her own son.

“I am certainly switching over to safer products and I am certainly going to call state Rep. Jennifer L. Flanagan and state Sen. Robert A. Antonioni” to ask them to speed up efforts to mandate safer alternatives in products sold here, she said.

Sponsors of the study, titled “Sick of Dust Chemicals in Common Products” took samples from households in seven states and found various toxic chemicals in all the samples. The states involved were California, New York, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts and Maine.

It was the first such effort in the United States, modeled after studies that prompted regulatory action in European Union countries.

“This is a clear case of toxic trespass,” said Cyndi Luppi, organizing director of Clean Water Action, which is working with the Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow to get the state Legislature to phase out key toxic chemicals.

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