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Hidden Invaders: Avoiding Chemicals in Home Furnishings

By on December 19th, 2014 Categories: Uncategorized

If you’re like me, home is a haven. Between extended clinical work hours and traveling to medical conferences, I don’t get enough at-home time. But I’ve had to learn how to protect my “fort” from chemicals in rugs, furniture, wall papers, curtains, etc. Just the other day, my mother bought me an inflatable mattress as a gift. But when I opened the box, a puff of strong plastic chemical fumes came out. So, I boxed it right back up and returned it. That’s not what I want my guests to sleep on.

When I wanted to replace my old gross shower curtain, all the vinyl plastic options had a strong plastic smell. So instead I bought a polyester fabric liner that works just as well without a dose of chemicals.

But when it comes to chemicals from all the stuff in our homes, you can’t just depend on smells, odors, and fumes to alert you to their presence. Many chemicals that I want to avoid are odorless. I’m talking about groups of industrial chemicals that commonly go by their initials. All of them begin with the letter P: PVC (and a related additive, phthalates), PCBs, and PFCs. These chemicals are often found in shower curtains, carpets and other flooring, insulation, and appliances. Plus, these same materials and products are present in other places where we spend lots of time: such as our workplace and car.

These chemicals, once considered miracle products, have been found to cause health problems, some of them severe. The chemicals are released as gasses from the products they’re in, accumulate in air and dust, and wind up inside our bodies. Because they break down slowly, they can hang around for decades. And unlike some other chemicals in products, these “P” chemicals are seldom listed on labels.

The highest concentrations of these chemicals are generally found indoors. Since most of us spend most of our time at homes and offices, it can be difficult to avoid them completely.

Fortunately, many of these chemicals aren’t sold anymore. Others are being phased out. And while substitutes are being created, their safety is untested. So, as long as we still share our living and working spaces with these invisible and sometimes odorless compounds, it’s a good idea to minimize or avoid exposure to them.

Let’s look at each type.

Chlorine-based culprits:

Both PVC and PCBs are chlorinated organic compounds. This group of chemicals is considered a global pollutant. These chemicals accumulate in our body fat.

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

PVC is also known as vinyl. Developed in the 1920s, vinyl is a fine white powder created from chlorine and ethylene (a chemical that comes from natural gas). It’s then mixed with other chemical additives and formed into sturdy plastic products such as siding, window casings, blinds, shower curtains, containers, plumbing pipes, and medical equipment — even the rubber duckies that kids play with in the bathtub. I’ll bet it’s also used to make blow-up mattresses like the one I just returned.

PVC contains large amounts of phthalates. These chemicals are colorless and odorless and make vinyl more flexible. There are many different phthalates, but some of the most common begin with D, such as DEHP, DAP, and DiNP. Vinyl home flooring may contain as much as 40% DEHP.

Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means they may be able to act like a hormone or affect how other hormones act in the body. Endocrine disruptors throw off the body’s hormonal balance by blocking or mimicking hormones. Because estrogen may make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women try to limit their exposure to these chemicals that can act like estrogen and other hormones.

Phthalates don’t bind to the material they are part of. This means low levels of them are released constantly. This is why a new vinyl shower curtain makes the bathroom smell bad for a few days. (Even if you stop noticing the smell after a while, the phthalates are still being released.) Once released into the air, phthalates, and DEHP in particular, tend to cling to surfaces (like walls, furniture, and even clothing), where we can accidentally touch it or breathe it in.

PVC items may contain other questionable components. For example, a study of shower curtains by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice found that all five of five shower curtains tested contained heavy metals. Heavy metals are a group of toxic metals, such as lead, that are generally harmful to living things.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)

PCBs are man-made chemicals first introduced in 1929 and widely used for nearly half a century in flame retardants, dyes, and plastics. They come in many colors and textures.

PCBs were banned in 1979 because research showed they caused cancer in animals and also affect the immune system. Although they’re no longer sold, they may be in home products and materials made before then, such as fluorescent light ballasts (the mechanism that regulates the current to the bulbs), cable insulation, thermal insulation material, adhesives, caulking, and appliances such as refrigerators and ovens.

The most likely place to find PCBs is in older buildings, which may contain contaminated construction materials such as ceiling tiles, insulation, roofing, and floors. High levels of PCB contamination have been found in homes whose floors were (or were once) covered with a wood finish called “Fabulon,” popular in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Regardless of how and when they first arrived, PCBs don’t break down in the environment. So they may linger in your household dust. Researchers have found that inhaling PCB-laden dust is less of a problem than touching or swallowing it.

Most Americans have measurable amounts of PCBs in their bodies, but the highest levels have been found in people born before 1980. In one study of homes with very high concentrations of the chemicals, people had 50 times the acceptable daily intake level. Cleaning can make a difference. People living in buildings where the carpets were vacuumed often and people took off their shoes before entering had lower levels of PCB dust.

Fluorinated foes:

Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs)

PFCs are fluorine-containing chemicals used to make materials oil- and water-repellent. They’re used on carpeting, furniture, clothing, food packaging, cookware, and in industry. PFCs are in Scotchgard fabric protector, Stainmaster soil-resistant carpet, and Shaw’s R2 stain-repellent fiber. These chemical formulas are trade secrets, so the health effects of these products are hard to track.

PFCs also break down very slowly, so can remain in the environment for many years. PFCs tend to accumulate in our liver, kidneys, and bile and can be transmitted to babies through the placenta and breast milk.

In animal studies, PFCs have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. They also can affect the immune system, the liver, and the pancreas. They may also cause developmental problems in babies who are exposed in the womb.

One PFC, PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), is a byproduct of chemicals formerly used to make Scotchgard products. It hasn’t been made in the United States since 2002 and was recently restricted internationally.

Another PFC, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is found in brands including Stainmaster, Teflon, and GORE-TEX. Scientists have linked PFOA exposure to many different health problems and two rare cancers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board considers PFOA a likely human carcinogen.

Though many companies are working to reduce and ultimately eliminate PFOA, it is still legal. Similarly, manufacturers are switching to newer replacement chemicals, but little is known about them yet.

Tips to reduce your exposure

The hazards of chemical exposures depend on a lot of things including amount of exposure (dose), frequency of exposure, duration of exposure, and age when exposed. In this and other Think Pink, Live Green expert columns, we look at things in your life that go in, on, and around you. Whenever there’s a significant concern coming out of the lab or from human studies, we want to help you make the best choices. If something may pose a hazard, in the absence of solid research in people, we lean on the Precautionary Principle. Basically it means that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Our goal is to help you make the best choices for you and your family. Because we know all these “P” chemicals linger in the environment for many years, it’s not clear if products containing them that are really old are ever safe to use. Your best bet may be to get rid of any items that contain them.

And while we can’t get rid of any chemicals that are already inside us, there are steps you can take to minimize any further exposure. I’ve grouped the tips by type of chemical.

PVC

  • Avoid or discard and replace any home furnishings labeled “vinyl” or that have the recycling symbol “3.” Even if the products are very old, the risk is likely still there.
  • Don’t buy unlabeled plastic products.
  • Look for items labeled “phthalate-free.”
  • Avoid or remove vinyl flooring, particularly the Congoleum with Scotchgard Protector brand. Instead, consider authentic linoleum, tile, cork, bamboo, or stone flooring. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Buyer’s Guide to Green Floor Materials is a good resource.
  • Toss those PVC vinyl shower curtains! Replace them with a curtain made from cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo, polyester (nylon), or the less toxic PEVA vinyl instead. Don’t buy one made from unlabeled fabric or material.
  • Find non-PVC products in Pass Up the Poison Plastic — the PVC-Free Guide for Your Family & Home, published by the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice.

PCBs

  • Bust the dust. One suggestion: have everyone remove their shoes before they come into your home. (This doesn’t work for me since I have a shoe addiction, plus for parties and business meetings, people generally prefer to keep their shoes on.) Vacuum floors often with a HEPA filter-outfitted vacuum cleaner. Damp mop floors and wipe surfaces frequently, and wash your hands to avoid absorbing or swallowing particles.
  • Dispose of or properly recycle furniture, appliances, and other materials likely to contain PCBs. These might include heirloom or thrift-shop pieces — anything manufactured between 1929 and 1979. (Items marked ANo PCB are safe, because they were made after 1979.) Find companies licensed to handle hazardous waste, or take the items to your local hazardous waste disposal site.
  • Do not sand floors that may have been treated with Fabulon wood finish. No lab tests are available to determine this, but if you plan to sand, contact an asbestos-abatement service for advice on protecting yourself. Or get a professional floor refinishing group that’s trained in handling these chemicals to do it. Another option, place “greener” flooring over the wood.

PFCs

  • Avoid furnishings treated with stain- or water-resistance products, including nonstick pans (such as Teflon brand) and “performance” fabrics that are chemically treated to resist water and sunlight.
  • Don’t apply stain repellants such as Scotchgard to furniture or belongings.
  • Buy untreated carpets and other household items; if you’re offered Scotchgard or other protective treatment at the store, tell the salesperson you don’t want it. It’s also a good idea to avoid most imported rugs because they may contain PFCs. You can check the tag or asked a salesperson.
  • If you must waterproof something — hello, winter boots — use less toxic water repellants, such as Nikwax and Greenshield brands. Do any spraying outside with good ventilation.
  • If you have PFC-treated furnishings in your home, put an untreated fabric slipcover over chairs or a sofa. Replace any carpet or rugs with versions made of organic wool or another natural, untreated fiber.

Do you think you have any of these problematic “P” chemicals in your home? How do you plan to deal with them? It may be a good opportunity for green redecorating!

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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