Domestic Danger: Massachusetts 1 of 7 States In Nationwide Test ForHarmful Chemicals In The Home

By Jon Brodkin for the News

The air and dust in a typical home may contain chemicals linked to a range of health problems, from cancer to reproductive and neurological disorders, some researchers believe.

The chemicals, emitted from everyday consumer products like pesticides, detergents, plastics, cosmetics, televisions, computers, rugs and couches, find their way into the environment and persist for years, researchers say. In a new effort to increase public awareness and spur government to limit use of these chemicals, environmental groups in seven states have joined to test dust samples in 70 homes — including one in Hopkinton.

“We’ll get some idea of how dirty people’s houses are in general,” said Hopkinton resident Peter Hubbe, who offered up his home for one ofthe dust tests last week.

“I’m betting there will be plenty of bad stuff.”

Results of the study, conducted in part by Clean Water Action of Boston, won’t be released until January. But the groups doing the testing expect to find a host of dangerous chemicals.

“I think…in every sample that we take we’re going to find levelsof these chemicals, because all of the other dust sampling studies we’ve seen have shown detection of the chemicals we’re testing for,” said Alexandra McPherson, project director for New York-based Clean Production Action, which is leading the study.

Though previous studies have found toxins in household dust,McPherson said, this project is somewhat unique in its scope, as it is testing for40 chemicals.

“Most studies have looked at one chemical,” she said. “It’simportant because we’re being exposed to hundreds of different types of toxic chemicals. What is missing from a lot of the research is how we’reaffected by the cocktail of chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis.”

A report released last fall by the Newton-based Silent Spring Institute painted a disturbing picture of pollution in homes. The group’s four-year study of air and dust samples from 120 CapeCod homes found endocrine-disrupting compounds in each house. The compoundsmay be connected with prostate and breast cancers, and reproductive problems.

The study also found brominated flame retardants — which some fear may cause cancer, neurological and reproductive problems — in dust at levels 10 times that found in Europe, where use of the compounds is being phased out. Since people spend most of their time in their homes, contaminants found within houses are important contributors to overall exposure to chemicals, researchers said. While many of the chemicals Silent Spring found came from common household products, most of the tests also turned up DDT, even though ithas been banned in the United States for more than 30 years. The finding is a reminder that dangerous chemicals can remain in the environment long after they are no longer in use.

The Silent Spring Institute, funded in part by the federal Centersfor Disease Control and Protection, is directed by Julia Brody, former deputy commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Management. Most chemicals the institute studied have not been sufficientlytested to determine potential health risks, Brody said.

“People think that when you find a product on the shelf, somebodyhas checked to see whether it’s safe, but that’s not necessarily true,” she said.

The new project led by Clean Production Action is collecting dust samples from 10 homes in each of the following states: Michigan,Washington, Oregon, Massachusetts, New York, Maine and California.

Cindy Luppi, organizing director for Clean Water Action, visited Hubbe’s home Thursday to pick up the dust sample, which was collected by a vacuum cleaner. She said the sample would be shipped to a Texas lab for testing. The samples from the 10 Massachusetts homes will likely be combined and tested as one composite sample, partly due to the cost, Luppi said.

The chemicals they are looking for include brominated flame retardants, found commonly in furniture and electronic equipment; phthalates, found commonly in plastics, shower curtains, flooring and wallpaper; alkylphenol compounds, used as plastic additives; chemicalsfound in non-stick pans; and pesticides. All those chemicals are known to have negative health effects. The risks of brominated flame retardants, for example, have attractedgovernment attention overseas, where the European Union has restricted their use in electrical equipment and electronics.

Maine and California have also passed laws to phase out their use.

McPherson wants to see all dangerous chemicals that persist in the environment replaced with safer ones. “First, we want companies to prioritize replacing these substances with safer alternatives. That might be a safer chemical, it might be redesigning a product, like a computer,” she said.

“Ultimately, we need national regulations that hold companies accountable to using chemicalsthat have adequate data on whether or not they’re safe for human exposure.” The seven states participating in the study were chosen in part because they have either passed laws limiting use of chemicals or are considering such legislation.

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