New Study Asks: Is Your Home Trying to Kill You?

New Study Asks: Is Your Home Trying to Kill You?

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A new study that measures levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in homes in two San Francisco Bay Area cities – Richmond and Bolinas – found similar levels of the chemicals in both settings. These results indicate that exposure to the compounds is widespread.

The health impacts of endocrine disruptors, which mimic naturally occurring human hormones, are still being studied. But concern is mounting that these chemicals could be partly to blame for aberrations in child development, including early puberty and breast development in girls as young as 7 or 8.

The study, published online this month in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, was funded by The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and The New York Community Trust.

Study co-author Rachel Morello-Frosch, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, spoke with New America Media’s Ngoc Nguyen about the study findings.

What are endocrine disruptors and where are they found?

They are chemicals that disrupt the human hormone system and interfere with cell growth and development. We're just beginning to understand how they affect the body.

The chemicals are found in consumer products, things that we bring into the home, such as personal care products, cleaning products, furniture, electronics and pesticides.

Where did you do the study?

An earlier study by researchers at the Silent Spring Institute looked at endocrine-disrupting compounds in 120 homes in Cape Cod, Mass. They teamed up with researchers at Brown University and UC Berkeley to replicate the study in the Bay Area in a community with completely different demographics. It looked at the community in Richmond, Calif. and a control community in Bolinas, Calif.

Richmond, unlike Cape Cod or Bolinas, is close to industrial and transportation sources of pollution. So we get a sense of not only exposure to chemicals in consumer products, but also exposure to chemicals in homes that come from outside from industrial and transportation sources.

So, you measured the air quality in 40 homes in Richmond and 10 homes in Bolinas – what did you find?

We found 39 chemicals outdoors and 63 in air inside the homes, including phthalates, parabens, PBDE flame retardants, PCBs and pesticides. Many of these chemicals are produced in large quantities and used in consumer items, such as plastics, detergents, furniture, carpets, electronics, pesticides, building materials and cosmetics.

The levels of the chemicals in homes in both the cities were not that different. That suggests chemical exposure from consumer products are common, widespread and don't vary by geography or the underlying demographics of the community.

Bolinas is a more rural and affluent community, and some people might assume, they are in a position to be more conscious concerning chemicals in products and can pay more for greener products. So we would expect concentrations of chemicals in the indoor air to be lower. We didn't find that. That's because we are talking about chemicals in products that are fairy common.

So, you found 63 chemicals inside homes and 39 chemicals outdoors. Is the air inside more polluted?

Chemical levels tended to be higher indoors than outdoors. There were 32 compounds that were found at higher levels indoors, and only two had higher levels outside, including PAH, a byproduct of combustion; for example, from industry or transportation sources. The chemical levels were higher indoors because they come from consumer products that we bring indoors, and homes can be poorly ventilated. We also found that pollution outdoors can come into the home and affect air quality indoors.

Do the chemicals have any health effects?

Lots of those endocrine-disrupting compounds haven't been sufficiently tested. We can't say what the levels might mean for the health of the communities. Some studies have shown adverse health effects from phthalates, flame retardants, PAH, but lots of questions remain.

Over the last decade, we have come to understand that exposure to certain chemicals – even at low levels – perturb the human hormone system and can potentially have health effects later in life. They can lead to reproductive and development effects, such as breast and prostate cancer.

We also don't know how the mixture of chemicals [from consumer products and industrial and transportation sources of pollution] would affect health. That hasn't been studied.

Last week, the journal Pediatrics published a study that got a lot of attention about how more girls as young as 7 or 8 are growing breasts. The rates were even higher for African-American and Latino girls. Is there a link between those changes in girls and these widespread chemicals?

Our study was not a health study. It was an exposure study. [In the Pediatrics study] that documented earlier breast development in girls, the authors mention widespread and ubiquitous exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals as one of the underlying reasons we're seeing population shift in that aspect of puberty development in girls.

Can we do anything to avoid these chemicals?

As a consumer, you can use fewer of these kinds of products, try to avoid scented products, read labels, avoid buying things that have parabens.

It's hard to choose products that don't expose you to chemicals, because many don't disclose all ingredients on the labels. It's still very challenging. You can dedicate yourself to becoming more informed and to make wiser consumer product decisions, but there are certain limitations. You can't shop your way out of the problem.

If the chemicals are so widespread and we can’t avoid coming into contact with them, what’s the point of the study?

Really, we need to support better policies that increase the studies of how these chemicals affect health and require more testing of chemicals before they are approved for consumer use.

The laws governing consumer product chemicals are outdated and don't require adequate testing. We need more thorough testing of chemicals and consumer products before they are marketed. If the policies don't require sufficient evaluation before the products are marketed, by then you have ubiquitous exposure.

What are health consequences for Richmond residents and others who live near outdoor sources of pollution, such as oil refineries, ports and heavy truck traffic?

The concern about Richmond is that in addition to polluted indoor air from consumer products they have the added burden of exposure and contamination coming from outside industry and transportation sources.

Richmond is heavily burdened by those sources. Residents there face a double whammy, because outdoor sources are clearly affecting the indoor environment in Richmond. They have a much more serious cumulative impact when it comes to indoor air, from both indoors and outdoors.