Hazardous Substances in the Living Room

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Is your home a toxic chemical dump?

Our section on the living room is really one that extends to all the materials from which your home and its furnishings are made. These hazardous substances will be of prime concern to people who are living in new, energy-efficient homes with low air-exchange rates. But even in the typically well-ventilated older home, the levels of some gases that may be inhaled can reach the point at which sensitive individuals are affected.

The Federal Trade Commission shares responsibility with the CPSC for regulating building materials, though its authority is mostly in the regulation of combustibility and appropriate labeling. During the recent uproar concerning the toxic gas emitted by urea-formaldehyde insulation, it was the CPSC that banned the use of that product. Subsequently, a federal court overturned the ruling, and urea-formaldehyde is once again permitted for residential and commercial use.

Few products that emit toxic compounds are labeled as such, so in the following notations we’ll try our best to list all of the sources of the substances mentioned.

Asbestos: Asbestos was outlawed as a building material in the 1970’s, and hair dryers with asbestos thermal insulation were recalled by the CPSC. Nevertheless, there may be existing sources of asbestos in your home.

Hazards: Causes asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma (a rare type of lung cancer) if inhaled. Ingestion can produce a variety of other cancers. Asbestos crosses the placenta into the fetus, affecting the unborn. It acts synergistically with other toxic substances. It remains suspended in the air for long periods. If asbestos products are damaged, have qualified, properly equipped personnel remove them from your home.

Found in: Thermal and electrical insulation; fireproofing materials, such as woodstove insulation boards and ironing board covers; plaster, drywall and drywall compound, ceiling tiles, and cement; exterior shingles; and roofing.

Formaldehyde: One of the most ubiquitous hazardous substances in the household.

Hazards: See Disinfectants/Air Fresheners in Hazardous Substances in the Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products.

Found in: Urea-formaldehyde insulation; interior plywood, particleboard, and paneling; paper-bag binders; synthetic countertop materials; wallpaper glue; resins and oil-based paints; cosmetics; air fresheners; wood glue; plaster of paris; plastics; cigarette smoke; facial tissues and paper napkins; and synthetic fibers, including clothing, upholstery, drapes, and carpeting.

Radon gas and its progeny: Radon is itself a daughter product of radium compounds present in the soil, groundwater, natural gas, and building materials, and it further decays into other radioactive gases.

Hazards: Causes lung cancer in humans. Acts synergistically with smoke. Worst-case indoor concentrations have been one-half to one-third of those found in uranium mines. Cancer risk is still significant. For information on a reasonably priced test, contact the National Indoor Environmental Institute.

Found in: Soil beneath houses; water; natural gas burned in appliances; and building materials, including concrete, rock, tile, brick, and other mineral-based materials.

Vinyl chloride: A by-product and leachate of polyvinylchloride (PVC) plastic. The use of vinyl chloride itself was regulated in 1976.

Hazards: Irritates mucous membranes. Causes liver dysfunction. Related to hepatitis, chronic bronchitis, Raynaud’s syndrome, and loss of vision. Has caused cancer in test animals.

Found in: Upholstery (particularly automotive), plastic, floor tiles, and plumbing.

To learn more about the chemicals and hazardous substances you may be living with, see Hazardous Household Chemicals, The Kitchen: Food Safety and Food Additives, The Utility Room: Household Cleaning Products and The Bathroom.

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368