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Unsafe home environments: How unseen toxins in your home can affect your family's health

Sunday, January 22, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: artificial fragrances, toxic chemicals, home pollutants

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Your home might not be the safe haven you think it is, according to Barry Jones, author of Home, Sweet Toxic Home. While you eat, while you watch television and even while you sleep, your body is under siege from airborne biological and chemical pollutants. However, once you understand the toxins and their risks, there are steps you can take to get rid of them, as Jones explained in his lecture at the First Annual Arizona Choices Exposition in Tucson, Ariz.

Jones separates home pollutants into three basic categories, the first of which consists of small, airborne particles. Lint, dust mites, human skin, pet dander -- these toxins are more dangerous than they sound. Why? Their small size enables them to travel into the lungs, where they lodge themselves, too deep to be coughed up.

To make matters worse, pollutants from the next category -- the "biologicals," such as bacteria and viruses -- attach themselves to these airborne particles, increasing the likelihood of lung infections. Mold is also part of this second category and, despite popular belief, mold is common even in dry climates because indoor humidity may be high even if outdoor humidity is low, says Jones.

The third category of pollutants is perhaps the most ironic, as many consumers bring these toxins into their homes themselves. It's true: Many of the products believed to improve the look and scent of homes can actually harm the people living there. Jones told a disturbing story about how spray-can cleaning products and other microbial cleaners made a four-year-old boy exhibit behavioral problems, which then completely disappeared after pure oxygen treatment.

Of course, this brings up the question of whether these household-cleaning products might at least partially cause ADHD and other learning and behavioral disorders. Unfortunately, these cleaners aren't the only consumer products containing chemicals. Fabric dryer sheets actually put petroleum and potentially dangerous artificial fragrances on clothes, and air fresheners also contain these fragrances, which may interfere with hormone communication systems. Read the labels, Jones advised, and beware that anything ending in "-cide" is a long-lasting chemical.

Jones also pointed out that the new carpet in your home or workplace might be making you sick because of the glue used to put it down. This substance, which he calls "yellow death," contains the human carcinogen benzene and the neurotoxin xylene -- one of the unhealthiest chemical combinations you can be exposed to.

Jones felt the health dangers of home toxins firsthand during the 1980s, an experience that prompted him to write Home, Sweet Toxic Home and start the Tucson-based Home Environment Center, which specializes in making homes safer. After moving into a townhouse in 1985, he began losing weight, catching frequent colds, experiencing numbness and tingling in his extremities, erupting in rashes from head to toe and having digestion problems. "I was convinced I was going to die and not know why," he told us.

Not knowing why he was so sick was what frightened him most, so he went to the famous Nevada Clinic for answers. After they discovered that he was allergic to a number of chemicals and foods, Jones went back to Tucson and paid two PhDs to test his home for toxins. They found nothing. Nevertheless, he sold the townhouse and found the root of his health problems by accident while moving. In the back of a cabinet in the master bathroom, he found toilet-cleaning crystals that had been off-gassing chlorine. In other words, he had been breathing potentially carcinogenic chlorine gas every night as he slept in the master bedroom. When he told the two professors who had earlier tested the home and found no chemicals, they told him that they had not tested for chlorine and also remarked that, given what he had been inhaling, he was lucky that that he wasn't sicker.

On this note, showers also present a little-known -- yet very high -- risk of chlorine exposure through inhalation of chlorine gas released from hot water treated with the potential carcinogen. Jones suggests buying a shower filter, though he cautions, "Nothing takes everything out, but filters take enough out to reduce risk." Furthermore, as Jones's own experience shows, off-gassed chemicals pose a very real danger to human beings. In fact, antimony and other chemicals released from flame-retardant crib mattresses may be the cause of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), also known as crib death. According to Dr. Sprock, who first discovered this, the solution is to use a polyethylene sheet to wrap the crib mattress, which yielded zero crib deaths in 100,000 live births, according to ongoing research.

Rental properties, such as apartments, pose an especially high risk of pollutants for inhabitants, according to Jones. Some may have a mold problem, which is something that you should look for the first time you look at a potential new apartment or rented home. Due to the close living space in apartment houses, you also have to beware of your neighbor's activities, which may pollute your apartment through air transfer, even if you have your own heating and cooling systems. One way to counteract this problem is to buy an air filter.

If you suspect your home or apartment is making you sick, you need to act now before home toxins cause you long-term health problems. For practical solutions to indoor pollution, contact the Home Environment Center for help at 1-888-612-5798.

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