Beware of household product fumes


November 06, 1991|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Ever wonder what happens when you spray fabric protector onto fabric? Squeeze clear adhesive onto a broken edge? Paint typewriter correction fluid onto paper? What makes the stuff wet when it is wet? And where does the wet go when it dries?

What makes the stuff wet is solvent. Sometimes a product's solvent is water. Usually, it's one of a number of chemicals, often petroleum distillates, called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. What VOCs have in common is that they volatilize -- turn to gas -- at normal room temperatures.

Thus when you squeeze the clear glue from the tube, exposing it to air, the VOC in the glue starts to volatilize. Soon the glue is dry.

Where did the VOC go? Into the air. If you squeeze that glue -- or spray that fabric or paint over that typo -- outside, the VOC dissipates fairly quickly. (It becomes a tiny bit of smog, but that's another story.)

If you use the product inside the house, the VOC may hang around to keep you company for quite awhile.

Is that a problem? Yes. Several VOCs, including methylene chloride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, paradichlorobenzene and tetrachloroethane are known to cause cancer in animals. One, benzene, is known to cause nine different cancers in humans. A few others are known to do this and that -- a smorgasbord of birth defects, cell mutations, immune disorders

and so on.

Are these dangerous solvents in many everyday products? To find out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently surveyed more than 1,000 common household and automotive products, which they grouped into 67 categories. The categories included the fabric protector and others named above, along with the ubiquitous -- bathroom cleaner and furniture polish -- and the obscure -- ignition wire dryer.

The scientists analyzed the products for the presence of 31 particularly nasty VOCs. Did they find any? You bet. On average, more than 30 percent of the products contained one or more of those VOCs.

Does that mean those of us who use commercial cleansers, deodorizers, spray polishes, waxes and any of the dozens of other such products, are exposing ourselves and our families to a significant dose of toxic VOCs?

Apparently it does. In a separate study, a team of EPA chemists looked for some of those same VOCs, as well as others, in the air outside some randomly chosen houses, in the air inside the houses and in the exhaled breath of those who lived in the houses. They found VOCs registering at much higher levels indoors. And they found that the breath samples corresponded with the indoor levels -- which were, in some cases, hundreds of times higher than the none-too-clean outside air.

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