You won't necessarily find their polysyllabic names on any labels, but scientists are finding dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) -- chemicals that turn to gas at normal room temperatures -- haunting our indoor air. They are used in hundreds of household products. Here are some ways you can improve the quality of the air at home:
* Gather up opened cans of paint, varnishes, thinners, strippers and stains and store them in an unattached garage or shed. The molecules of VOCs are so tiny that they'll escape from an opened container, no matter how tightly you reseal it.
* Gather up automotive products, such as chrome polish, brake cleaner and car wax and stack them in the shed next to the paints.
* Ditto adhesives, lubricants, metal polishes, etc. Yellow and
white glues aren't a problem, but most clear glues are a source of VOCs.
* Don't use "air fresheners" and deodorizers. These products are designed to deliver a constant, invisible stream of chemicals to your air, and they do it quite effectively. However, they don't "freshen" anything. What they do is numb your nose, and they may cause cancer. If you have an odor problem, try removing the source of the smell ("Sorry, Harry, you'll have to go.") If you can't do that, try a dish of baking soda. Set open bowls of dried herbs or flowers out in a room to make it smell nice.
* Get rid of those mothballs and crystals. For alternatives, write to the Bio Integral Resource Center, P.O. Box 7414, Berkeley, Calif. 94707, and ask for a copy of their fabric pests fact sheet.
* Avoid using pesticides in the house. For alternative ways to kill
or repel specific pests, contact the Bio Integral Resource Center, at the address above.
* Don't smoke indoors, ever. Along with hundreds of other nasty byproducts, smoking fills your air with benzene. According to chemist Lance Wallace, of the Environmental Protection Agency, benzene triggers more kinds of cancer than any other chemical that's been tested.
* Reduce your use of commercial cleansers and polishes, especially ones that carry a DANGER, CAUTION or WARNING label on the container. The EPA surveyed 1,159 common household products, and found cancer-causing VOCs in more than one-third of them. And they may be emitting the VOCs even if they've been languishing, opened but unused, under your kitchen counter for ages.
For easy, inexpensive, effective alternatives to toxic household products, send $1 to Washington Toxics Coalition, 4516 University Way, NE, Seattle, Wash. 98105, and ask for their non-toxic cleansers fact sheet.
* Always flick on the fan before you take a bath or shower. Then leave it on for 10 minutes or so after you turn off the water. A number of chlorinated compounds, including chloroform, are emitted from running water that has been treated with chlorine. You drink them, breathe them and absorb them through your skin. Though the compounds are cancer-causing, scientists differ over whether household water delivers enough to be a health threat. To be on the safe side, get in the habit of leaving your fan on until you're dressed. This'll help cut down on moisture and mildew, too.
* Hang your dry cleaning on the porch, or in a very well-ventilated place, its first day or two home. It will emit high levels of tetrachloroethylene for several days. Don't leave it in the car, unless you plan to leave your windows wide open. Whenever possible, buy clothing that can be washed in that other solvent -- water.
* Do you cook on a gas stove? Before you reach to turn on a burner, always turn on the fan. When you're done with the burner, turn off the flame first, and then the fan. Research has shown that children who live with gas stoves have more upper respiratory infections than children who live with electric stoves do. If your flame has much yellow in it, it may need adjusting, and you should have a service person in to give it a tuneup.
* If you have a furnace that burns gas or oil, have that tuned up once a year, and the filter changed. Have your chimney or boiler vent checked, too. VOCs and other air pollutants from improperly functioning furnaces can quietly poison the health of the whole family. Does that sound unlikely? It's happened to my family -- are you ready? -- twice.
(Have a question of general interest that can be answered in this column? Please send it to Susan McGrath at P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)