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Study: Indoor Spaces Rampant with Toxins

Friday, September 16, 2016

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Indoor dust is often laden with toxic chemicals from building materials, cleaning products, furniture, electronics and other common items, a new study suggests.

Researchers from George Washington University, Harvard University and the University of California analyzed dust samples from interiors throughout the U.S. and identified the top 10 toxic chemicals found.

Touted as “first-of-its-kind” research, “Consumer product chemicals in indoor dust: a quantitative meta-analysis of U.S. studies,” was published Wednesday (Sept. 14) in the American Chemistry Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

© / Szabolcs Takacs

The researchers say 10 harmful chemicals are found in 90 percent of the dust samples across multiple studies.

Knowing more about indoor air and dust quality is important, as people in the U.S. spend nearly 90 percent of their time in enclosed buildings, like homes, schools and office buildings.

Common Chemicals in Dust

The study consisted of pooling data from 26 peer-reviewed papers and one unpublished dataset that analyzed dust samples taken from homes in 14 states, according to the authors. The meta-analysis also reportedly combines information from smaller dust studies and thus offers solid conclusions with greater statistical power.

The researchers say they found that 10 harmful chemicals are found in 90 percent of the dust samples across multiple studies.

DEHP, a chemical belonging to a hazardous class called phthalates, was number one on the list. It is common in vinyl flooring products and food contact materials. Phthalates, overall, were found at the highest levels in dust, followed by phenols (used as preservatives and personal care and cleaning products) and flame retardant chemicals (used in furniture, baby products, electronics and building insulation to meet flammability standards).

Many of the health hazards reportedly associated with the chemicals on the list include reproductive and developmental toxicity and hormone disruption, and at least one chemical on the list, TDCIPP (flame retardant), is linked to cancer.

A fragrance chemical, HHCB, present in scented products, was also found in most of the dust samples. The study authors note that while health hazards hadn’t been assigned to HHCB in the lists consulted, emerging evidence suggest some reason for concern.

Daily Exposure

“Our study is the first comprehensive analysis of consumer product chemicals found in household dust,” said lead author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

“The findings suggest that people, and especially children, are exposed on a daily basis to multiple chemicals in dust that are linked to serious health problems.”

The researchers maintain that people can inhale or ingest small particles of dust or even absorb them through the skin. Infants and young children are particularly at risk for exposure to the chemicals found in dust because they crawl, play on dusty floors, and put their hands in their mouths, the authors say.

Authors' Advice

The authors urge governments and manufacturers to work together to enact policies to remove hazardous chemicals and employ safer alternatives.

© / FamVeld

Infants and young children are particularly at risk for exposure to the chemicals found in dust because they crawl, play on dusty floors, and put their hands in their mouths, the authors say.

In the meantime, people who want to reduce their exposure to chemicals in household dust can take a number of actions, including using a strong vacuum with a HEPA filter; washing hands frequently; and avoiding personal care and household products that contain potentially dangerous chemicals, the study authors said.

The study was funded by the National Resources Defense Council, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Susan Richardson, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at the University of South Carolina, told D+D News that the study  assembles some important data concerning dust and environmental contaminants, noting that the findings were published in one of the most widely respected environmental journals in the world.

The study highlights that there are "many environmental contaminants that can be present in dust and present a significant source of exposure to consumers," Richardson noted.

ACC: Study Misses

In response to the study, a leading North American chemical manufacturers’ trade group, the American Chemistry Council, emailed D+D News a statement, noting that the report “only tells part of the story.”

“We hope that this study … will not cause consumers to make uninformed decisions before first gathering all the facts on chemical safety.”

The statement added, “The technology that is now available allows us to detect extremely minute quantities of substances. However, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has carefully pointed out, the mere presence of a chemical does not signify risk to human health. Assessing health risks depends not only on understanding which substances are present in something like dust but also on the actual amount, route, duration and timing of exposure to those substances. Most of this important information is missing in this study.”

The ACC further said that the association takes chemical safety seriously, noting it worked alongside lawmakers to help pass the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21 Century Act this summer. The act amends the federal chemical regulatory system for the first time in decades and promotes uniformity.


Tagged categories: Building materials; Construction chemicals; Flame-retardant coatings; Flooring system; Good Technical Practice; Health and safety; Indoor air quality; North America; Research; Toxicity; Vinyl

Comment from M. Halliwell, (9/16/2016, 11:15 AM)

Not surprising in the least. 17 years ago, I did work on indoor air quality at's far worse than outdoor air quality due to all the chemicals we bring into our homes / businesses as well as how buildings have changed for energy efficiency. Considering the number, amounts and types of chemicals, I'm not surprised that they would be found absorbed on/into in the indoor dust as well. I will concur with the ACC that the presence alone is not the full story; however, given the chronic nature of indoor exposure, it is a more critical type of exposure with far lower exposure thresholds to have adverse effects. It will be interesting to see where this research goes next.

Comment from David Bishton, (9/16/2016, 3:39 PM)

Suppose all of the water you use for domestic purposes in your home is stored in a big tank under your house. It is pure. A company comes to you intending to add in some chemicals known for toxicity. The person explains, "Don't worry, it's only a tiny bit and we haven't seen any bad results yet. Someone could do more testing to be sure, but it's expensive and we don't know when." When would you say stop?

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