FLUORIDE ACTION NETWORK PESTICIDE PROJECT
Return to FAN's Pesticide Homepage
Return to PFOA Class Action Suit
Return to Newspaper articles and Documents related to PFOA Class Action
March 23, 2005
San Francisco Chronicle
Page A - 5
Study says household dust holds dangerous chemicals
Homes in 7 states tested for residues of consumer goods
By Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Common household dust contains a variety of hazardous chemicals originating from everyday consumer products, including Teflon and other nonstick cookware and fabrics coated with water-resistant Gore-Tex, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study, one of the first of its kind, showed that hidden away in dust balls in vacuum cleaner bags were 35 toxic industrial chemicals that are legal in products but have been shown to cause reproductive, respiratory and other health problems in humans or test animals.
The study by a consumer research group was the first to look for -- and find -- the so-called perfluorinated compounds used in hundreds of ordinary products. The dust came from 70 houses in seven states, including some in the Bay Area.
"This is a snapshot of hazardous chemicals in households. If we chose to look for more chemicals, I'm sure we'd have found them,'' said Beverley Thorpe, the group's director.
Far and away in the greatest amount were the little-known phthalates, ubiquitous plasticizers used to soften everything vinyl, including flooring, raincoats, shoes and purses, tablecloths, shower curtains, upholstery, carpet backing, garden hoses and PVC water pipes.
The study was conducted by Clean Production Action, a Montreal-based international nonprofit project of the Tides Center in San Francisco.
The dust samples were analyzed by a Texas laboratory that for the past 15 years has been the prime investigator of chemicals in dust, including for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and private research groups.
The study measured the quantities in the dust and didn't attempt to determine exposure levels or possible health effects on people living in the houses. New evidence of chemicals in breast milk, human blood and wildlife spurred the group to conduct the survey, Thorpe said.
"The real question we should be asking our government is, why should we take chances on chemicals we know are inherently hazardous when safe chemicals exist, and progressive companies are putting in place safe chemical policies?" she said.
The group is calling for the federal Toxics Substances Control Act to be revamped to require safety testing of the thousands of chemicals in commerce in order to remain on the market. The group considers European initiatives as models for regulating the chemicals.
Representatives of the vinyl industry, which uses phthalates and organotins, said the study contained nothing new that hadn't already been reported in the last five years.
"These levels do not suggest a health threat. The fact that you measure something in dust doesn't mean it's going to cause a health threat,'' said Allen Blakey, spokesman for the Vinyl Institute, a trade group in Arlington, Va.
"Vinyl building products have been used safely and effectively for 50 years, and consumers can continue to rely on these products.''
Robert Buck, a chemist at Dupont, which uses PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, to make Teflon cookware, said the company has conducted a rigorous scientific study. "We know that our cookware will not result in an exposure to PFOA for consumers,'' Buck said. Other Dupont Teflon products such as carpeting don't use PFOA, he said.
The study looked for 44 different chemicals in six classes of chemicals that are common in consumer products, yet have been associated with reproductive and immune system problems, asthma and other ill health effects in animal or human studies.
They are phthalates, alkylphenols, pesticides, brominated flame retardants, organotins and perfluorinated surfactants.
The 70 participants nationwide, including in San Francisco, San Anselmo, Berkeley, Oakland, El Cerrito and San Jose, generally worked in environmental fields.
In Berkeley, Helen Kang, an associate professor at Golden Gate University School of Law, vacuumed over a week, sent off her sample to the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio and was surprised at the results.
"I'm sure each of us had the sense that our numbers would have been lower, " said Kang, a mother of two. "We're sensitive to environmental risks because of the work that we do.'' She said she and her husband try to minimize toxic products around their house.
Jeanette Swafford, a San Anselmo mother of a 21-month-old, said she and her husband were taken aback by the results.
"We try to be really conscious in what we do, especially as new parents trying to protect our little girl,'' said Swafford, who works at Commonweal, a health and environmental research institute in Bolinas.
"We feel as though an individual consumer doesn't have a chance,'' she said.
California has already phased out two forms of the brominated flame retardants. A bill in the Legislature would ban in cosmetics two forms of phthalates; another would ban phthalates and bisphenol A in baby bottles and children's toys; and a third would require cosmetics companies to report the use of certain dangerous chemicals to the state Department of Health Services.
Dangers in dust
A new report, "Sick of Dust," found six classes of chemicals in household dust:
-- Phthalates topped the list with three different forms -- DEHP, BBP and DPB -- all used in vinyl and other products. The chemical has been shown in lab studies to disrupt reproductive systems, particularly in male offspring. It also can contribute to respiratory problems in children.
-- Alkylphenols are used in the manufacture of all-purpose cleaners, textiles and paints. Alkylphenols mimic natural estrogen hormones, leading to altered sexual development in some organisms.
-- Pesticides were found in the samples, with the insecticide permethrin leading the list followed by pentachlorophenol. The chemicals can have adverse effects on the hormone system and cause cancer.
-- Brominated flame retardants, which are found in polyurethane foams, polystyrene, electronics and textiles. They accumulate in the body and mimic thyroid hormones.
-- Organotins are additives in vinyl and used in fungicides and anti- fouling agents for wood surfaces and in cooling towers. They are poisonous in small amounts and can disrupt hormone and reproductive systems.
-- Perfluorinated surfactants -- two of them PFOS and PFOA -- are in floor polishes, film and denture cleaners. PFOA is used to make Teflon cookware. The surfactants are also in Gore-Tex. They are potentially carcinogenic and damage organ function and sexual development in lab animals.
Source: "Sick of Dust: Chemicals in Common Products -- A Needless Threat in Our Homes," at
E-mail Jane Kay at email@example.com.
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle