Home is poisoned

Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle

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Dangerous chemical substances are constantly flying around our houses and are threatening our lives.

Image Credit: Aude Le Pomellec
Image Credit: Aude Le Pomellec

The Environmental Protection Agency’s studies indicate that the level of pollutants in indoor environment is two to five times higher than outdoor pollutants levels. According to the organisation, “indoor air pollutants are ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health”. More specifically, there is a serious indoor pollution from toxic chemicals that every individual can buy in any shops, like cleaning products. Those toxins also come from the infrastructure of our houses: this includes walls, paints, carpets, furniture and so on.

For Lisette Van Vliet, Senior Policy Adviser at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), the issue is crucial and should be more taken into consideration as people spend up to 80% of their time in closed spaces. There is a clear connection between allergies and chemicals. “We think that people exposure to indoor pollution is contributing to the epidemic chronicle disease that we experience”, she says.

All HEAL indications confirm that people have internal body contamination from the pollution that surrounds them and this is what makes them sick. It can cause “everything from asthma, diabetes, obesity and learning problems, attention deficits, and probably autistic disorders to cancers or infertility”. Lisette Van Vliet explains that during tests on people’s samples, they usually find hundreds of different chemicals. There is no accurate study to prove how much more pollution there is in indoor environment rather than in the outdoor, however, because we spend more time within walls, this is where we get polluted.

“More worryingly, we found highest level of chemicals inside young children. They have bodies that aren’t able to break the chemicals down”, Lisette Van Vliet adds. Our immune system and our process of evacuation work better than in children’s. “For a six months old baby, some evacuation processes don’t even exist”, asserts the specialist. By spending more time on the floor, kids are more exposed than adults. They also inherit it from their parents and they will acquire even more of it as they go along and throughout the rest of their life. By the time they get to our age, the toxins will have duplicated and they will develop inside their body for a longer period. We say that people are living longer and healthier but this is not true. It is actually to measure how healthy the next generation will be. “The statistics are starting to show that we become unhealthier”. Lisette Van Vliet is worried. She knows that her daughter will have a worst welfare than hers.

“Measuring chemicals is useless”

There are so many different chemical substances and other factors that accurate data on what does what would take ages to define. And by the time studies get through, it might be too late, it has to be taken care as of now.

A new kind of profession has started to develop within Europe, especially in France: medical counsellor in indoor environment. They have a diploma in this sector and a minimum of two years in the paramedical or a social field. Their job consists of going to people’s house when there is a suspected link between allergies and housing. Christelle Speyer is one of them, but to accept the mission, she demands a prescription. They look for every possible source of allergens. If it’s possible they try to measure and identify them in order to recommend an eviction of the substance.

“For me, measuring chemical products is useless”, she says. “It costs a lot of money and often, all it takes is to question people about the symptom chronology and detect if something has changed in the house. It is way much faster and even though we measure the amount of the substances quantity, we still need to find the sources”. To help her, the medical counsellor explains that she has a kind of capsule with five colorimetric classes to evaluate the level of Formaldehyde. They particularly focus on this chemical because according to Christelle Speyer, “it is the most problematic”. Formaldehyde is everywhere. The chemical is found in paint, cleaning products, scented candles and sofa or again in chipboard wood, so basically in almost every piece of new furniture.

Carcinogenic indeed but still allowed

In June 2004, The International Agency Research on Cancer (IARC) classified Formaldehyde as positive carcinogenic. The tests have been made on people working in the chemical industry or in the undertaker’s as they are the most exposed. They found in these workers, an increase number of nasopharyngeal cancer. In 2005, a new scientific study rescued the industry. Doctors Gary Marsh and Ada Youk concluded that there are not enough evidences to prove “a causal association between Formaldehyde exposure and mortality from NPC [nasopharyngeal cancer]”. Science is consistently changing and there is no difficulty to refute other studies. The conflict of interest is however very problematic. At the end of the report, we can clearly read: “This work was supported by the Formaldehyde Council, Inc”. It is doubtful that governments and civil societies can trust and take into consideration a report on a substance, which is financed by the industry of this same chemical.

Image Credit: Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle
Image Credit: Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle

In 2009, an independent working group of experts was hired by the IARC to re-evaluate all the studies that have been published on that subject until then. Yann Grosse, the Responsible Officer from the IARC Monographs section was in charge of the recruitment. “As part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the IARC role is to make sure that the members of this working group have no conflict of interest”. They reviewed all the studies and they not only confirmed that Formaldehyde was carcinogenic but they also found out that it was source of leukaemia.

Six years after this report is released, Formaldehyde is still allowed within the European Union, no regulation has been implemented. The HEAL thinks every organisation or institution has a different way of classification. The Green in the European Parliament was unreachable but the Irish Green admitted that they never heard about the IARC classification. They justify the lack of legislation as a too complex political system. They “definitely trust the IARC” but they have to be sure that the majority of studies meets and that all the parties agree, which is always a difficult mission to achieve.

Chemical are proved to be source of a range of allergies and diseases and one of them, Formaldehyde, is classified as carcinogenic. All of this is flying around us in our own house and contaminate the air we permanently breathe, or the things we touch. Yet there is a process even scarier: the cocktail effect. All the substances react with each other, which strongly increase the effects on people’s health. Christelle Speyer exemplifies this phenomenon with dust mites’ allergy. “If an allergic person to dust mites inhales them with Formaldehyde or any other chemical product, the effects are multiplied”. The medical counsellor adds that there are still a lot of reactions we don’t know about.

“I learn to distrust the EU Eco Label”

Being an international organisation, the IARC cannot give its opinion on the EU regulation policy. There is a lot of work that has to be done to cover all the sources of pollution, especially the ones inside our home. The European Union is trying to cover it through the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) system. The idea is to identify every chemicals substance on a European level in order to take actions to protect people’s health on a larger scale. Therefore, when it will be fully effective, more toxic products will be taken off the market. According to Lisette Van Vliet, the European Union must make sure that there is no toxic chemical that is ending up in anything that people could get exposed to.

It took ten years of discussion to get a proposal for the REACH system. The HEAL has been working with the EU for nine years. “REACH is the most progressive system in the world that deals with chemicals and toxins”, explains the Senior Policy Adviser at the Health and Environment Alliance. “So far, the European Union has been doing a really great job and has the leading role in this health issue”, she adds. The problem of this programme is the time. The identification is too slow. Lisette Van Vliet states that it will take many years before having a list of substances, where there is already data to show that some toxins will meet the criteria for the substances that are really highly alarming.

Image Credit: David MacCord / flickr
Image Credit: David MacCord / flickr

It seems that for now, the EU is confirming every authorisation, saying that the risks are controlled. As a result of the financial crisis, the EU cannot let the industry panic. Therefore, until the list is released, the governments prefer to give the authorisation and then pass it to the next generation when the REACH system has confirmed the danger. The HEAL strongly disagrees with this practice. “The REACH has a great potential, but we’re not sure that the way it goes the potential will be achieved”.

Up to 60% of Formaldehyde is destroyed

The European Union also has an environmental label, which is supposed to identify products and services that have a limited impact on the environment. However, “the Ecolabel system in Europe has some pretty crap criteria for chemicals and I learn to distrust it” critics Lisette Van Vliet. First, ecolabelling is considered as a voluntary measure for companies that tries to meet the criteria. There is no regulation; it is a choice from the companies. And their criteria are defined in such a way that a least 10% of the products in that sector of the market meet the criteria. It should not be decided this way. The label should be of such a high quality that the products would have to win the label. Today, industries have a label they don’t deserve but criteria are such that they are guaranteed to get it. Governments are constantly under economic pressure. Governments have clearly a conflict of interest with the industry.

Despite the lack of governments’ actions, some initiatives are starting to pop up. Patrick Verlhac has developed a new kind of paint. One that catches Formaldehyde particles and destroys them. His idea comes from the IARC Formaldehyde classification and from the French label. In France, every refurbishng and construction materials have to be labelled on the amount of VOC (Volatil Organic Compound). The grading goes from A+ to C. Patrick Verlhac’s paint obtained only A+, but he wanted more. He made research for three years to finalise his product. “Nowadays, people are really sensitive when their health is concerned. It is a public health issue”. The Onip Laboratory Director assures that his paint last for seven to twenty years, depending on the chosen range and on the protective coating. The company ran some tests and discovered that this paint reduces Formaldehyde level up to 60%. The price increase is of only 10%. “It was the company’s decision not to impact too much the consumers”, he says. The French entrepreneur hopes to open his product to the European market.

Patrick Verlhac chose to focus on this substance because it is one of the most present in our houses, it can be found in everything. And yet, nothing is done to ban it. At this moment, our home is legally poisoned although some poisons have already been identified.

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Tiphaine Paucot-Landelle