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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Indoor Pollution

A letter came in the other day that filled five pages of single-spaced type under the heading of “Bad Chemistry.” The author made an interesting and infrequently made observation; namely that the marketplace response to our negative reaction to indoor pollutants has been to provide people with all types of deodorant chemicals — some hidden in consumer goods and some directly offered for application. These chemicals, he claims, cause people not to feel well which leads to the purchase of pain killing or numbing drug products.

He concludes: “This is a total of three poisons for us to breath into our lungs and which of course is broadcast then throughout our entire bodies.”

The letterwriter gives examples. Many deodorants contain formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen, and other chemicals that are not exactly like carrot juice for your health. Whether at the workplace, in industry and offices, or at stores or in millions of homes, these various deodorants are at work. There are carpet deodorants for homes and automobiles, he notes, along with deodorant crystal filters for our duct work in home heating and cooling systems.

More and more products and packages come scented and aerosol fresheners are proliferating rapidly. You walk into a motel room and are overcome with artificial odors all competing with each other with the manager hoping that the “good” odors will mask or overcome the “bad” odors. But for the human body, if not for the superficial nose, all these odors are taking their toll.

The cumulative effect of these chemical onslaughts seems to be breaking down the immune systems of more and more people who are then described as “chemically sensitive.” These people are beginning to mobilize and demand that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) take action.

The EPA is beginning to awaken from its eight year Reagan-induced stupor. This month, the Washington off ice of EPA published “Indoor Air Facts, No. 6” — a report to Congress on Indoor Air Quality. It is free to anyone who wants to send a card requesting a copy (EPA Public Information Center, 401 M Street, SW, Washington, DC 20460).

No. 6 summarizes a three volume report on indoor air quality that the EPA sent to Congress this month. While recognizing that much more needs to be known and done, its words are sobering: “Sufficient evidence exists,” EPA declares, “to conclude that indoor air pollution represents a major

portion of the public’s exposure to air pollution and may pose serious acute and chronic health risks.” It urges Congress to authorize an expanded program to “characterize the nature and pervasiveness of the health impacts associated with indoor air quality problems in commercial and public buildings, schools, health care facilities and residences.”

Radon, asbestos, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, chlorinated solvents, pesticides and biological contaminants, such as those which lead to Legionnaire’s disease, were some of the pollutants covered in EPA’s reports.

Aren’t you hearing more from co-workers and neighbors about the “sick building” syndrome? The EPA says that “exposure to combinations of indoor air pollutants may generate acute reactions in some people.” Yes, indeed, and right inside the main EPA building itself are some of those people suffering from such acute reactions. These EPA staffers know full well what their agency means when it says that “multiple chemical sensitivity are issues of potentially great significance but are poorly understood.”

There are many control strategies available, starting with source controls to ventilation controls to air cleaning. The report notes that there are many “policy options.”

But the nation is just starting to focus on this problem. There is a long way to go. The Clean Air Act cannot be applied to regulate indoor air quality, so new standards and regulations will be needed to stimulate the marketplace. And governments can lead through the levers of their procurement dollars to specify what kind of buildings and products they build or buy.