Household chemicals and asthma
|Cancer is not the only health crisis sweeping America. Asthma has also reached epidemic proportions in the United States. For more than 20 years, the rates of emergency room visits, hospitalization, and death caused by asthma have been rising, especially among children.|
According to a 2004 report from Harvard Medical School, between 1980 and 1994 the incidence of asthma among pre-school-aged children rose by 160 percent, more than twice the rate at which it rose in the overall population.’ Today, the disease is the leading chronic illness of childhood. Some 9 million children have asthma, or nearly 1 in 13, resulting in 14 million missed school days each year’ and $3.2 billion in treatment expenses.’ Our kids aren’t the only ones facing this challenge. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 7.5 percent of all adults have asthma, too. That’s some 16 million people ‘sick’ and $9.5 billion in extra health care costs.’
What’s producing all this asthma? Experts point to all kinds of causes: Car exhaust. Factory emissions. Mold. Dust mites. Cockroach wastes. Tobacco smoke. Even global warming. (Scientists say that as the atmosphere warms, bad-air days increase and more species of molds are able to spread and prosper.) Recently, medical researchers have also begun to explore a possible relationship between asthma and chemical exposures from things like cleaning products.
- An investigation of childhood asthma at Princess Margaret Hospital in Perth, Australia, found that exposure to certain common volatile organic compounds is linked to a higher incidence of asthma. For every ten microgram increase in the concentrations of these cleaning product ingredients per cubic meter of indoor air, the risk of asthma jumped by two to three times.’
- A study of 4,521 women conducted at the Municipal Institute of Medical Research in Barcelona, Spain, found a strong correlation between asthma and employment as professional cleaners and attributed 25 percent of the reported cases of the disease to this work. The study concluded that employment in the domestic cleaning industry may induce asthma and that this work has an important public health impact, probably involving not only professional cleaners but also people cleaning at home.’
- A Michigan State University study of work-related asthma cases in 4 states discovered that 12 percent were strongly associated with exposure to cleaning products.’
- According to Rachel’s Health and Environment Weekly, experts think that the increase in asthma in industrialized nations may be due to increasing amounts of chemical pollutants present in both outdoor and indoor environments. They believe greater exposures to these pollutants are triggering stronger immune system reactions, which then proceed to manifest as asthmatic reactions to more common substances like dust or perfume.
- A 22-year Finnish study that compared women employed as cleaners to women employed as administrative workers concluded that the cleaning women had an increased risk in developing persistent adult-onset asthma.”
- Children with early persistent asthma are ten times more likely to have been exposed to herbicides during their first year of life than children without asthma.
Household chemicals and cancer
Since Congress passed the National Cancer Act in 1971, the incidence of cancer in America has skyrocketed. This family of diseases now strikes 1.3 million people each year and claims 550,000 lives. Forty-four percent of all men and over 39 percent of all women will confront cancer at some point in their lives, levels that are respectively 56 percent and 22 percent higher than they were just a generation ago.’
Overall, in the last 30 years, the national incidence of cancer has jumped about 24 percent. If you’re thinking that flies in the face of media reports heralding a decrease in cancer rates, you’re right. In March of 1998, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) released a report that said five-year cancer survival rates were climbing steadily. This declaration caused the New York Times to claim that “the nation may have reached a turning point in the war against cancer.” A careful analysis of the statistics used in the NCI report, however, shows that better screening and earlier detection combined with a sharp drop in the number of smoking-related lung cancers was responsible for most of the good news. Strip these factors away, and you’re left with more cancer than ever before.
Non-smoking cancer increases noted in the last generation include:
- a 156 percent increase in the rate of malignant melanoma
- a 104 percent increase in liver cancer
- an 87 percent increase in non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- a 71 percent increase in thyroid cancer
- a 67 percent increase in testicular cancer
- a 54 percent increase in post-menopausal breast cancer
- a 28′percent increase in brain cancer
- a 16 percent increase in acute myeloid leukemia
- a 26 percent increase in childhood cancers.’
Could exposure to chemicals be responsible for all this cancer? Certainly we can’t blame every single case of non-smoking-related cancer on environmental pollution, but there is abundant evidence that chemicals are quite likely to blame for an appreciable portion of them. Many believe it’s no coincidence that our cancer rates have skyrocketed right along with the introduction and use of synthetic chemical compounds. Interestingly, if you put a chart detailing rising cancer incidences from 1940 onward over a chart illustrating our increasing use of chemicals over the same time period, you’d see a startling parallel. You’d see cancer, a relative rarity in 1900, fast becoming the industrialized world’s number one cause of death. At the same time, you’d see some tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals, none of which existed at the turn of the century, coming into production and their use increasing 30-fold. Is this just a coincidence or is it a smoking gun? While that verdict remains to be seen, the facts point in a troubling direction and suggest we shouldn’t take any chances:
- One-half of the world’s cancers occur among people in industrialized countries, even though those people represent only one-fifth of the global population.’
- Breast cancer rates are 30 times higher in the United States than in parts of Africa.’
- The International Agency for Research on Cancer has concluded that 80 percent of all cancers are attributable to environmental influences, including exposure to carcinogenic chemicals, many of which are found in household cleaning products.
- In 1995, the National Toxicology Program concluded that based on tests they had conducted, somewhere between five percent to ten percent of all chemicals in production could be expected to be carcinogenic in humans. That’s 4,000 to 8,000 different chemicals, almost all of which remain not only unregulated but unidentified.’
- Research by Dr. David Sterling conducted in 1991 found that women who work in the home have a 55 percent higher risk of developing some form of cancer and/or chronic respiratory disease compared to women who work outside the home. In presenting his findings to the National Center for Health Statistics, Dr. Sterling noted that “like all occupations, housework has its hazards … Perhaps the most serious exposure is to modern household cleaners which may contain a number of (both) proven and suspect causes of cancer. The excess prevalence of cancers among homemakers relative to employed women may be due to (these) occupational exposures of homemaking.”
- Data obtained from Environmental Protection Agency studies shows that the general population is being exposed to surprisingly extreme levels of carcinogenic substances in their homes. Exposures in some cases were found to be 5 to 70 times higher than the highest outdoor levels. In a majority of homes, the levels of certain toxins were greater than those needed to qualify a location as a Superfund site.”