Healthier Homes

Spring 2006

Teach-In at the 2005 Common Ground Country Fair

By Jean English

Copyright ©2006 by the author

“Home is where the harm is,” said Mike Belliveau at a Public Policy Teach-In about healthy homes at the 2005 Common Ground Country Fair. The executive director of the Environmental Health Strategy Center and organizer of the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine noted that we’ve made a lot of progress in reducing industrial air and water pollution – although much remains to be done – but many materials brought into our homes can harm our health.

A July report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Belliveau continued, found 287 industrial chemicals in the blood of newborn babies. “In the last month in the womb, the umbilical cord pumps the equivalent of 300 quarts of blood per day between the placenta and the growing child” to deliver essential nutrients and oxygen. The placenta was previously thought to protect the fetus from harm from the outside environment; now we know that many industrial chemicals cross the placenta. “A newborn baby today in our society is born polluted,” stated Belliveau.

The EWG study found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood of 10 babies born in 2004. Of the 287 total number of chemicals found in the blood, 209 had never before been detected in the blood of newborns; 180 were known to cause cancer in humans or animals; and 217 are toxic to the brain or nervous system – a concern in relation to learning disabilities and autism as well as in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases in elders, which are now believed to be linked to exposure to environmental toxins early in life, said Belliveau.

Another study found 35 industrial chemicals in the dust of the average Maine household–including brominated flame retardants (PBDEs), which are found “anywhere we test for them,” said Belliveau, since they’re added to plastics, TVs, computers, foam mattresses and cushions. These flame retardants, for which alternatives exist, are not federally regulated, but Maine is in the lead in regulating them.

“We live in an industrial society,” said Belliveau. “There are 80,000 industrial chemicals in commerce. Only 10% have been adequately tested for health and safety effects. But we know enough to act. We need a combination of government mandates and voluntary industry leadership and smart consumer action to drive the market for safe consumer products and safer building materials.”

Learning Disabilities on the Rise

Evelyn deFrees, project director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Maine (LDAME), discussed the connection between increases in learning disabilities (LDs) and exposure to toxic chemicals during fetal and early childhood development. She defined a learning disability as any difficulty with learning, i.e., disabilities in thinking, reading, or learning words or math concepts. Examples include Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism. People with an LD often have average or above average IQs, but their potential is masked by the difficulty they have in learning. The number of people with these disorders is rising. In Maine, 127,000 adults and children have LDs, as do over one-third of the people in special education programs around the state, explained deFrees. In the 1970s, one in 2,500 to 5,000 people had autism; today, the number is 1 in 250 to 500, she added.

A few years ago, a National Academy of Sciences study found that more than one-fourth of the incidences of LDs were caused at least in part by interactions with environmental toxins, said deFrees. “Our organization’s mission is to root out preventive aspects of causes of LDs and work on advocacy to reduce exposure to toxins. There are about 80,000 chemicals in commerce since World War II, when the big expanse in manmade toxins occurred. About one in 12 are tested for their impact on the developing brain.”

Chemicals such as heavy metals (especially mercury and lead) and brominated flame retardants are especially dangerous for women of childbearing age and their children, said deFrees, “because those chemicals or heavy metals interrupt the division or migration of cells to where they’re meant to be as the brain is developing during the fetal stage or early childhood. At specific times – even on certain days during pregnancy when parts of the brain are developing – they can have this tremendous damaging effect.

It’s not necessarily one giant exposure or long-term exposure over the entire pregnancy.”

Many of us carry toxic metals in our bones from a lifetime of exposure, deFrees continued, and some of these are released during pregnancy and can affect the fetus. Once born, children crawl all over and put their hands in their mouths, taking in more toxic chemicals. They process these faster than adults do, so they have a greater chance of being affected by these chemicals.

The LDAME has joined with the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine to propose legislation that would ban sources of toxic chemicals, such as lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants. The organization has also published a booklet called Healthy Homes and Families that has tips for limiting exposures in and around the home.

Green Building Design

Bruce Stahnke is a partner in the architectural design firm of Stahnke + Kitagawa, which specializes in green, sustainable building design; he’s a founding member of the Maine chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, as well as a member of the American Institute of Architects. He is also designing the “Darwin project,” a botanical garden and biodiversity museum in Boston.

Stahnke said that three things brought into the home that have the most effect on indoor environmental quality are cleaning materials, furniture (which tends to off-gas) and building materials. Cleaning materials “are probably the worst. They probably can do more damage in a week than all the building materials you have can do in a year.”

Given his expertise in building, however, that’s what he discussed. “Building materials that are exposed to the air in a house will off-gas pollutants and nonpollutants into the environment in the house. Some are dangerous, some are not. Glues are particularly dangerous.” Stahnke gave three strategies for reducing or eliminating problems due to building materials.

First is elimination. “Don’t bring anything into the house that you don’t want to breathe and eat. There are some materials, such as plywood, that are safer now than those with formaldehyde and glues, which tend to continually go into the air and circulate in the house.” Finding exactly what is in a building material, how much is present and how safe or dangerous it is is difficult, “but slowly there is growing demand for cleaner and safer buildings, so the information is slowly becoming more public, and better materials are slowly becoming available.”

Isolation is the second strategy to reduce exposure to toxic materials. “If something will off-gas or produce toxins, isolate it behind an air barrier,” Stahnke advised. Some plywood, particle board and oriented strandboard, and other materials that are made with a lot of glue, tend to have a lot of pollutants that can continually come back into the house, he said, and they off-gas even more when they’re wet. “Make the house as airtight as possible on the inside layer,” he advised.

Regarding radon, he said that if your basement is connected to the air in your house and is not positively pressured – i.e., if the furnace does not have an air outlet in the basement–then you’ll be sucking air and radon from the basement into the house.

The third strategy is ventilation. This is third on the list, because if you don’t bring materials into the house to begin with, you don’t have to worry about isolating them; and if you can isolate materials that are brought in, you don’t have to worry about ventilating constantly. If a material is in the house and is not isolated, however, you need a supply of fresh air and a way to exhaust that air in “pretty much every room of the house.” Still, “if you already brought in toxic materials, you can’t ventilate enough to eliminate all the off-gasing.” So minimize that.

Three materials that tend to off-gas a lot are carpets, combustion appliances and manufactured wood products. Most carpets are made of synthetic materials that off-gas, as do the glue or adhesive used to hold carpets down. Dirt and dust in carpets can add to the pollution.

Fireplaces, furnaces, wood stoves, gas ranges or anything with an open flame that vents or potentially vents into your house needs to be properly vented out of the house as well, and you need enough make-up air coming in to supply the combustion so that you don’t get backdrafts and carbon monoxide and other gases coming back into the house.

Most manufactured wood products, such as cabinets, sheathing and some flooring—anything made from pieces of wood—have toxic, unstable glues holding them together. (Paradoxically, said Stahnke, glue made for exterior plywood is a lot safer than that for inside materials, which does not need to be waterproof.) Ureaformaldehyde glue used on manufactured wood products off-gases much more and is much more toxic than other glues, so don’t bring it in, he suggested.

Paint no longer contains lead or mercury, but a lot of other compounds from paints enter the house as the paints dry and cure. These volatile compounds generally have a relatively shorter-term influence (from days to months usually, but years for some). Many paints don’t contain volatile organic compounds—in large part due to consumer demand. “The news is guardedly good,” Stahnke concluded.

The Earth is Part of Us

Julia Yelton of Humustacia Permaculture Gardens Sustainable Living Center in Whitefield, Maine (featured in the Sept.-Nov. 2005 issue of The MOF&G, pictured right), talked about practices in permaculture that help people take responsibility for their environment. Having a son (now 34 years old) who was hypoallergenic, autistic, dyslexic and had extreme learning disabilities “started my search,” said Yelton, noting that information and nontoxic products are much easier to obtain now than when her son was young. “There’s no excuse not to use green materials for household goods” now, she believes, adding that their ready availability has come about through consumer demand. “Change does begin with one person.”

Take a bag to market, carry your own coffee cup, she advised. Be dogged. Constantly ask, “What can I do here and how?” As she and her husband, Charles, have been building their home over the past five years, learning about green methods and materials has been “quite an adventure.”

Those 80,000 chemical products in the marketplace “inevitably end up in our water, soil and food,” Yelton noted. “We are the soil, we are the water. It is part of us.” Thus, she suggested supporting Community Supported Agriculture farmers and buying organic foods at farmers’ markets.

Now her “bottom line attitude” is that she can’t “just try to do it a little better. It has to be different. The planet can’t keep absorbing the kind of pollution that is ending up in our water source.” In Kentucky and on Long Island, she noted, people have been told that the can no longer drink ground water but must buy imported water – which comes in plastic containers. “Maine is probably one of the last places on the planet with good water,” she believes. Australia is expecting its big cities to run out of water in two years.

“I have to own that the earth is part of me,” Yelton continued. “We have to have ownership of ourselves as a species as part of nature. It’s not even working with nature – that’s saying we’re separate from nature. We’ve got to actually see our place in nature.”

She said that young women often are the ones who really need information about healthy lifestyles. “They want to do the very best they can do for their babies.

“Twenty years ago, Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture, said we’re not hungry enough in the western world to really be accountable, but I think we’re getting to the stage now,” Yelton concluded.

Making Policy in an Enlightened Maine

John Hinck, an activist and toxics attorney for the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM), agreed with Yelton that doing what we can ourselves is the first step, “but my job is to go on to policy.” The NRCM “tries to watchdog state government on a range of environmental health issues. We’re able to do that well at times for a couple of reasons. We really do live in an enlightened state” with progressive policies in a number of areas. “I wouldn’t get overly enthusiastic,” said Hinck, “but in comparison with a lot of other places, we have some opportunities in Maine to make changes, and we see that happening.”

In the last two years, progressive laws have been passed in Maine regarding lead, brominated flame retardants and electronic waste. Manufacturers of computers and televisions will have to set up programs to recover those items and recycle them appropriately. “Only in Maine do we have such a program.”

Likewise auto manufacturers must recycle mercury switches from cars. These switches work the convenience light in trunks. This job could have been done with nontoxic materials, but using mercury switches saved manufacturers 16 cents per car.

Every time the NRCM has brought something to the legislature to move its agenda forward, “it required a handful of enlightened citizens – two to six in every district – to contact legislators,” Hinck noted. “It’s amazing how few people it takes. We’ve talked with legislators, and they’ve said they were ‘inundated’ with calls. When we asked how many, they said, ‘There must have been three last night!’”

Hinck said that the current system’s problems originated with TOSCA (the federal Toxic Substances Control Act) of 1976, passed when 62,000 industrial chemicals were on the market. All were grandfathered, i.e., approved without further testing regarding their effects on health and safety. Now manufacturers who want to introduce a new substance need to notify the EPA before manufacture, but they’re not required to submit any particular health and safety data. The EPA estimates that only 15% of the notices it approved were accompanied by sufficient health and safety data.

Although TOSCA empowers the EPA to ban, restrict and require labeling on chemicals, the agency can’t really exercise that power. For example, no one disputes that asbestos causes harm. The EPA spent more than a decade building a case to ban asbestos. It had to show the effects of the chemical on human health, the magnitude of exposure in people, effects on the environment and the magnitude of exposure in the environment, the benefits of the substance, the availability of substitutes, and economic consequences of a ban. When the EPA finally banned asbestos in 1991, asbestos interests took the EPA to court, and the fifth circuit court of appeals overturned the ban, claiming insufficient analysis of specific uses and alternatives. The court also said the EPA required industry to spend too much to save a human life. The EPA responded that if it couldn’t manage to ban asbestos, it would never be able to address the rest of the 80,000 industrial chemicals.

Europe, continued Hinck, is now proposing REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals), which would do a better job of regulating the 30,000 chemicals on the market that are produced in excess of 1 ton per year. Strict testing and demonstration of safety would be required before the chemicals would be allowed on the market again. Chemicals would have to be approved by a certain deadline, or they wouldn’t qualify.

American and European manufacturers are fighting against REACH, so “we have to do it ourselves,” said Hinck. “We think we can make progress here in Maine. The Maine legislature and government have a lot of power when it comes to the health and the environment … We want to exercise that power, and we’ll be presenting initiatives in the years to come to move this agenda forward.”

Landfills and More Questioned

During a question and answer period, one person noted that Maine’s landfills are not adequately regulated, and that they get around the official line that Maine does not take out-of-state waste in its landfills. Trash from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and elsewhere is brought to the state and stored – after which it can be called Maine waste. Mike Belliveau agreed that this is a serious problem and that Maine does not have a sensible plan for minimizing the generation and toxicity of waste or for managing it at the end of its life. “It will take organized action, particularly of citizens concerned with incinerators and landfills, to make change,” he said.

When asked about toxic metals in the bodies of young women, Belliveau said that about 20% of Maine women who may become pregnant are consuming enough mercury to harm developing children, and that the latest studies of lead show no safe level of exposure. “We have 350,000 old homes in Maine that still contain lead paint.” For most chemicals, however, “we don’t know what safe levels are. Based on the precautionary principle, Maine public health advocates and scientists are saying we know enough to act, to require safer alternatives, if available, to minimize exposure.”

Another question concerned leaching of toxic chemicals from plastics into stored, frozen foods. deFrees said that LDAME didn’t have enough data to add freezing foods in plastic to its list of cautions, “but in general plastics are just turning out not to be good. All the heating-oriented uses for plastics are definitely a no-no. Bisphenol A in plastics – which is even in the lining of tin cans – comes out, particularly in heating. This compound is known to have reproductive impacts and may have other health impacts as well.” Belliveau added that generally, the “cleanest” plastic is #2 polyethylene, which has fewer toxic additives, and the most environmentally harmful is PVC (#3 or V), which typically contains many toxic additives and, when incinerated, releases dioxins.

Asked about the safety of eating fish, Hinck responded that the highest concentrations of mercury were found in swordfish, tilefish, shark and king mackerel. Tuna is fairly high in mercury, and albacore is higher than chunk light tuna, but neither is as high as swordfish. Fish that aren’t very contaminated with mercury include wild Pacific salmon, ocean perch and summer flounder. Health benefits of eating these outweigh dangers. Haddock is somewhat contaminated but not as much as tuna – but there are issues of sustainability regarding the haddock harvest, Hinck added. (See Healthy Homes and Families, cited below, for guidelines on eating fish.)

Regarding recent federal legislation that may allow greater mercury releases into the air, Hinck said that this was a major turnaround in the last four to five years, after years of much more protective legislation. The largest source of mercury in the United States is coal-fired power plants. The Clinton administration EPA “put together the whole picture to get the job done – scrubber technology was available to remove close to 100% of mercury. The rule was about to go into place.” But the Bush administration threw it out, extended deadlines and lowered the amount that needed to be removed. Hinck said that Senators Collins and Snowe and Representatives Allen and Michaud are good on this subject and that continued pressure on the federal government is needed. The NRCM and others are suing the government regarding the new rules.

When asked about the cost of safer building supplies, the speakers responded, “What’s the cost of not doing something?” when manufacturing, transportation, use and landfilling are considered. Belliveau said we need larger systemic changes, bans on the worst products, and more of the cost should be put on the manufacturer. “We subsidize these manufacturers with the cost of waste disposal, health costs…” Yelton recommended the video The Next Industrial Revolution, about changes taking place on the design level that will ultimately improve the environment.

Resources – information on green building materials – Environmental Health Strategy Center – Learning Disabilities Association of Maine. The free booklet Healthy Homes and Families – How to reduce your family’s exposure to toxic chemicals at home is available from LDAME at PO Box 200, Windham ME 04062 and at

McDonough, Bill and Michael Braungart, “The Next Industrial Revolution,” 55-minute video from Earthome Productions, P.O. Box 212, Stevenson, MD 21153; $35 includes shipping and handling.

Stahnke & Kitagawa Architects, 20 Bakeman Rd., Harborside, ME 04642-3331; (207) 326-8877 – Humustacia Permaculture Gardens, Whitefield, Maine

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