Evidence has building in recent years of a major health risk from chemicals in products such as air fresheners, deodorants and scented candles. Some reports estimate that “secret” air pollutants in the home may be claiming tens of thousands of lives each year.
Now, two leading UK health bodies – the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health – are drawing up a review of studies looking at the health effect of exposure to household chemicals – in particular volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde – and how they might interact in the body with outdoor pollutants, such as vehicle emissions.
The scientists working on the review say that the scale of problem, and obstacles being put in the way of tackling it, could mean that it becomes the “next diesel NOx scandal”.
Among health conditions that is being linked to exposure to household chemicals is papillary thyroid disease (with brominated flame retardants used in furniture thought to be a plausible cause), while asthma has been shown to be more common in schools that use insecticides.
Professor Stephen Holgate, one of the scientists drawing up the review, told The Times that he wants the review to lead to “practical useful steps that people can do”. He added: “Liberally going around spraying chemicals around your house that are complex and react with other chemicals — you’ve got to weigh up the benefits of that. Are there not other things you can do, like buy a nice bunch of flowers?”
Joost de Gouw of the University of Colorado Boulder, who estimates that the amount of VOCs emitted from household and industrial products is two to three times higher than official estimates, told the London-based newspaper: “Chemical products — cleaning products, personal care products, glues, inks, coatings, pesticides, etc — are now one of the dominant sources of VOCs in urban air. The one choice that people can make is to use less chemical products in their lives.”
UK government officials are now said to be planning a campaign to inform the public of the dangers of VOCs, and are also encouraging manufacturers to adopt a voluntary labelling scheme to alert consumers to the higher risk of VOC emissions from some products.
In the meantime official advice to householders includes using unperfumed cleaning products, without citrus and pine scents. These scents, typically made from limonene and alpha-pinene, can form harmful chemicals when released indoors.