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Can Government Keep Toxins Out of Your Home?

10/16/2009 12:00:00 AM

Tags: EPA, formaldehyde, composite wood, plywood, toxic chemicals

Nearly everything in our homes — from the upholstery to the plywood— is made from or treated with chemicals. That’s scary enough, but get a load of this: Of the 82,000 chemicals currently in commerce in the United States, less than 10 percent have been tested for neurotoxicity. In the past, the Environmental Protection Agency has taken a low profile in this area—largely because it faces challenges in obtaining the information necessary to assess the chemicals’ human health and environmental risks. 

Many pieces of home furniture are made from plywood, which is chemically treated. Photo By dougfelt/Courtesy Flickr. 

Great news this week: The EPA is starting to pay attention, and so is Congress. 

The EPA announced it may start regulating chemicals, with an immediate look at those considered most problematic for people’s health. In Congress, a bill that would lower formaldehyde levels in composite woods was introduced. 

Congress is currently working on Essential Principles for Reform of Chemicals Management Legislation, a bill that would give the EPA a much stronger hand in controlling what chemicals are permissible in the United States. The new EPA measures would require all chemicals entering the market to be tested for their impacts on human health and the environment. Manufacturers would be required to absorb the cost of these tests. 

In addition, the U.S. Senate is following California’s lead in taking on formaldehyde. A bill introduced by Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) is calling for lower formaldehyde levels in composite woods. 

Formaldehyde is ubiquitous in the modern home; it can be found in pressboard and particleboard, is used to finish fabric and is a component in the glue used in wood veneer. It’s also a known carcinogen, linked to throat cancer, respiratory ailments, watery eyes and depression. Americans were introduced to formaldehyde’s hazards after Hurricane Katrina, when victims parked in FEMA trailers that contained high formaldehyde levels became ill. 

Under the Senate bill, formaldehyde levels would have to meet California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) health standards: 0.09 parts per million (ppm). An average home has a formaldehyde level between 10 and 20 ppm, and the FEMA Katrina trailers had levels of 77 ppm. The bill also requires third-party testing and certification of levels in both domestic and imported products. 

The bill is currently in the committee of environment and public works. The new standards would take effect by January 1, 2012, but most domestic manufacturers are already scrambling to meet them. The Composite Panel Association estimates that 100 percent of American manufacturers already comply with California’s code.

While you’re waiting for the government to act, there’s plenty you can do. Check out these easy ways to keep harmful chemicals out of your home and clean your home with safe, environmentally friendly cleaners.

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