The carpet industry has been responding to concerns about chemical exposure.

The carpet industry has been responding to concerns about chemical exposure. Photo credit: “Swatches of carpet 1″ by Quadell

New carpet smell used to be considered an asset. After all, it meant a new product.

But in recent years, customers have been asking for carpets that don’t “off-gas,” meaning carpets that won’t release chemicals, which may be hazardous to health.

And the carpeting industry seems to have taken the hint.

For one thing, most carpets no longer release those volatile organic compounds, or VOCS, that come from the glues or other components. Consumers should look for the industry-run certification Green Label Plus.

More carpet is made of recycled content, and more is being recycled all the time.

Indeed, the carpet industry has been a leading innovator in construction, said Janet Milkman, executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

“They’ve been analyzing the environmental impacts of their products and processes for years, and are now looking deeply into the human health impacts,” she said.

Experts credit the U.S. Green Building Council’s building certification system, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), which sets standards and drives purchasing decisions.

The thousands of buildings across the nation that are now LEED-certified represent countless phone calls to manufacturers from architects and interior designers asking about all kinds of environmental considerations, said Max Zahniser, who once ran the LEED certification program but returned to Philadelphia seven years ago to start a green consulting firm, Praxis Building Solutions.

Enough of those, and manufacturers take heed.

Hurdles remain

While American rugmakers have stopped using stain repellents made from perfluorinated chemicals, some think the replacements aren’t much better. And carpet made abroad, even if it’s for a U.S. company, may contain the old chemicals.

Some companies still use vinyl plastic in the backing; triclosan may be used as an antimicrobial as well. Both are linked to health effects, said Michael Schade, a campaign director with the nonprofit advocacy group, Safer Chemicals/Healthy Families. Ask, he said, and choose alternatives.

Last year, researchers at the Healthy Building Network, a nonprofit that works to reduce the use of hazardous chemicals in building products, looked at 50 “asthmagens” – substances that can cause asthma – in carpet and other building materials.

Only three were covered by the leading indoor air quality protocols, said Jim Vallette, one of the researchers.

There seems to be no end to things consumers should consider.

Deep-pile or not? Over time, deep-pile carpet will generally harbor more microbiotic organisms.

Natural wool or manmade fiber such as nylon? Wool often does not have stain-resistant chemicals or flame-retardants, another group of chemicals that concern health professionals. But it’s not very durable, and so is less sustainable.

Nylon is durable, but it’s made from petrochemicals. Then again, it’s recyclable.

That’s another major industry advance, experts say. Many companies have take-back programs for older, less environmentally friendly carpeting.

But in the push to increase the proportion of recycled materials in carpet in order to meet sustainability goals, some manufacturers are using coal fly ash – a byproduct from coal-fired power plants that may contain heavy metals – as a filler in the carpet backing.

Whatever type of carpeting you get, the advice of experts is to take care of it – extending its lifespan and reducing its environmental footprint (not to mention the drop in your bank account).

That includes cleaning it with a vacuum or chemicals that are too brutal on the poor rug. The institute’s website (www.carpet-rug.org) lists its approved vacuums and cleaners.

This article has been edited for length. Source: Philly.com


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Coal dust has been noticed in the prison.

Coal dust has been noticed in the prison.

A high rate of cancer among inmates at a southwestern Pennsylvania prison is linked to a nearby coal ash dump, and the correctional facility should be closed down, according to a recent report.

Eleven prisoners died of cancer from 2010 through 2013, and six others have been diagnosed with cancer at the State Correctional Institution Fayette, said the report, released by the Abolitionist Law Center, a public interest law firm based in Pittsburgh, and the Human Rights Coalition, a national prison reform group.

SCI Fayette has a higher inmate death rate than all but two other prisons in the state, both of which have high geriatric populations, it said.

A 12-month investigation found that blowing coal ash was the most likely cause of the inmate cancers as well as other illnesses at the facility.

Inmates quoted in the report described black dust blowing from the dump and settling onto the prison and its grounds.

The report calls for SCI Fayette, which houses 1,986 inmates and has 677 staff, to be shut down. The medium security facility was built for $119 million and opened in 2003. All of the state’s license plates are made there.

Coal ash, also known as fly ash, is the residue of burning coal in a power plant. It was used extensively in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s in mine reclamation projects, notably in the effort to control a mine fire under the town of Centralia.

Its carcinogenic components, including lead, arsenic and mercury, were revealed in a 2010 report by a public interest group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“There is a strong correlation between confinement at SCI Fayette and the onset of serious health symptoms,” said Bret Grote, an author of the prison report. “There needs to be an independent and comprehensive study of the health of people at the prison and in the surrounding community.”

Officials at the state Department of Corrections are reviewing the report, a spokeswoman said.

“We take the health of our inmates and staff seriously,” said the spokeswoman, Susan McNaughton.

David LaTorre, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association, said it too would review the report carefully.

“We are aware of some officers from SCI Fayette who are suffering from illness,” he said.

Fly ash from two regional power plants was dumped at the Fayette County site for 60 years, said John Poister, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

No one answered the telephone at Matt Canestrale Construction Inc in Elizabeth, which owns the dump site.

Source: Reuters

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Seniors can be affected by poor indoor air quality.

Seniors can be affected by poor indoor air quality.

The population of Americans aged 65 and older is expected to double between 2010 and 2050,1 and by midcentury the proportion of the human population made up of people over age 80 is projected to have quadrupled since 2000.

So factors that affect this aging population are of increasing importance. Of particular concern are the neurological diseases and disorders typically associated with advanced age, among them Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, dementia, and reduced cognitive function.

Investigators are studying the effects of not just present-day exposures and environmental influences such as physical and mental exercise, but also exposures that occurred much earlier in life, whose effects may only become apparent in old age.

It was long assumed that “once the brain received its allotted quota of nerve cells, its destiny was frozen. After that, the passage of time eroded our allotment steadily and irrevocably,” as professor emeritus Bernard Weiss of the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry wrote in 2007.3

Now, however, there is increasing evidence that the brain is capable of generating new neurons and other functional brain cells even during advanced age. There is also evidence that the older brain can respond quickly and positively to external influences such as physical exercise and intellectual stimulation.

This is prompting considerable interest in developing strategies for protecting and enhancing neurological function in the elderly.

The two most vulnerable periods for the brain, Weiss says, are early in life, when the organ is first developing, and later in life, when the body’s defenses and compensatory mechanisms begin to falter.

There is a large and growing body of evidence indicating these two vulnerable life stages can be linked when damage incurred during early development contributes to health disorders that may not become apparent until later in life.

Weiss also notes that declining defense mechanisms may magnify vulnerability to contemporary environmental exposures.

He says that when older adults experience cognitive problems, diagnoses rarely consider the possibility that environmental chemical exposure may be involved, simply because questions about such exposures are typically not asked as part of clinical intake.

Over the past 30 years, Weiss says, research attention has focused primarily on environmental influences on early developmental stages. Far less extensively researched, but a subject of increasing interest, are environmental chemical exposures that can affect the health of the aging brain.

Neurotoxic Agents

In the past 10 years, however, a number of studies have looked at the effects of chronic low-level lead exposure on adult humans’ cognitive abilities. The findings of such studies suggest that lead that has accumulated in bones can be mobilized over time as part of the aging process, resulting in exposures that adversely affect adults’ cognitive skills later in life.

Other metals may adversely affect neurological function in later life by either acting directly on the brain or adversely impacting other organs or hormones that maintain healthy neurological function.

For example, cadmium can cause kidney disease, which is associated with cognitive problems. Like lead, cadmium is stored in the body, primarily in the kidneys and liver but also in joints and other tissues, where it has a biological half-time of decades.

Similarly, lead and mercury have been associated with liver disease, which itself is associated with adverse neurological health effects, including a condition that produces a type of neuronal plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Older brains may be affected by chemical exposures earlier in life. Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Older brains may be affected by chemical exposures earlier in life.
Image: FreeDigitalPhotos

Chemical exposures that adversely affect kidney and liver function can also hamper the body’s ability to detoxify and excrete environmental toxicants, thus letting them remain in the body—an effect that may be particularly problematic in advanced age when a body’s defense mechanisms are in decline.

There is evidence connecting certain metals (e.g., lead, manganese), pesticides (e.g., paraquat, maneb), and solvents (e.g., toluene, trichloroethylene) with neurological 
symptoms characteristic of Parkinson’s disease. Many of the exposures studied have been occupational, and some were acute, rather than lower-level and chronic. Much more extensive research is needed to determine the precise role environmental exposures to these agents may play in prompting Parkinson’s disease.

More substantial evidence links various solvent exposures to other neurological conditions, including cognitive impairments, neuropathy, and what is sometimes called “pseudodementia,” when temporary neurological dysfunction produces symptoms similar to those of dementia.

Organic solvents, including toluene, have also been found to impair color vision, while other solvent exposures have been linked to hearing loss, particularly when combined with noise exposure.

Such exposures have been primarily studied when they occur occupationally, but some epidemiological studies suggest there is also potential for adverse effects from ambient environmental exposures.

These solvent and pesticide exposures can, of course, occur at any age. But because the neurological disorders with which they are linked mirror those associated with motor and sensory-function declines of aging, they can be mistaken in diagnosis for the effects of aging or diseases of old age like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

It also appears that long-term nonacute exposures to solvents and pesticides can affect verbal memory, attention, and spatial skills, with effects that may not become apparent until later in life, when they, too, might be confused with or compounded by aging-related conditions.

More subtle environmental exposures are also thought to be implicated in neurological health effects that can manifest later in life. These include exposures to chemicals that may disrupt the normal function of hormones involved in regulating neurological health, chief among them thyroid hormones.

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Hormones are intimately involved with neurological function; a normal brain can’t develop without healthy thyroid hormone function, and the fetal brain is extremely receptive to thyroid hormone.

When environmental factors affect thyroid and other hormones, the result can be health effects associated with conditions that impair neurological function.

For example, there is evidence that exposure to persistent organic pollutants including dioxins and certain polychlorinated biphenyls, halogenated flame retardants, and pesticides can produce hormonally mediated effects that promote obesity and diabetes, which increase risk for vascular health problems.

There is also evidence that exposures to some of these same compounds may directly increase risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

These cardiovascular conditions can, in turn, cause less dramatic neurovascular effects that sometimes result in memory loss, or what’s called “vascular dementia,” when reduced blood flow to the brain deprives brain cells of oxygen and causes the equivalent of small strokes.

Evidence of similar effects has been reported for exposure to chemicals that are pervasive due to widespread use but are not environmentally persistent.

Among these is bisphenol A (BPA).

Laura Vandenberg, an assistant professor of environmental health studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explains that numerous animal studies indicate early-life exposure to BPA can produce health effects characteristic of metabolic syndrome.

Individuals with metabolic syndrome are at increased risk for hypertension, with its risk for adverse neurological effects. It is also often hard to exercise for those who are overweight or obese or who have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Yet aerobic exercise in later life appears to be an essential component of maintaining, if not also enhancing, brain function in older age.

Protective Factors

There is now substantial research investigating how physical activity and exercise affect brain function. This is also the area of research where it is perhaps the easiest to make direct comparisons between animal experiments and human studies.

One focus is to understand the mechanisms by which exercise protects and restores the brain.

Of particular interest is learning how physical exercise increases the production of new neurons, and how that may enhance performance of certain memory functions. Functions of interest include what’s called “relational binding”—for example, remembering the name of a person you recently met and where you met that person.

Physical exercise also appears to enhance “visual pattern separation,” which enables you to distinguish and remember different patterns—a process that increases memory accuracy.

Source: Environmental Health Perspectives

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Apple is banning the use of benzene and n-hexane after pressure from certain groups.

Apple is banning the use of benzene and n-hexane after pressure from certain groups.

Apple is banning the use of two potentially hazardous chemicals during the final assembly of iPhones and iPads as part of the company’s latest commitment to protect the factory workers who build its trendy devices.

The decision comes five months after the activist groups China Labor Watch and Green America launched a petition drive calling on Apple Inc. to abandon the use of benzene and n-hexane in the production of iPhones.

A four-month investigation at 22 factories found no evidence that benzene and n-hexane endangered the roughly 500,000 people who work at the plants, according to Apple.

No traces of the chemicals were detected at 18 of the factories and the amounts found at the other four factories fell within acceptable safety levels, the Cupertino, California, company said.

Nevertheless, Apple decided to order its suppliers to stop using benzene and n-hexane during the final assembly of iPhones, iPads, iPods, Mac computers and various accessories.

What’s more, Apple is requiring all its factories to test all substances to ensure that they don’t contain benzene or n-hexane, even if the chemicals aren’t listed in the ingredients.

Benzene is a carcinogen that can cause leukemia if not handled properly and n-hexane has been linked to nerve damage. The substances are often found in solvents used to clean machinery and electronics.

Apple is still allowing use of the two chemicals during the early production phases of its products — activities that primarily take place at hundreds of other factories besides the ones responsible for the final assembly of the devices.

As an additional precaution, Apple is lowering the maximum amount of benzene and n-hexane that can be present in the materials used during those earlier phases of production.

Green America’s petition drive collected nearly 23,000 signatures urging Apple to phase out benzene and n-hexane.

Neither chemical is unique to Apple’s manufacturing process. They are also used in the production of electronics products sold by other large technology companies that have also been criticized for their practices.

Source: San Jose Mercury News

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Formaldehyde is often used in wood products and has been linked to cancer.

Formaldehyde is often used in wood products and has been linked to cancer.

For years, the chemical industry has been winning a political battle to keep formaldehyde from being declared a known carcinogen.

The industry’s chief lobby group, the American Chemistry Council, has persuaded members of Congress that the findings of both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services were wrong and should be reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

In 2011, the academy did indeed criticize the EPA’s report on formaldehyde for being unclear. The chemical industry then used that critique to delay dozens of other ongoing evaluations of potentially toxic chemicals.

But recently, the academy issued a second report, which found in effect that government scientists were right all along when they concluded that formaldehyde can cause three rare forms of cancer.

“We are perplexed as to why today’s report differs so greatly from the 2011” report, Cal Dooley, president and chief executive officer of the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement titled “The Safety of Formaldehyde is Well-Studied and Supported by Robust Science.”

Part of the disparity is that in the 2011 report, Congress asked the academy only to critique the EPA’s draft assessment rather than evaluate the dangers of formaldehyde itself. The panel concluded that the EPA’s report was too long, repetitive and lacked explanation.

But after reviewing the scientific evidence itself, the academy concluded that formaldehyde is indeed a known carcinogen.

Formaldehyde is widely used in wood products and clothing.

In a blog posting, Jennifer Sass, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the American Chemistry Council’s efforts “a vicious attack on government scientific assessments [meant] to distort and discredit any evidence linking toxic chemicals to diseases, disabilities or death.”

Using the academy to review any negative findings from the EPA has become common tactic of the chemical industry.

The Center for Public Integrity reported in June that Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican from Idaho, got the EPA to turn its negative assessment of arsenic over to the academy. At the same time, Congress also insisted that the EPA redo all ongoing assessments to address the criticisms of the 2011 formaldehyde review. Forty-seven assessments are affected.

The American Chemistry Council said in its statement that the academy “misses an opportunity to advance the science.”

Richard Denison, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, countered: “One can only hope that this sorry episode and waste of public resources will help to expose the narrow self-interest of the industry, which for years it has deceptively sought to wrap in the mantle of sound science.”

Source: Center for Public Integrity

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