Graphic. AgriculturesAgriculturesGraphic. Purdue University.

Summer 2000

Home safe home
by Jan Matthew

When it comes to household cleaning products, marketers know the lines that lure: "new and improved," "more effective," "works fast on tough stains." What many consumers may not realize, however, is the possible link between these products and allergy symptoms and the increasing prevalence of asthma.

"Any product that you bring into the home can be a source of irritation to some family members," says Cathy Burwell, Purdue Extension specialist in water quality and environment. "The vast array of cleaning products today are stronger and more effective than they were decades ago. This often means more chemicals, and that could be a problem to some people."

Symptoms can be both immediate and directyou scrub the bathtub with a spray cleanser and feel dizzyor build over time, Burwell says. Susceptibility to chemicals, such as formaldehyde, common in permanent press-finished draperies or fiberboard furniture, increases through repeated exposure.

Evidence also suggests indoor air quality may contribute to increased rates of asthma. According to the American Lung Association, the prevalence rate for asthma jumped 61 percent from 1982 to 1994. Groups with the highest increases were adults ages 18 to 44 and children under 12.

"Today's children spend more time indoors, and they're exposed to chemicals, like stain removal formulas on carpets, that weren't used 20 years ago," Burwell says. "The point is, this is a concern. Many people today exhibit sensitivity to indoor air contamination, often not realizing that a contributing factor to their allergies or increased asthma occurrences are the products they bring into their homes and the ways they use those products."

Uncovering common culprits

Throughout the state, county Extension educators are conducting programs that promote healthy indoor air. Their primary message? Awareness. Read labels, follow directions and familiarize yourself with potential hazards.

"Healthy indoor air is definitely an awareness issue," says Cindy Barnett, consumer and family sciences Extension educator in Whitley County. "Consumers are very good about reading food labels, but they typically don't read labels on household products. They also tend to buy the same, familiar products without realizing that perhaps the formulas or directions have changed. The first ingredient listed on a product label is the main ingredient," she cautions. "Look to see whether that ingredient is water or a chemical."

Burwell describes using a bottle of spray cleanser on her sink without realizing it contained bleachuntil she discovered a large white spot on the sleeve of her navy jacket. "When we find a product that we like, we're especially happy with 'new and improved,' but we never stop to read about how new and improved it is, or at what new level of toxicity," she says. "We expect products to work like they did years ago, and, quite frankly, cleaning companies have become a lot smarter. They're always looking for ways to make household cleaning easier and faster."

But products are effective only if they're used according to directions and for designated purposes. "To save money, consumers sometimes mix products together or expand their use," Barnett says. "If a product is good for porcelain sinks, that doesn't mean it's recommended for stainless steel, fiberglass, floors or bathtubs."

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