New Reports Reveal Chemical Dangers Indoors and Outside

Just-released research finds widespread pesticide contamination in American homes, and cancer-causing air pollution nationwide. Here’s what to do about it.

June 25, 2009

Taking off your shoes when you get home can help keep pollutants out of the house.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Two new reports reveal how Americans are exposed to toxins on a daily basis. One found that measurable levels of insecticides were found in the dust of nearly all U.S. homes studied, including breakdown substances of chemicals banned decades ago, like DDT. A second, released yesterday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found that people living in 600 neighborhoods across the country are at an increased risk of cancer due to air pollution.


THE DETAILS: In the pesticide report, researchers used alcohol wipes to collect dust samples from hard surfaced floors in about 500 homes throughout the country. The testing is part of the EPA and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s American Healthy Homes Survey. The sampling found that permethrin, used in many dog flea and tick treatments, and in foggers and sprays designed to kill bugs, turned up in nearly 90 percent of homes. It’s classified as a likely human carcinogen by the EPA. Researchers also detected breakdown products from DDT, a pesticide that was banned for use in the U.S. in 1972. Other contaminants included:

• Chlorpyrifos, a common lawn and crop chemical deemed moderately toxic to humans

• Chlordane, a banned pesticide that still persists in soil and water

• Piperonyl butoxide, labeled slightly toxic by the EPA and a potential hormone disruptor

• Cypermethrin, a moderately toxic chemical used for bug control in non-food areas of businesses, schools, nursing homes, and houses

• Fipronil, an EPA possible carcinogen, found in flea and tick sprays and topical solutions like Frontline, and used in ant and roach baits

In the EPA’s air pollution report, which looked at data from 2002, researchers found that exposure to benzene, which is commonly found in vehicle exhaust, increased cancer risks nationwide. The presence of factories was also blamed as a major source of some pollution that can increase cancer risks. Places with lots of both traffic and factories were more likely to experience higher cancer risks; examples include areas around Los Angeles, CA and Pittsburgh, PA. Local industrial pollution can create hotspot effects, the report also shows. For example, a dry cleaning operation may emit tetrachloroethylene or methylene chloride, commonly used industrial solvents. That type of local pollution was responsible for a quarter of increased cancer risk. Banned pollutants that are still persist in the environment accounted for nearly half the increased risk of cancer.

WHAT IT MEANS: These two reports draw more attention to the dangerous chemicals many of us encounter on a daily basis. While it’s cause for concern, there are things you can to do create healthier conditions for yourself and family.

To keep pesticides out of your house:

• Deal with bugs in a natural way. Sealing up pet food, bird seed, snacks, and other exposed food into closed containers can often curb a pest infestation. You can also caulk any cracks that serve as entry points for pests. For more non-toxic ideas on how to banish bugs from your house, visit the Nickel Pincher's How to Beat Back Bugs article.

• Don’t drag in chemicals. Refrain from using lawn and garden chemicals on your property. To find non-toxic tips, visit And make it a family rule for everyone to take their shoes off at the door. This practice can help curb contaminants dragged in from outside.

• Pick organic. Crop chemicals don’t always readily break down, and can contaminate our food and water supplies. Many are toxic to fish and wildlife as well as to us. So buy organic products, which are produced without these chemicals. In a best-case scenario, you can find a local farmer who farms using organic methods.

• Buy it here. Although DDT has been linked to neurological and breastfeeding problems, and is anticipated as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, it’s still used in many other countries. Buying non-organic fruit and veggies from abroad increases your risk of exposure to this dangerous chemical.

To do your part in the national air pollution problem, try this:

• Call your representative right now. First, check the EPA database to see how air pollution affects your risk of diseases, including cancer, neurological, and respiratory ailments. Then, pick up the phone. There are just days before the House will vote on a climate bill that has the potential to greatly reduce carbon pollution, and lower the output of toxins into our air. Call your representative and tell them to support the American Clean Energy and Security Act.

• Drive less. It’s great to drive an efficient vehicle with low emissions, like a hybrid car, but eliminating the need to get behind the wheel does more. Ride a bike, walk, or use public transportation whenever you can. Work from home as often as your company will allow, and urge upper management to cut costs and emissions by using teleconferencing technology when meeting participants are peppered in different locations. One company, Globe Conferencing, has partnered with American Forests and will plant a tree for every 1,000 minutes your company uses, making teleconferencing even greener.

• Stick with us. Check out our new Friday series, “Healthiest Home on the Block,” for room-by-room tips on how to create a safe, healthy, non-toxic home environment for you and your family. Tomorrow’s installment offers healthy green options for your deck or patio.

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