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Prevent Cancer Now! Indoor Air Quality

A series focusing on steps you can take NOW to reduce your exposure to cancer-causing agents

By Diana Daghofer, PCN Co-Chair (with information from “Cancer – 101 Solutions to a Preventable Epidemic” by Liz Armstrong, Guy Dauncey and Anne Wordsworth)

Winter means more time indoors. In fact, Canadians spend about 90% of their time inside – year-round. You may be surprised to learn what that means for the quality of the air you breathe.

While we can often see the effects of poor air quality outdoors – from factories and trucks belching fumes, for example – the unseen toxins in our homes and workplaces can be far more harmful to our health. Poor air quality can aggravate and even cause asthma, bring on allergies, trigger multiple chemical sensitivity or chronic fatigue syndrome and cause Legionnaires’ disease, a rare type of pneumonia. In this article, however, the focus is on the links between poor indoor air quality and cancer.

Construction materials – The building materials and finishes used to construct our homes are an obvious source of toxins. Particleboard and plywood usually contain formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Adhesives, sealants and caulking, and solvent-based paints and varnishes release harmful gases such as toluene and benzene, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Healthy building materials are becoming far more common. If you are building or remodeling, be sure to look for non-toxic products, including insulation made from 100% recycled denim or cellulose, emission-free wheat straw fiberboard and reclaimed wood.

Furnishing and decorating – Few of us have the luxury of starting from scratch to build a healthy house. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to improve the air quality in your current dwelling. If you are decorating or buying furnishings for your home, look for:

  • Water-based zero- or low-VOC paints and finishes.
  • Healthy flooring options, like natural cork, linoleum with jute backing, engineered hardwood with low-VOC finishes, natural stone tile and coloured concrete. Limit carpeting and use selected area rugs made from natural fibres, like wool, dyed with non-toxic dyes, since carpeting will collect pollutants that are spilled or tracked in from the outdoors, including pesticides.
  • Window coverings made from organic fibres or naturally finished wood shutters or metallic Venetian blinds. Avoid PVC blinds, which are often the least expensive option.
  • Mattresses made from natural materials such as certified organic cotton or wool. A Canadian company, Essentia Mattresses, specializes in mattresses with no toxic chemicals or emissions.
  • Furnishings made of wood that is free from toxic glues, particleboard and chemical stains.

Fragrances – Special attention should be paid to fragrances. We inhale fragrances in countless products from deodorants and shampoos, to detergents, cleaners and air fresheners. Meanwhile, they are not tested for safety and current labelling laws mean the chemical components in “fragrance” need not be listed. We do know that these chemicals include preservatives and solvents, made mostly from petrochemicals. According to Zoé Cormier, of Green Living, “The chemical terpene, found in some pine- and citrus-scented air fresheners, can react with ozone in the air to spawn formaldehyde.”

Phthalates are used in fragrances to preserve their scent. Phthalates, known hormone-disruptors, have been linked to early puberty in girls, reduced sperm count in men and feminization in baby boys. They are so commonly used that they have been found in increasing levels in human breast milk, as well as in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and in both city and rural air in Iowa, according to Ms. Cormier.

This is a clear case for applying the precautionary principle. As there is no need for artificial fragrances, don’t use them! This is the advice of environmental consultant Madeleine Bird, co-coordinator of the Health and Environment Awareness Project, a joint project between Breast Cancer Action Montreal and The McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women. Simple substitutes, like baking soda and vinegar, do a fine job cleaning and freshening the air.

Wood Smoke – A cozy fire seems the last thing to worry about, health-wise. Unfortunately, wood smoke carries a range of nasty chemicals and VOCs. It contains dioxins and PCBs, and some of the same carcinogens found in tobacco. What’s worse, wood smoke is chemically active in the body 40 times longer than cigarette smoke. Cancer patients, especially, are warned to avoid wood smoke. If you live in an area where wood stoves are common, consider installing a HEPA air filter in your home. Research shows that 50 to 70% of outdoor wood smoke particulate matter (PM 2.5 – smaller than 2?5 microns) seeps directly into homes — even non-burning homes. Remember, if you can smell smoke, you are being exposed to pollutants.

Clean your air

Follow these tips for clean air and a healthier environment:

  • Open your windows daily and air out your house.
  • Equip your house with an energy recovery ventilator to provide fresh and filtered air at close to room temperature.
  • Decorate with house plants such as aloe vera, English ivy, ficus benjamina (fig) and the peace lily. They will remove at least some carcinogens, including formaldehyde and benzene.
  • Install air filters and change them frequently.
  • Don’t buy air fresheners, unless you know the ingredients are safe. The Natural Perfumers Guild has a catalogue of natural scents.

Check the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for a list of cosmetic companies that have pledged to remove known or suspected toxic chemicals from their products (Avon, Estée Lauder, L’Oréal, Revlon, Procter & Gamble and Unilever have all refused to sign).