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Chemical compounds emitted from common household paints and cleaners increase risks of asthma and allergies in children

October 22, 2010 — Young children whose bedrooms had high concentrations of fumes emitted from common household water-based cleaners and paints appear to have increased risks of doctor-diagnosed asthma, rhinitis, eczema, as well as multiple allergic diseases according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). In this study, the first of its kind to investigate a link between asthma and specific volatile organic chemicals introduced into consumer products within the last fifty years, researchers found that propylene glycol and glycol ethers (PGEs), commonly found in cleaners and paints and widely considered safe, pose enough risks to toddlers and children to raise concern.

The study, led by Hyunok Choi, research associate in the Department of Environmental Health, and co-authored by John Spengler, Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation, was published online in PLoS One on October 18, 2010. Read the study.

As Western lifestyles and consumer products have spread across the globe, so too have asthma and allergies, particularly in children. Genetic factors do not adequately explain this trend, the researchers write. In fact, an emerging body of evidence suggests that early exposures to common household chemicals may increase the risk of asthma and allergies in children.

Many consumer products, such as computers, building materials, paint, and synthetic carpets, emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that exist predominately as vapor and may persist on indoor surfaces for months. PGEs are a diverse group of VOCs widely used in water-based paint, varnishes, cleaning fluids, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, cosmetics, and processed foods because they are effective solvents.

Using data from Sweden’s Dampness in Buildings and Health study, the researchers identified 198 children age three to eight with asthma and allergies and 202 healthy children of the same age as a control group. During the study period, November 2001 to March 2002, the children received medical examinations and air samples were collected from their bedrooms to test for concentrations of eight groups of VOCs.

“A number of earlier studies of professional cleaners and house painters have demonstrated a significant risk from water-based cleaning fluids and paints for asthma-related symptoms and allergies. However, the specific chemical compounds that pose a risk have remained elusive,” said Choi. “Our study’s demonstration of risks from propylene glycol and glycol ethers, specific chemical constituents within modern consumer products, rather than traditionally suspected volatile organic compounds from outdoor air pollution and biological allergens such as molds, represents a concrete step forward in asthma research.”

The children with bedroom PGE concentrations in the top 25% of the study participants had a 100% higher likelihood of having asthma, a 150% higher likelihood of having eczema, and a 320% higher likelihood of having rhinitis. Among the children with multiple allergic symptoms, PGE-exposure nearly doubled the likelihood of developing allergic sensitivities to other allergens. None of the other VOCs posed a risk.

The researchers controlled for other risk factors such as gender, secondhand smoke exposure, and known allergens such as pet dander. Additionally, the researchers controlled for other chemical constituents in the cleaning products besides PGEs, as well as two phthalate compounds, which suggests that PGE risks are independent of these known risks, Choi said.

“While many PGEs have been introduced and used by the public since the 1970s, a few of these have been pulled from the market due to their clear male reproductive and fetal toxicities. However, a great number of unexamined PGEs are currently produced and used globally,” Choi said.

Amy Roeder

photo: iStockphoto.com/JanPietruszka