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Report details toxins in home

SALEM -- Jeff and Jennifer Barz-Snell had no idea what was in their vacuum cleaner dust.

Six months after the Salem couple volunteered to allow the dust from their vacuum bag to be tested for a national study on contaminants in the home, they are beginning to understand the dangers of buying ordinary household appliances and furnishings.

The Barz-Snells and 69 other families in seven states took part in the $150,000 study conducted by Clean Production Action, a Buffalo-based nonprofit organization. In every dust sample, six chemicals were found -- substances that have proved to be harmful to the reproductive systems of animals, said Beverley Thorpe, one of the study co-authors.

While the report documents that polybrominated diphenyl ethers have been found in breast milk, one of the biggest dangers from the tested chemicals comes from phthalates, say the authors. According to the report, exposure to phthalates and their metabolites have been associated with asthma, premature breast development in girls, and deteriorated semen quality in men.

The six chemicals include phthalates, which are found in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products, such as cosmetics, shower curtains, toys, flooring, and furniture; perfluorinated organics, which are used to make Teflon and Gore-Tex; polybrominated dephenyl ethers, or brominated flame retardants, which are applied to textiles and plastics, foams, and electronic equipment; organotin compounds, such as PVC water pipes and packing materials, polyurethane foams, and glass coatings; alkylphenols, which are found in textiles, laundry detergents, and all-purpose cleaners; and pesticides, which are used to kill insects and are sometimes applied to carpets.

The Barz-Snell's home sits at the end of a tree-lined street near Forest River Park, and is filled with items young families typically purchase; flame-retardant couches, mattresses, drapes, computers, and plastic toys for their three children. Armed with the report, the family is now wondering just how toxic their house is.

''I think I'm going to be much more careful about the purchases I make," said Jeff Barz-Snell, who serves as the minister of the First Church in Salem, Unitarian.

After reading the report, the couple decided to replace several items. Jeff has put away his Gore-Tex jacket and is replacing the Teflon pan with an iron-cured skillet. Their daughter's plastic three-wheeled bike made from PVC, which contains phthalates, is no longer in the house.

The couple is also eliminating their tile-cleaning chemicals, which contain alkylphenols. According to the report, these mimic natural estrogen hormones and can lead to altered sexual development in some organisms.

''Instead of using the latest and greatest tile cleaner with all sorts of germ-cleaning properties, I think we'll stick with soap and water, or maybe a little water and bleach," said Barz-Snell.

Jennifer Barz-Snell is already thinking about bigger purchases, and the potentially chemical-laden belongings she'll have to live with, for the time being. She pointed to the brown drapes and the floral couch in the living room, and sighed. The drapes and couch are filled with brominated flame retardants.

''This is a clear case of toxic trespass, with stealth contaminants entering our homes without our consent or knowledge," said Cindy Luppi of The Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow, which issued the report locally.

Joel Tickner, a professor of environmental health at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, said the federal government needs to overhaul the Toxic Substances Control Act, which is enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency. The act does not require companies to list the ingredients in products that contain the chemicals tested for in the report, said Tickner. ''For the most part, the public is flying blind," he said. ''Consumers shouldn't have to worry about it. It's something government should be involved in."

Tickner, along with the report's authors, advises the public to begin using safer alternatives to the chemicals that were analyzed. Simple changes, said Tickner, could include using nylon instead of vinyl shower curtains; not covering wood floors with vinyl; and eliminating PVC use in the house.

Luppi's Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow has called on Governor Mitt Romney to issue an executive order to remove chemicals found in pesticides, children's products, and personal care products. The organization is also urging Romney to call for safer alternatives for toxic chemicals used by industry and state agencies.

Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said her office would review the report. Said Rheaume, "We support efforts to reduce exposures to environmental contaminants and we look forward to reading the report.'

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