Pollution and Wastes

What causes formaldehyde contamination in homes?

Formaldehyde contamination is related to the widespread construction use of wood products bonded with urea-formaldehyde resins and products containing formaldehyde. Major formaldehyde sources include subflooring of particle board; wall paneling made from hardwood plywood or particle board; and cabinets and furniture made from particle board, medium density fiberboard, hardwood plywood, or solid wood. Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) has received the most media notoriety and regulatory attention. Formaldehyde is also used in drapes, upholstery, carpeting, wallpaper adhesives, milk cartons, car bodies, household disinfectants, permanent-press clothing, and paper towels. In particular, mobile homes seem to have higher formaldehyde levels than other houses. The release of formaldehyde into the air by these products (called outgassing) can develop poisoning symptoms in humans. The EPA classifies formaldehyde as a potential human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

Why is radon a health hazard?

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, radioactive gaseous element produced by the decay of radium. It has three naturally occurring isotopes found in many natural materials, such as soil, rocks, well water, and building materials. Because the gas is continually released into the air, it makes up the largest source of radiation that humans receive. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report noted that radon was the second leading cause of lung cancer. It has been estimated that it may cause as much as 12 percent, or about 15,000 to 22,000 cases, of lung cancer deaths annually. Smokers seem to be at a higher risk than non-smokers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that in radon testing the level should not be more than four picocuries per liter. The estimated national average is 1.5 picocuries per liter. Because EPA’s “safe level” is equivalent to 200 chest X rays per year, some experts believe that lower levels are appropriate. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends two picocuries/liter. The EPA estimates that nationally 1 in 15, or six percent, of all homes have radon levels that are above the four picocuries/liter limit. This is down from a 1987 survey that estimated 21 percent of homes were above this level.


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