He says it’s important for consumers to think of indoor air pollution as whole, rather than its parts, to see an improvement in symptoms such as asthma flaring or wheezing episodes. “Go after all of the chemicals, go after all of the allergens and you’ll have a more healthy home,” he counsels.
Yet in Canada and the United States, there is still a lot of confusion among consumers and controversy among researchers, industry and government over exactly which substances are potentially harmful, and at what levels.
Jay Kassirer, managing director of Healthy Indoors Partnership (HIP), a Toronto-based not-for-profit that brings together government, industry and non-governmental organizations, says there needs to be a clear message from Ottawa about what Canadians are supposed to do. In the U.S., while the EPA does not have authority to set rules for indoor air – the way it does for outdoor air – it can make recommendations and educate.
But a problem, as Kassirer sees it from the Canadian perspective, is that “we don’t want to just scare people. We want to give them information that’s helpful.” HIP and other stakeholders have been pressing the Canadian government to make indoor air quality a political priority, and to expedite a long process of scientific reviews to determine safe exposures. Fortunately, the feds have begun to act.
At Health Canada, staff are reviewing and revising all of the dated residential indoor air guidelines, and so far have released new ones for mould and formaldehyde. (The recommended limit for an eight-hour exposure to formaldehyde was reduced to 40 ppb, down from 100 ppb, a level set 20 years ago.)
Nicolas Gilbert, the head of Health Canada’s Indoor Air Quality section, says he and his colleagues are also developing a list of additional substances for which guidelines need to be set. That list has been through a round of consultations with the federal and provinicial governments, and will likely be released to the public this winter.
But work on creating the new guidelines for those substances won’t begin until the review of existing ones on carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulates are completed.
Gilbert says Health Canada develops guidelines, rather than regulations, because it would be impossible to police unacceptable chemical concentrations in a family’s household. But he says: “What we can regulate is sources.”
Future plans call for studies in Canadians’ homes to determine whether certain sources, for instance paint, are causing the most problems. If so, Gilbert’s staff could provide recommendations for enforceable regulations for such products.
Over at Environment Canada, regulations are being developed to target the content of VOCs in consumer and commercial products. The department hopes to have them in effect in 2008.
These regulations would apply to products such as air fresheners, household cleaners, hairsprays, deodorants, automotive products and detergents. The department also has completed a lengthy process of categorizing about 23,000 substances introduced before existing environmental legislation came into being in 1986.
Through this review, about 200 chemicals have been identified as “highest priority”, and the government is trying to figure out exactly what risks these chemicals might pose and how to deal with them, perhaps to the extent of eliminating them completely.
Among the 200 substances are peroxides; vinyl acetate, which is used in a range of products such as perfumes, paint, adhesives and as a base in chewing gum; and C.I. Pigment Yellow 34, used as a colorant in some plastics, inks and paints.