Elena Rios still remembers going into the bathroom as a child and smelling a pungent odor from the big, round air freshener hanging on the back of the toilet.
“I’m Mexican-American, I grew up in Los Angeles, and I can tell you that particular product was in all the stores in the neighborhood, at low cost,” said Rios, a doctor who currently heads the National Hispanic Medical Association.
Now a new study concludes that heavy use of these products could be jeopardizing the health of consumers, particularly Hispanics, across the country.
Among residents tested in parts of Houston, Los Angeles, and Elizabeth, N.J., Hispanics faced a cancer risk from air pollutants as much as five times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. But it wasn’t outdoor air causing the greatest risk; it was something much closer to home: A chemical, called p-dichlorobenzene, found in many inexpensive toilet deodorizers and moth repellents in bathrooms and closets.
Inside Houston homes with the highest levels of the chemical, 16 out of every 1,000 Hispanic residents were at risk of cancer. In the New Jersey city, six out of every 1,000 were at risk, and in Los Angeles, four out of every 1,000.
Experts say such a high cancer danger from a single source is highly unusual. Federal guidelines usually consider ten cancers per million people an “acceptable” risk; in some of the Hispanic households, the cancer risk is about 1,000-fold higher.
“The risk numbers we’re talking about for that group are comparable to or greater than what we see for radon, which has been identified as the most dangerous hazard in homes in the country by far,” said Richard Corsi, a professor specializing in indoor air pollution at the University of Texas at Austin. He was one of the authors of the study, which was published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last month.
Many of the products contain 100 percent p-dichlorobenzene packaged in large, white tablets or blocks that can be hung inside the back of toilets or placed in men’s urinals. The chemical also is used in some mothballs, and in moth-repellent crystals packaged in miniature hangers. The products are designed to release the substance into the air in confined spaces, meaning it sticks to clothes and skin and is repeatedly inhaled.
Corsi and the other authors said their findings were alarming, particularly because Hispanics are the fastest growing population in the United States. “Hispanic” was a designation researchers assigned to people who spoke Spanish as their first language and those who identified themselves as Hispanic.
The researchers are not sure why Hispanics had sharply higher exposure. But they noted that the products cost less than other deodorizers, and that they may have been more readily available in countries from which they emigrated.
Rios, from the Hispanic medical association in Washington, D.C., said marketers have targeted generations of Latino Americans with the cheap air fresheners.
“It’s because of the stores in the neighborhood, and the buying patterns for low income neighborhoods, where you have limited opportunities for purchasing products,” she said.
Other populations, such as people in colder climates who keep windows closed or use more mothballs in coat closets, also might be at higher risk. Some mothballs contain p-dichlorobenzene while others are made of another chemical, naphthalene.
“Basically if Caucasians were using more of these products, I would expect their exposures and risks would be just as high,” Corsi said.