What kinds of illnesses result from exposures to household products?
A key thing is lung problems because we tend to be exposed to things through inhalation. There are products and materials people use in their homes that can, for example, cause asthma through sensitization. For example, the super glues that are so widely prevalent on the market contain various products that are known from the workplace to be capable of causing asthma, including urethanes and epoxides. Far more widespread is the exposure to chlorine gas from mixing household bleach with other products, because when you mix household bleach with an acid product it produces chlorine gas, and many of the household tile-cleaning products are acids of various kinds. I've already commented on the use of water-repellant sprays—household consumer-marketed products that you spray on upholstery or shoes—as another example of a product that can cause lung injury. All of these examples are lung-related, although some of these products could also cause skin sensitization and skin problems.
Issues that relate to other damage are usually more related to chronic, long-term exposure, and it is very difficult to show cause and effect, even in occupational groups. The challenge is that there needs to be many years of follow-up and large numbers of people being followed. The organomanganese gasoline additive MMT (methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl) is an example of a potential long-term risk to consumers through ubiquitous ambient air contamination. It would take years and years to show it [caused health effects], and by that time the damage would have been done. That's basically what we saw with tetraethyl lead—when we finally had the numbers and the time, we could show there was a decrement in IQ related to fairly low levels of lead, and most of that burden of lead exposure was related to leaded gasoline.
What do you think of so-called green chemicals and products claimed to be "benign by design"?
I would say, "caveat emptor." Sometimes it is very hard to separate out what may just be a marketing ploy from the real thing.
Beyond chemicals, what other factors are you concerned about?
Musculoskeletal issues are very large in the workplace, and the dividing line between what is a workplace and what is your home is not so clear anymore. The standard issues that affect white-collar office workers also affect people who do that kind of work at home, including keyboard and mouse work and the kind of hand and arm problems that may result. But it doesn't have to be purely white collar—some of the kinds of power and high-pressure equipment that in the old days would have been limited to construction workers and agricultural workers are now available to consumers. You can go to a home renovation warehouse store or hardware store and rent nail power guns and high-pressure paint spraying equipment, and these can actually cause physical trauma that can be quite important.
What steps can people take to protect themselves? What are some of the questions we should be asking about the safety of consumer products that we're using?
I think there are a few common sense things. One is that if something simpler will do, then use that. If you don't need to have a coffee cup mug handle re-glued in such a way that two trucks can't pull it apart, then why do that? Why not use a simple, old-fashioned Elmer's-type glue? If you can clean up something with soap and water, why do you need some tile cleaner that could interact with some other cleaner you're using? If you have access to industrial-strength products, don't take advantage of that unless you know what you're doing. Don't mix products unless you have studied the chemistry involved. I think hobbyists should put the same energy they put into their hobby into making sure that the way they're doing it is safe.