Every day, no matter where you live or what you do, your body is exposed to small amounts of toxic chemicals—and not just from outdoor air pollution. Countless toxins make their way indoors as we come and go, but some are there already, hiding in everyday items like appliances, furniture, and toys. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) such low-level exposure is not dangerous to our health, but a new report suggests otherwise.
Researchers from the University of Colorado and the Endocrine Disruption Exchange recently examined more than three dozen studies focusing on four volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in particular: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene—commonly referred to as BTEX. In addition to their use in many consumer products, BTEX are found in gasoline and diesel fuel. The four chemicals are ever present in our environment, yet we don’t notice because they are odorless at low levels. As it turns out, those low levels may not be as safe as we thought.
In looking at the data collected, lead author Ashley Bolden and her team found that in many cases, indoor levels of BTEX were significantly higher than outdoor levels, and that even so-called “ambient levels” of these chemicals were associated with hormonal changes that can significantly impact human health. Specifically, researchers were able to link ambient level BTEX exposure to the following:
- Developmental effects (such as low birth weight in babies);
- Reproductive effects (such as lower sperm count and motility in males);
- Immune system effects (including allergies and a decrease in white blood cells);
- Effects on respiratory function (including an increased risk of asthma and pulmonary inflammation); and
- Effects on metabolic function.
Should we be concerned? Yes, says Bolden, especially since Americans spend the majority of their time indoors. However, the solution may be as simple as improving building ventilation standards to decrease exposure and lessen the potential health risks. The report, published in a recent issue of Environmental Science & Technology, even caught the attention of officials at the EPA, who plan to review the findings.