Building As If Breathing Mattered: PVC'S Contribution To Asthma

Niaz Dorry - August 11, 2004

To breathe, I have to take way too many medicines today - each with their side effects.

I'm an adult. Imagine a child having to wade through all the symptoms and medicines associated with asthma.

Many factors contribute to the development and aggravation of asthma. However, I am wondering whether the installation of PVC flooring in my bathroom and kitchen contributed to the worsening of my breathing.

The floor was laid three years ago. A slow leak under my sink went unnoticed until the downstairs' neighbor's ceiling fell. About this time, my life-long respiratory ailments worsened.

Scientists are investigating the relationship between moisture, PVC flooring, and asthma.

In Sweden, a study of 10,851 children found the presence of both floor moisture and PVC significantly increased the risk of asthma.[1] The incidences were higher in multiple family dwellings where a higher percentage of PVC flooring was found.

Many workers in an office building in Finland, over a short period of time, were diagnosed with adult-onset asthma at a rate of about 16 times higher than expected.[2] An investigation uncovered in the office air space high levels of volatile chemicals, such as 2-ethyl-l-hexanol, l-butanol, which are degradation by-products of vinyl. The problem was traced back to damp concrete surfaces below the PVC flooring.

The PVC flooring was removed and surface of the concrete slab warmed up enough to remove the volatiles that had been diffused within. In rooms cleaned up in this manner and floors replaced with ceramic tile, the emissions of the three main volatiles (2-ethyl-l-hexanol, l-butanol, and 3-heptanone) decreased, as did employees' symptoms and many asthma patients' needs for medication.

Furthermore, studies have linked dust containing phthalates from homes with PVC flooring with an increase in asthma.

To make it less brittle, PVC is coated with plasticizers called phthalates. These chemicals evaporate and enter the air space where they adhere to dust particles.[3] New research shows that dust from homes containing PVC floors has higher levels of phthalates - particularly di(2-ethylhexyl) (DEHP) - than dust from homes without vinyl floors. One recent case-control study found an association between dust concentrations of phthalates inside homes and asthma, rhinitis and eczema.[4] The presence of PVC flooring in the child's bedroom was the strongest predictor of respiratory ailments.

Other studies reach similar conclusions,[5] with one recommending "avoidance of PVC flooring in homes with small children" as a simple first step.[6]

Avoiding PVC flooring isn't difficult, but it's often disregarded as a cost-cutting measure.

Meanwhile, the costs associated with the increase in rates of asthma keep adding up. According to officials in my home state of Massachusetts, asthma is the number one preventable cost to hospitals.[7]

Prescription costs, doctors' fees, lost wages due to time off from work for parents of asthmatic children, and the un-quantifiable cost of school absenteeism add up to a hefty burden for families and society.

Alternatives to PVC that are easier on the lungs exist today.[8]

By switching to safer products we could be offering a child the priceless gift of easy breathing.


Guest columnist Niaz Dorry is a veteran activist and writer living in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She works with small-scale, traditional, and indigenous fishing communities in the U.S. and from around the globe to advance the rights and ecological benefits of the small-scale fishing communities as a means of protecting global protect marine biodiversity. In 1998, Time Magazine named Niaz as a Hero For The Planet for this work. Her fisheries articles appear regularly in a range of publications.


Footnotes

[1] Bornehag, C.G., Sundell , J., Hägerhed , L., Janson, S., and the DBH-study group, "Dampness In Buildings And Health. Dampness At Home As A Risk Factor For Symptoms among 10 851 Swedish Children" (DBH-STEP 1) (2002), SP Swedish National Testing and Research Institute and the International Centre for Indoor Environment and Energy, Technical University of Denmark Karlstad University, Sweden.

[2] Tuomainen, A., Seuri, M., Sieppi, A. "Indoor Air Quality And Health Problems Associated With Damp Floor Coverings In An Office Building" (2002), Kuopio Regional Institute of Occupational Health, Department of Occupational Hygiene and Toxicology, Kuopio, Finland; Kuopio Regional Institute of Occupational Health, Department of Occupational Medicine, Kuopio, Finland; and, Medivire Occupational Health Center, Kuopio, Finland.

[3] Katherine M. Shea, MD, MPH, and the Committee on Environmental Health; "Pediatric Exposure and Potential Toxicity of Phthalate Plasticizers." Technical Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. PEDIATRICS Vol. 111 No. 6 June 2003.

[4] Carl-Gustaf Bornehag, Jan Sundell, Charles J. Weschler, Torben Sigsgaard, Björn Lundgren, Mikael Hasselgren, Linda Hägerhed-Engman, "The Association Between Asthma and Allergic Symptoms in Children and Phthalates in House Dust: a Nested Case-Control Study, Environmental Health Perspectives, July 15, 2004 (The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

[5] Ruthann Rudel and Julia G. Brody, Silent Spring Institute, Newton MA; David Camann, Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio, TX; John Spengler, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA; Leo Korn, UMDNJ, New Brunswick, NJ, "Phthalates, Alkylphenol, Pesticides, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, and Other Endocrine Disrupting Compounds in Indoor Air and Dust," Environmental Science & Technology, September 13, 2003.

[6] Haumann , T. and Thumulla, J., "Semi Volatile Organochemicals In Indoor Environment - Chlorinated Phosphorus And Organotin Compounds In Material Und House Dust Samples" (2002) Umweltanalytik und Baubiologie, Essen, Germany. AnBUS e.V., Fürth, Germany.

[7] Remarks of Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance Policy official at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's conference on asthma, March 23, 2002.

[8] Healthy Building Network's PVC-Free Resilient Flooring chart, http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/PVCFreeResilient.html.


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