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Toxic Tours - XI: Monsters under my bed

By Shailendra Yashwant

Our houses are home to a whole host of toxic substances ranging from the humble toilet roll to household cleaners and mosquito-repellents. These can cause a number of illnesses especially among children

For a change, I decided to take a toxic tour through a typical Indian urban household. I was shocked to find that besides the cigarette smoke that is the biggest source of indoor pollution worldwide, the average Indian household typically uses and stores more than 30 hazardous products. They range from household cleaners, automotive products and paints to solvents and pesticides.

Scientists and doctors are fast discovering that there is a connection between our increased use of household chemicals and the incidence of chronic illnesses in children like cancer, asthma, birth defects and a host of other problems.

The carefully manicured patch of front lawn, the small vegetable patch in the backyard, these are obvious places where pesticides and chemical fertilisers are used. Recently, in the US, Dursban, or chlorpyriphos, a popular domestic garden herbicide, was banned following a scientific study that established a direct link between the retarded growth of children and their exposure to the herbicide.

Now let's go inside the house. The next most obvious place to look for toxic products is the bathroom. You will invariably find two bottles -- one brown, the other clear glass -- sitting alongside the toilet brush behind the toilet bowl. The brown bottle will probably not even have a toxic sign on it. But, hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate (toilet bowl cleaners) can burn the skin or cause vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach burns if swallowed. If inadvertently splashed into the eyes it can also cause blindness.

The other bottle will be sodium hypochlorite, or chlorine bleach, which is a lung and eye irritant. Household bleach is the most common cleaner accidentally swallowed by children. If mixed with ammonia or acid-based cleaners (including vinegar), it releases highly toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure to chloramine gas may cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems.

Next to the toilet bowl you will find a roll of white toilet paper. The paper itself is inoffensive or non-toxic, but paper products bleached with chlorine forms dioxins, an extremely toxic and persistent chemical known to cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine system.

Next to the washing machine, you will find the ubiquitous bag of detergent. Although the packet won't tell you this, most detergents contain phosphates. Phosphates are minerals that act as water-softeners. Very effective cleaners, phosphates also act as fertilisers. When cleaning products go down the drain, phosphates are discharged into rivers, lakes, estuaries and oceans. In lakes and rivers, especially, phosphates cause the rapid growth of algae, resulting in water pollution.

The next place to peep into is the closet that stores the various household cleaners -- disinfectants, mosquito-repellents, polish and paints. Metal polish contains petroleum distillates. Short-term exposure to petroleum distillates can cause temporary eye clouding; longer exposure can damage the nervous system, skin, kidneys and eyes.

Glass-cleaners contain ammonia, which is a lung and skin irritant. If mixed with chorine, it releases toxic chloramine gas. Asthmatics are particularly vulnerable to chloramine fumes.

Disinfectants contain phenol and cresol that are corrosive and can cause diarrhoea, fainting, dizziness and kidney and liver damage. Furniture and floor polish contains nitrobenzene that can bring about shallow breathing, vomiting, even death. This substance has been associated with cancer and birth defects.

Then there's the ever-present naphthalene or para-dichlorobenzene (mothballs), that are mandatory in every Indian cupboard. Naphthalene fumes can irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract. Chronic exposure to naphthalene can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, skin and central nervous system. Para-dichlorobenzene is a probable carcinogen that can also harm the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. High concentrations of fumes may irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

Now for the more obvious substances -- one popular off-the-shelf household insecticide brand belongs to the carbamate group of pesticides, with propoxur as its active ingredient. Mild poisoning from propoxur results in dizziness, fatigue, headache, blurred vision, excessive sweating, vomiting, diarrhoea and stomach cramp. Chronic exposure to this substance results in all these symptoms, along with insomnia, learning disabilities and disturbances in concentration.

Another common insecticide belongs to a class of insecticide called synthetic pyretheroid, with cypermethrin as the active ingredient. Dermal exposure by spray application, at upto 46mg/hr, leads to three per cent being absorbed. Cypermethrin was the first pyretheroid to have caused the death of a human being. In Greece, a man died three hours after eating a meal cooked in 10 per cent cypermethrin concentrate, used mistakenly instead of oil. The man experienced nausea, prolonged vomiting with colic-like pain, tenesmus and diarrhoea, a few minutes after he had eaten the meal. This progressed to convulsions, unconsciousness and coma. Death occurred owing to respiratory failure. Tissue residue of cypermethrin was below detection levels, but 0.7 m remained in the stomach.

What is interesting is that there are perfectly safe alternatives available for all of the above substances. These have been used in households for generations before the advent of branded off-the-shelf toxic products. Ask your grandmother and she will tell you about the amazing power of dried neem leaves for keeping household pests at bay. Or, of imli (tamarind) for polishing utensils and expensive curios. Crumpled newspaper is a great substitute for paper towels, for cleaning windows. If you do use paper towels for cleaning, choose unbleached paper towels with a high post-consumer recycled content.

Reusable cloth rags are also a wise choice. When in doubt, use vegetable-oil-based soaps/detergents. And, at the cost of sounding trite, let me remind you that the biggest polluter in your house is the thin white plastic bag in which you carry your vegetables.

(Shailendra Yashwant is a senior photo-journalist who has worked with The Hindu, Outlook and The Independent. He is associated with the toxic campaign of Greenpeace and has been documenting the subcontinent's ecological problems for several years.)