Sunday, January 27, 2008

Chemical-infused shopping experiences

Recently all the news about lead in toys made in China has made me more conscious about other unsafe chemicals in products all around us, especially so-called cheap goods. I have started noticing that when I walk into the big box retail stores selling household items or crafts, the smell of plastic or chemicals are real strong. In the past, I had associated the "new item smell" on clothings and gadgets fresh out of their boxes with "something good, something new". However, I am starting to re-evaluate my automatic reaction based on two recent experiences, not to mention the news.

Recently I bought an electric space heater without ionizer. A label on it said something to the effect of (I can't find it so can reproduce the exact verbiage) "the smell is normal for a new product -- use in a well-ventilated space until it disappears". Well-ventilated huh? That's definitely a clue that they know something I don't. The box does not have any disclosure about what compounds cause the smell they warn you of. It wafted a strong, offensive chemically smell for a week or two, next to my bed and my study where it lived. But hey, because I really needed the extra heat, I lived with it. I shouldn't have. Now, I wonder how much of that smell is toxic. I wonder if I could get cancer from it (probably is what my gut tells me).

It is well-known that the new car smell is toxic (35x level of safe volatile organic chemicals). The new item smell from many household products seem rather similar to me and it is starting to bother me... a lot.

Yesterday I spent an hour at a major national craft store and ran across several products with strong new item smells -- e.g. the antique-looking wooden/plastic chests that made me gag when opened. Disturbingly the store was generally permeated with that new stuff plasticky smell too. My fiance left with a headache while I left with teary eyes and general feeling of malaise. We were feeling just fine when we entered. It was a scary experience health-wise. The co-incidences were just too strong to ignore. I am definitely thinking twice before entering that chain again.

So I did a Google search on toxic chemicals in household consumer products, but the main info I found were on cleaning products and voluntary eco-friendly alternatives (see partial list below*). Didn't find any info about regulations on the many cheap plastic goods that smell so strong chemically they give you a headache or make you want to cough the inhalation back out. These are stuff we put in our homes and strongly affect indoor air quality, and our health. I wonder how and if we are protected by the government in this respect.

While price value is important, I am more concerned about the cost of the long-term health effect. Getting cancer would make life real unpleasant, not to mention expensive. Cheap comes at a price -- to our health, and the health of workers making them. Short-term cheap is not worth the long-term sufferings they bring, to me, and to the communities involved in the manufacturing and distribution of these goods.

* List of articles I found using the search term "toxic chemicals household consumer products".
1. Dryer sheets and perfumed fragrance can be carcinogenic
2. Health risk from perfume
3. Cancer Prevention Coalition on "Carcinogens at Home"


Auros said...

If you can't afford designer green goods (I can't), I think you may fare better with housewares from Ikea.As their motto goes, "Low prices, but not at any price." A lot of my furniture, my lights, my down comforter, and probably more things I'm not thinking of at the moment, come from there.

Anonymous said...

Another concern should be the way people heat food in plastic Tupperware or heat coffee in plastic cups. Most people don't complain, but I swear I can taste a plasticy-chemical taste in the food. I'd say chemicals leak from plastic containers into food, especially when heating semi-liquid or liquid food. Why do people still do this?