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The Toxic Closet

Hazardous chemicals permeate our homes and offices, says Dr. Paul Blanc.



Breathed any benzene today? Stirred up any styrene-butadiene? Dangerous industrial chemicals weren't devised with you in mind. They might have been manufactured to make gears move more smoothly or to keep insulation from catching fire. But sooner or later, you'll inhale them. Ingest them. They'll enter your eyes, your pores, your sores.

"Hazardous materials certainly do not recognize a separation between the workplace and the wider environment," writes UCSF occupational-health doctor Paul Blanc in his book How Everyday Products Make People Sick: Toxins at Home and in the Workplace, which he will discuss at Books Inc. (1344 Park St., Alameda) on Thursday, Mar. 11. "Each such product passes through its own life cycle, from invention through technological refinement, then on to mass production, until it reaches obsolescence. Along the way ... something it makes will touch your life." And potentially end that life, or at least shorten it.

We're surrounded by toxins, whether they reside in "a tube of glue in a kitchen drawer, a bottle of bleach on the laundry-room counter ... or the wooden plank in an outside deck." And while construction or agricultural workers are at the highest risk for occupational illness, "that doesn't mean white-collar work is benign," Blanc explained.

"There tends to be a cyclical amnesia by which we identify a particular hazard and then seem to forget about it." Lead is a prime example: "The Roman architect Vetruvius, writing his classic book in the year 100, talks about whether it's better to use clay pipe or lead pipe. Vetruvius wrote: 'All you have to do is see how sickly plumbers are. Why would you want lead pipe?'" Nearly two thousand years later, leaded paint sparked another uproar. Decades after that, we're reeling from what Blanc calls "the leaded-toy fiasco," with its origins in Chinese factories.

While consumers should strive to stay safe, Blanc says the real responsibility rests in much bigger hands: those of manufacturers, retailers, and institutions whose very purpose is to protect us. The government agency overseeing the presence of toxins in imported goods is the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "It has jurisdiction over products that aren't otherwise regulated by the FDA or the EPA — and that's a lot of products," said Blanc. "Yet their approach has been almost entirely to ask for voluntary action on the part of industry. Mandatory recalls are few and far between. They've asked the Chinese to have a gentlemen's agreement and stop putting lead in toys. Yes, they've stopped — but now they're using cadmium," a carcinogen known to affect the brain and kidneys.

"On my preferred reading list is a twelve-page newsletter published every week by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Its upbeat name is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report." All in a day's work. 7:30 p.m., free.