Week of 3/20/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Which types of household products are most likely to cause chemical sensitivities?

—John Morgan, Somerville, MA

Household products trigger chemical sensitivities in hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, yet few people make the connection between their skin rash or sneezing and the bottles and cans stored under their kitchen sink or in the broom closet.

Common reactions to everyday household cleansers and other substances include migraine headaches, asthma and sinusitis, but more serious cardiovascular, neurological and autoimmune diseases may also result from prolonged use or lack of adequate ventilation in areas where these chemicals are being applied. "Early warning signs are burning and irritation of the sinuses, nose or throat—usually not with a fever—and itching or sneezing," says Dr. Grace Ziem, a public health physician specializing in chemical injuries.

Prevention is the key. And removing toxic compounds from your home is the strategy. You can begin under the kitchen sink by replacing traditional choices with "products your grandmother bought," says Suzanne Olson of the Environmental Health Network. "Borax, vinegar and baking soda will clean most items around the house." Olson uses vegetable oil to polish furniture and shuns any items with a fragrance.

"If any ingredients end in "ethylene" or "ethane," it"s not a healthy product," says Cynthia Wilson of the Chemical Injury Information Network. She recommends using scent-free and dye-free laundry products, and oxygen-based whitening additives in place of toxic bleach. Two companies that supply non-toxic laundry products as well as other green-friendly household cleaners include Seventh Generation and Earth Friendly Products. You can shop both online or in natural foods markets and some supermarkets.

Synthetic home furnishings can also trigger sensitivities. Foam, particleboard and veneers can all aggravate a variety of symptoms. And sweet dreams may elude you if you have chemical sensitivities to items in your bedroom. Most mattresses are made from artificial materials, and some beds have chemical mold inhibitors while almost all have fire retardant. In order to eliminate chemical sensitivities from ruining your sleep, choose a mattress manufactured from organically grown cotton. Two good sources include Lifekind Products and Heart of Vermont; both offer secure, online ordering.

If you think some household chemicals might be bothering you, Dr. Ziem suggests keeping a log to help pinpoint the offenders. The best way to find out whether any chronic ailments you may have are caused or aggravated by household products is to take a simple inventory of the home and its contents, and replace synthetic products with natural ones wherever possible. By ridding the home of some of these culprits, you and your family are bound to breathe easier.

CONTACTS: Environmental Health Network, http://users.lmi.net/wilworks/; Chemical Injury Information Network, www.ciin.org . Seventh Generation, (800) 456-1191, www.seventhgeneration.com ; Earth Friendly Products, (800) 335-3267, www.ecos.com ; Lifekind, www.lifekind.com , (800) 284-4983; Heart of Vermont, (800) 639-4123, www.heartofvermont.com .

Dear EarthTalk: How can I recycle my outdated computer equipment?

—Kenneth Rapp, Toms River, NJ

Computers are infamous for their rapid obsolescence. These days you can expect a new computer to serve you for three to five years at best before "must have" features become available only in newer models. Many companies have "computer graveyards"—rooms filled to the ceiling with outdated computers, printers, monitors, cables and other accessories that are no longer in operation and seemingly have nowhere to go but the junk heap.

It"s no surprise then that more than 10 million computers end up in American landfills every year. But old computer equipment languishing in landfills poses myriad environmental hazards, as many contain toxic compounds that can seep into surrounding land and groundwater. According to USA Today, the average PC contains "five pounds of lead (to protect the user from radiation) in the cathode ray tube monitor alone. Circuit boards typically contain cadmium, mercury and chromium while the whole package is housed in brominated, flame-retardant plastic." The National Safety Council reports that by the end of 2005, 350 million computers will have reached obsolescence, with at least 55 million of them expected to end up in landfills unless recycling increases.

According to Nikki and David Goldbeck"s book, Choose to Reuse, many computers can be saved and don’t need to end up in landfills. The first thing to check is if your old computer can be upgraded; often the substitution of a simple memory chip can make a slowpoke speed up considerably. And RAM memory—provided there are sufficient expansion slots—is getting cheaper all the time.

If an upgrade won’t work, there are alternatives to landfills. Goodwill and The Salvation Army will take working older equipment and re-sell it. "Free Computer" ads can be posted at schools and workplaces. And brokers like American Computer Exchange will take your hardware for trade on a newer model.

Meanwhile, many worthy non-profit groups will make good use of computer equipment outdated for your needs. The National Cristina Foundation places used technology with non-profit organizations and public agencies that serve the disabled and economically disadvantaged. For a more do-it-yourself approach, The Global Crisis Solution Center provides a free online resource hooking up equipment donors with needy non-profits.

Europe is leading the way in keeping computers out of landfills, with all computer manufacturers required to have recycling programs in place. In the U.S., several makers will now recycle or exchange computers, often for a marginal fee. IBM, Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard have all started such programs.

CONTACTS: American Computer Exchange, www.amcoex.com ; National Cristina Foundation, www.cristina.org ; Global Crisis Solution Center, www.globalcrisis.info/computerrecycle.html ; IBM Product Recycling Program, www.ibm.com/ibm/environment/products/prp.shtml ; Dell Recycling, www1.us.dell.com/content/topics/segtopic.aspx/dell_recycling ; Hewlett-Packard Product Recycling, www.hp.com/hpinfo/globalcitizenship/environment/recycle/ .