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Since World War II, the chemical industry has been churning out supremely useful, long-lasting, synthetic chemicals by the tens of thousands—as many as 80,000 compounds, most that could never occur naturally. Manufacturers have put billions of tons of them to use in myriad ways—preventing your mattress or sofa from bursting into flames when you fall asleep with a cigarette; keeping your coffeemaker, television, laptop and stereo from overheating and becoming fire hazards; helping your raincoat shed rain and your upholstery shrug off spills; providing lightweight, unbreakable jugs for your milk and squeezable tubes for your toothpaste; grease-proofing the liners of oily, bagged dog food, and keeping the kibble from turning rancid during the long months it may sit in that bag. The list is endless.

Only a very few of these chemicals are adequately tested for safety before being put into general use. Indeed, the free market system for judging new compounds seems to be “innocent until proven guilty.” Thirty years after they first went into use, PBDEs are finally receiving appropriate scrutiny. The European Union has phased out the use of two of the three commercial mixtures of PBDEs in new products, and limited use of the third formulation. Manufacturers in the U.S. have voluntarily stopped producing those two and use is being phased out nationwide as stocks are used up. Unfortunately, manufacture and use of a third PBDE mixture is still completely unregulated in all states except Washington and Maine. And because sofas and televisions aren’t something one replaces frequently, products containing PBDEs will be sitting around in our houses for many years to come.

The sad truth is that the typical American household is awash in synthetic industrial chemicals—as are you, and as is your dog. It’s enough to make you want to bury your head in the sand. But who knows what’s in sand these days? And pessimism won’t get us far. Better to roll up your sleeves and apply a little elbow grease to the problem.

There’s a lot you can do to reduce your household’s burden of indoor pollutants. As you replace furniture and rugs, choose new ones made of wool, hemp, cotton and other naturally more flame-resistant materials, and check manufacturers’ websites to find out whether these products have been made or treated with flame retardants and stain repellants. Frankly, this won’t always be easy, but it should become increasingly more so as the market for such products develops.

Ditto electronic equipment: Some manufacturers’ websites claim their products don’t use PBDEs; consider these when shopping for electronics.

Here are a few more tips.

•Don’t use pans with non-stick coatings. There’s still a lot of controversy about this, but old-fashioned cast iron is looking better and better.
•Grease-proof linings on dog food bags may be a significant dietary source of PFCs. Look for dog food bagged with untreated aluminum foil liners, if possible.
•Toss those plastic dog dishes, especially the water dish, and replace them with stainless steel.
•Don’t use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides, or use them only sparinglyand after all else has failed.
•Use nontoxic household cleansers and polishes.
•Look up the Maine and Washington state bills phasing out PBDEs and consider working to get similar legislation passed in your state.
•And here’s the depressing finale: vacuum, vacuum, vacuum. While you’re at it, experts recommend, dust once a week with a damp cloth. Less dust equals lower exposure for all household members, no matter how you cut it.

 

Because this isn’t just about our dogs and cats—it’s about all of us.

 

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 52: Jan/Feb 2009
Susan McGrath lives in Seattle and writes for Audubon, Smithsonian, National Geographic and other magazines.

Illustration by John Hersey

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