SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ention "environmental toxins" and you'll find that many people think about the need to banish spewing smokestacks, polluted bays and eye-stinging smog.

All noble efforts to be sure, but anyone committed to cleaning up the environment and preservinghealth should also look closer to home.

"Levels of pollution indoors can be higher than outdoors," said Jed Waldman, chief of the Indoor Air Quality Program for the California Department of Health Services.

Over the years, indoor pollution, which can lead to health problems or aggravate existing conditions, has become a growing concern.

The increase in indoor pollutants, Waldman said, is caused by a number of factors, including the release of irritating chemicals from pressed wood furniture, which has become more common, and from carpets.

Homeowners' overuse of pesticides and cleaning products can contribute to indoor pollution too. Carbon monoxide leaking from gas appliances is yet another pollutant. And spores from mold growth can pollute as they make people with allergies and asthma miserable.

It doesn't take many sources of pollution to turn good air into bad quickly.

"If you have a gas stove, a fireplace and a teenager who uses personal care products to excess, you have high pollution," Waldman said.

The air in your home can become even more polluted depending on your decorating and remodeling choices and your cleaning habits.

The good news: Minimizing indoor pollution is relatively simple and inexpensive--if you know the risks and how to reduce them. Sometimes, it can be as straightforward as choosing the right carpet or the right wood product.

Here, home safety experts zero in on the worst pollutants and how to minimize exposure:

* Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs.

Found in carpets, paints, stains and other products, volatile organic compounds are organic chemicals emitted into the atmosphere.

That "new carpet" smell so loved by some consumers indicates that the carpet is giving off VOCs, which can make some people sneeze and sniffle for weeks or even months.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that there's no proven cause-and-effect relationship between carpet emissions and such symptoms, its officials have been communicating with the carpet industry on how to reduce VOCs.

One solution is the industry's "green label" program. Consumers can shop for carpet that has been tested for lower levels of VOCs by the Carpet and Rug Institute's indoor air-quality carpet testing and labeling program.

The products have met the testing standards of the institute, based in Dalton, Ga., the national trade association for the carpet and rug industry, and carry a label with "CRI" inside a house icon.

"It's a voluntary program in which carpet manufacturers sign up to have the product tested quarterly," said Marilyn Black, chief scientist for Air Quality Sciences, an Atlanta company that conducts the testing.

Cushions, carpet adhesives and carpet seam sealers can also be submitted for testing.

Consumers can also take some simple measures to reduce VOCs in carpets. "Ask the seller to air it out for a few days so some of the chemicals disperse," suggested David Dyjack, chairman of the department of environmental and occupational health at Loma Linda University.

When buying paints and stains, look for labels that describe a "clean air formula" and state that the product has a low VOC content.

Even when using a low-VOC product, be sure to have adequate ventilation. If possible, block off other parts of the house from the painted area by using blankets or sheeting over doorways.

After painting, "the most important thing to do is to vent the space as much as possible," Waldman says. "The worst emission for paints and stains occurs during the first 24 to 48 hours." Emissions normally continue for a couple of days.

* Formaldehydes.

A colorless gas with a pungent odor at room temperature, formaldehyde is found in wood products commonly used in homes.

Adhesives in wood products contain either urea-formaldehyde, or UF, resins, commonly found in particle board for subflooring, hardwood plywood paneling and medium-density fiberboard, or they contain phenol-formaldehyde, or PF, resins, found in soft plywood and other products meant for exterior use.

The PF resin woods generally emit lower levels of formaldehyde, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even short-term exposure to elevated levels of formaldehyde can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat along with respiratory symptoms, according to the EPA.

Female workers exposed over time have reported menstrual disorders and pregnancy problems.

Some people develop a sensitivity to formaldehyde, and it may cause lung and other cancers, according to the EPA. Exposure can also trigger attacks in people with asthma.

The EPA considers levels elevated at 0.1 parts per million, and the California EPA has set an even more stringent standard, 0.05 parts per million.

Mobile homes often have higher levels, said Waldman of the California Department of Health Services, because of the amount of wood products and the relatively confined space.

Coating wood products with polyurethane can reduce emissions, experts say.

* Molds.

Molds are mistakenly considered more of a nuisance than a health threat. "Any time mold is growing in a home, it is not a good thing for your health," Dyjack said.

In the early '90s, a slimy black household mold called stachybotrys was linked to the deaths of dozens of Midwestern babies who developed a bleeding lung illness.

Experts disagree about whether the mold is definitely the culprit but agree that any household mold should be eliminated, especially if some residents are sensitive, because the spores can aggravate allergies and asthma.

Dr. Jennifer Derebery, an ear and allergy specialist at House Ear Clinic and Institute in Los Angeles, commonly asks her allergic patients about their home environments, always alert to the possibility that mold (as well as carpetings or wood products) could be making them miserable.

Even a short exposure to water can cause mold growth and subsequent health problems, as one of Derebery's patients can attest.

A Newport Beach woman sought care from Derebery in January 1998, after an El Nin~o storm flooded her home and she developed a stubborn case of bronchitis.

The woman and her husband had bailed the water and ripped up the soaked carpet as soon as possible. Even so, an inspector told them that mold was growing under the baseboard and inside one wall to a height of 30 inches.

After the mold was eliminated, the bronchitis finally subsided.

To get rid of mold, first clean it out and then disinfect the area with a mixture of one part bleach, nine parts water, Dyjack advised, adding, "Keep it wet with that solution for about 20 minutes." Wearing a respiratory mask during mold cleanup is advised.

To keep mold away, be sure excess moisture is at a minimum. In the bathroom, an exhaust fan will help draw up excess moisture, in turn minimizing mold, but only if it's working properly.

"Some are wired backward," Dyjack said. To test it, light a match, turn on the fan, and then blow out the match. "If the smoke gets sucked up, it's working properly," Dyjack said "If the smoke falls downward, call the electrician and have it rewired."

* Pesticides.

"Don't spray [for pests] by the calendar," suggested Glenn Brank, a spokesman for the California EPA's Department of Pesticide Regulation, who says over-application of pesticides is a common mistake.

"Rather than simply spray just because it is spring and you think bugs might start arriving, take a look around. Don't use pesticides if you don't need them."

Improper use of pesticides can cause skin irritation, nose and eye irritation and breathing problems.

When buying pesticides, look for labels saying the products is approved by the EPA. They also must have EPA registration numbers.

To keep pests at bay, Brank added: "Don't leave food lying around. Keep a clean house. Keep debris, leaves and other hiding places for pests cleared from around the outside of the house."

* Carbon monoxide.

Earlier this year, the recall of a million carbon monoxide alarms by Kidde Safety Co. increased awareness of carbon monoxide poisoning. More than 200 people in the United States are killed each year by carbon monoxide poisoning, and more than 5,000 are sent to the hospital for emergency treatment of nausea, vomiting and dizziness.

When completing a routine heating and air-conditioning check, homeowners often request the complimentary inspections provided by the gas company.

But if you still suspect a problem after the initial inspection, investigate further. "Sometimes the carbon monoxide won't show itself with one quick spot check," Dyjack said.

If you're still concerned, Dyjack suggested asking the company or your furnace service person to return and inspect again after the heater has been running a while.

Recently, he was asked to evaluate a San Bernardino co-op after one resident complained of classic symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Inspections by the gas company and the Fire Department just as the furnace was turned on did not reveal a problem.

Finally, the resident went to the doctor, who asked if she felt better while away from home. That led to a more thorough inspection, in which Dyjack monitored the site for 24 hours.

"It was only after [David] Dyjack did the 24-hour test that they proved it was a carbon monoxide leak," the resident said. And his thoroughness, she added, saved her life.

Kathleen Doheny is a Los Angeles freelance writer.

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Help at Your Fingertips

Toll-free numbers, Web sites and free brochures sponsored by government agencies and industry organizations provide a wealth of information to consumers who want to minimize household hazards.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (http://www.cpsc.gov) maintains a hotline, (800) 638-2772, for consumers to report problems with products or to ask about recalls.

The California Department of Health Services Indoor Air Quality Program (http://www.cal-iaq.org) maintains an assistance line, (510) 540-2476.

The California Department of Pesticide Regulation posts consumer information at its Web site (http://www.cdpr.ca.gov).

The American Industrial Hygiene Assn. ( http://www.aiha.org ) posts brochures on how to select an indoor air quality consultant, how to determine if indoor air quality is a problem in the home, how to detect carbon monoxide and other topics.

The Carpet and Rug Institute ( http://www.carpet-rug.com ) can provide information via its toll-free number, (800) 882-8846, on the "green label" program for consumers.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintains an Indoor Air Quality Information Clearinghouse, (800) 438-431, and posts consumer information on its Web site ( http://www.epa.gov ).

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine posts information on its Web site ( http://www.acoe.org ).

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Do You Need a Specialist?

Indoor air quality consultants can help owners pinpoint a problem. But hiring one is usually necessary only for an emergency or extreme hazard situation, says Ed Light, an indoor air quality .consultant in Ashton, Md., who has supervised or conducted more than 600 such investigations during his career.

"If someone is experiencing a change in health status [and suspects a household toxin], the best place to start is with a physician visit. If necessary, go on to a specialist to see if the symptoms are likely from an environmental cause or not."

Homeowners who do decide to hire a consultant should know that they vary in training and experience. Some are trained in architecture, heating and ventilation, toxicology, occupational health, industrial hygiene and other areas.

To find a consultant, ask for a referral from a building contractor or e-mail or telephone the American Industrial Hygiene Assn., http://www.aiha.org or (703) 849-8888, and you will be sent a list of consultants.

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