Lung Disease

Homes and office buildings often contain high levels of substances which may increase the risk of lung disease, participants of the Second International Symposium on Indoor Air Pollution held in Amherst concluded last week.

Five hundred scientists and policy analysts attended the symposium, organized by the Kennedy School of Government and the School of Public Health, to discuss a wide range of problems that may become more apparent as people reduce indoor-outdoor air exchange flows in an effort to conserve energy.

Radon and formaldehyde are two of the gases that most concern environmental researchers, Ken Sexton, doctoral candidate at the School of Public Health who attended the symposium, said Monday. Radon, which accumulates when many building materials--particularly granite--disintegrate, is a suspected carcinogen. Formaldehyde is a component of an easily installed foam insulation product which Massachusetts and some other states have banned.

Sexton added that the most controversial topic taken up at the conference was the relationship between gas cooking and respiratory health. Some studies have linked the presence of gas stoves in homes and reduced lung function in children. Nitrogen dioxide, one of the by-products of gas combustion, has long been thought the causative agent.

But John D. Spengler, in a paper presented at the symposium, found no correlation between measured nitrogen dioxide levels and lung function. "This is not conclusive, as it was based on a small sample size," Sexton said, adding also that it did not preclude the possibility that short-term, "peak exposures" to the gas might be harmful.


Spengler was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Another important category of pollutants brought up at the conference was aerosols, tiny particles usually associated with household cleaning and personal care products and with tobacco smoke. Certain particles originally thought to come from outside air, like aluminum, might originate indoors instead.

More research on indoor pollution is possible, but money for that research will be hard to come by in the United States. Funding is being "cut to the bone," Sexton said, and indoor pollution will be lumped in the broad category of "human exposures studies."

Joan P. Curhan, Research Administrator at the Kennedy School's Energy and Environmental Policy Center, said that this contrasts sharply with Scandinavian countries where the government plays "a large role in public policy regulation." The Scandinavian countries, more advanced than the United States in indoor pollution study, were heavily represented at the symposium.

The first symposium of this kind took place in 1978 in Copenhagen, and Curhan said the "great success" of the second insures there will be more in the years to come.

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