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Sunday, July 29, 2001

The makings of a home, sick home

Staff writer

Air pollution isn't restricted to areas with factories and heavy traffic. Though it may nestle in a rural idyll, your home itself could be a potent source of potentially harmful chemicals.

The phenomenon of "sick-house syndrome," caused by exposure to volatile chemicals given off by building materials, first came to public attention in the 1980s. However it is only in the past decade that it has become a serious concern, as more people complain of ailments that seem to be related to their living environment. According to the National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan, the number of inquiries related to sick-house syndrome jumped from 11 in 1989 to 263 last year.

Symptoms vary. The most frequently reported is eye irritation developed while living in newly built or purchased houses. Headaches, sore throats, itchy skin, heavy coughing and fatigue are also commonly cited conditions.

Experts see a link between these health problems and excessive exposure to, or absorption of, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in solvents, adhesives and pesticides. However, due to widespread ignorance of the syndrome, even among doctors, many believe the true number of sufferers could be far higher.

While the symptoms have yet to be officially recognized as constituting a specific illness, late last year the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry set guideline upper limits for the indoor concentration of eight VOCs, including formaldehyde -- which is believed to be the chief cause of the syndrome -- toluene and xylene.

"The guidelines will eventually list about 50 potentially harmful chemicals that may be given off by building materials," said Koichi Ikeda, director of the Architectural Hygiene Engineering and Housing Department of the Institute of Public Health in Tokyo. "But it may take about five more years to complete this project."

One possible cause of the rising number of people complaining of the syndrome stems from the airtight nature of newer Japanese houses. While they are more energy-efficient, these properties almost invariably have little natural ventilation. Compared with prewar houses, about 90 percent less air is ventilated in such houses, Ikeda pointed out. "That means, if pollution occurs inside these houses, the concentration of polluted air could be 10 times higher [than that of traditional Japanese houses]," he said.

Meanwhile, since the 1960s construction materials and synthetic materials containing VOCs have steadily become more common in apartment buildings and houses in line with the trend toward mass-produced, cheap standardized housing.

Despite the government initiative to set ceilings on harmful indoor VOC levels, much work remains to be done. According to a survey released by the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry in May, the density of formaldehyde, which is used in a wide range of adhesives and bonded wood such as plywood and flooring, surpassed the guideline figure of 0.08 ppm (parts per million) in 27 percent of some 4,500 houses examined across the country.

Hiroyuki Uehara, representative of the Osaka-based Sick-House o Kangaeru Kai (Sick-House Syndrome Group), says Japan should introduce diagnostic guidelines for the syndrome so that it can be socially recognized as a sickness. This step would then put pressure on the government to tighten regulations on building materials and housing construction.

Also, he said recognition of the syndrome as an illness would help plaintiffs in lawsuits demanding compensation from negligent construction companies -- so discouraging them from using potentially harmful chemicals.

"Once the syndrome is recognized as a disease," Uehara says, "I expect a great step forward because it will not only help sufferers but also prompt the construction industry to take this problem seriously."

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