Is Your Job, Home, or Hobby Affecting Your Health?
Editor’s note: RiskWorld writer Carolyn Evans has delved into a national treasure trove of human health and environmental data at the National Library of Medicine’s TOXNET web site. In this two-part series, her first article introduced new (or overlooked) resources for risk analysts. Here, she highlights databases that are the most accessible and useful for the general public, including hobbyists, consumers, and breast-feeding mothers.
The average consumer may ask how the United States National Library of Medicine could possibly relate to them and why they should access databases of health journals and chemical information. The answer is that unlike typical websites dispensing information, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/ provides unbiased findings—with no commercial bias and no advertising. Consumers can search symptoms, diseases and treatments, or find out about medications that they are taking. They can also find out what’s in their favorite household products, such as glue, cleaners and weed killers and uncover hazards of their work environment.
Stephanie Publicker, a technical information specialist in the Office of Clinical Toxicology in the Specialized Information Services Division of the National Library of Medicine, wants to point out that with a little patience and determination interested members of the public can benefit greatly by learning how to access these databases. She reviewed with RiskWorld three sites in particular are useful for the consumer, hobbyist or homeowner.
“Our resources are not just for professionals,” Publicker emphasized. “Our resources are geared toward risk professionals, but also are intended for the general public and can be of great use, such as our database for breast-feeding mothers or our database on hazardous chemicals in the workplace.”
Publicker’s first pick is one that is useful to homeowners and crafters alike. Some products just seem to do the job better, but knowing what’s in the product may be eye-opening. By going to the Household Products Database (http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov/), consumers can find out all the chemicals in the product and the health ramifications they may have. More than 15,000 brand name products marketed in the United States and beyond are listed in the following categories: Auto Products, Inside the Home, Pesticides, Landscape/Yard, Personal Care, Home Maintenance; Arts & Crafts, Pet Care, Home Office and Commercial/Institutional. The site can answer questions like “Does this product have acute or chronic effects?”
To try the site out for yourself, type “national library of medicine” in your browser. Click on it when it pops up and then select TOXNET. Scroll down to select the Household Products Database and a page will pop up with a search bar at the upper left. You can enter the name of a product you’re about to use, such as the brand name of spray paint. You may find that signs of overexposure to the product’s vapors or mists include headache, dizziness, nausea, and loss of coordination. Depending on the product, you may also learn that reports have associated repeated and prolonged overexposure to solvents with permanent brain and nervous system damage.
Take crafter Joanna Reed, for example. The next time she uses glue, she may want to check to see what’s in the glue she’s using. Recently the high school junior had glue all over her hands as she put the finishing touches on a formal ball gown that she made for a 4-H sewing competition. The tube had warnings: “Avoid breathing vapor or mist,” “Avoid contact with eyes, skin and clothing,” and “Use only with adequate ventilation.” Running out of time and with more than 2,000 hand-cut sequins to attach to the top of the gown, Joanna didn’t take time to read the label. If she or her parents had gone to the Household Products Database, they would have read that the product could cause respiratory tract, eye, and skin irritations.
Reed certainly isn’t the only one getting work done in a hurry. With summer here, thousands of home owners are getting ready for cookouts by cleaning their decks with deck wash. But are they aware that people with heart conditions or obstructive lung disease should not use the product? Or that the product could aggravate chronic respiratory problems such as asthma and emphysema?
Strong bathroom cleaners certainly a wonderful modern invention, but if the vapors seem to bother you, check out the product on the Household Products Database. Shower cleaners may contain chemicals like sodium hypochlorite. By clicking on sodium hypochlorite and scrolling down to Human Toxicity Excerpts, you’ll find that “Exposure to drain and sanitary cleansing vapors containing sodium hypochlorite and sodium hydroxide provoked acute, reversible toxic alopecia.”
You can also take a direct approach at the site. If you already have a medical condition such as asthma, you can simply enter “asthma” in the Quick Search box at http://hpd.nlm.nih.gov. Tons of products pop up that can cause a non-allergic asthmatic reaction, including toilet bowl cleaners, shower cleaners, plant food and wall paint.
Publicker’s next recommendation for the consumer is a database created for a special group of the population–nursing mothers who have to be especially careful about taking in chemicals, whether by mouth or inhalation. The NLM has them covered with LactMed at http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/newtoxnet/lactmed.htm.
“LactMed is one of our most-visited sites,” Publicker said. “We work with a group of doctors on this database, and it’s noteworthy that LactMed is endorsed/highlighted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. We list 800 chemicals and provide information about chemicals and drugs that breastfeeding mothers may use or be exposed to. The information can tell us whether the chemical can be passed on to the baby and whether it has an effect on the infant. It also includes suggestions for alternate drugs if a drug is not recommended.”
For example, a woman who has been prescribed an anti-depressant can find information on whether the drug is passed into the breast milk and whether it has an effect on the infant. If so, are there alternatives the mother can use? Drugs on the site include Advil, which is listed with no adverse effects reported. The anti-seizure medicine Tegretrol, however, does show adverse effects. What about the common antidepressant, Zoloft? An abstract on the site reports that “Most authoritative reviewers consider sertraline [Zoloft] one of the preferred antidepressants during breastfeeding. Mothers taking an SSRI during pregnancy and postpartum may have more difficulty breastfeeding and may need additional breastfeeding support.”
Think your job is killing you? Publicker’s final choice may help. Haz-Map was specially created for employees and hobbyists. At http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov, you’ll find eight categories, all related to job-related risks: hazardous agents, high-risk jobs, occupational diseases, non-occupational activities, industries, job tasks, processes and symptoms/findings.
Users can select from a myriad of jobs, including animal breeders, bakers, dental assistants, electricians, manicurists, police officers and surgeons. To get started investigating a current or prospective job, go to http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/ and enter the job name in the search box. For example, let’s enter “hair stylist.” By clicking on the tab “disease results” on the left, we’ll find four occupational diseases associated with bleaching and dyeing hair: dermatophytosis, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, contact urticaria and bladder cancer.
Let’s say you work in construction and spend a lot of time installing ceramic tile. To see if your job is putting you at risk, go to “Job Tasks”– one of the eight basic choices. Now select “Types of Job Tasks.” Click on “Construction” and select “Grind or cut tiles…” You’ll find one of the hazards of cutting tile is developing chronic bronchitis.
Do you already know you’re working with something dangerous? Go to “hazardous agents,” which, obviously, wants to warn workers about hazardous chemicals they may be exposed to on the job or at the craft table or in the yard. If you already know the type of chemical you’re working with, select it from the list. If not, go to “By processes and adverse effects” and select your activity from the list.
Just want to feel better about your job and go home singing to the radio? See if your job is on the high-risk job site. Count your blessings if it’s not.
Carolyn Evans is a free-lance writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee. She is a columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel and writes feature articles for local newspapers and magazines.