Washington — The federal government is taking a first step toward a coordinated attack on indoor air pollution. The move has been prompted by years of accumulating fragmentary evidence on the potential health hazards posed by often innocent-looking household items.
Consider the sofa.
If stuffed with urea-formaldehyde, this symbol of comfort and hospitality can also be a source of toxic formaldehyde gas. For that matter, so can plywood. In fact, scores of household and industrial items are known to taint the air.
Experts say the problem is more serious in newer, tightly built structures where the gases have a chance to collect, rather than in drafty old buildings.
Scientists and policymakers have not decided what constitutes a safe level of indoor air pollution.
This is one reason why new efforts stress further research on the subject instead of formulating federal regulations. Government officials expect current research efforts to lead to specific federal action, perhaps as early as next year.
``The level of public consciousness is being raised, that's part of the battle,'' says Charles Elkin, acting assistant administrator for air and radiation at the Environmental Protection Agency. ``Now we have to develop a total strategy that would spell out what the EPA might do, and what individuals, cities, and states should do.''
Congress is considering legislation to provide money for a sweeping research program into the causes and cures of indoor air pollution. EPA officials are drafting a report for agency administrator Lee Thomas which will detail the specific steps of a ``total strategy'' against indoor air pollutants.
The stakes involved were highlighted recently when the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources discovered that unsafe levels of radon, a naturally occurring form of radiation, had collected inside 40 percent of the homes around the area of Boyertown, Pa. In one home, state officials calculated that residents had been exposed to the equivalent of 455,000 chest X-rays each over a period of a year.
The radon problem does not stop at Boyertown, nor does the indoor air-pollution problem stop with radon. The EPA study estimates that 1 million homes may trap dangerous levels of radon gas and blames the situation for as many as 20,000 terminal lung-cancer incidents in the US each year. But the study also claims that vapors from chemical solvents in the home, for example, posed a greater hazard to human health than those in the air around the chemical plants that manufactured them because at home, the s olvents often are used in an enclosed area.
In fact, say experts, the most ordinary household items can pose major health hazards under certain conditions. Wood stoves, gas cook stoves, and kerosene heaters can pump voluminous quantities of nitrogen dioxide into a room. Asbestos around boilers and pipes can loosen and become a serious health hazard. Indoor pesticides can also be dangerous. And bricks and stone emit radon.
There are steps people can take to find out whether their homes and offices pose a risk, and then, if necessary, to combat the problem.
The EPA's Elkin notes that inexpensive home radon detectors will soon be on the market. In addition, the ranks of consultants specializing in air-quality testing are growing.
If homeowners do discover dangerous levels of a contaminant, such as radon, relatively simple steps -- improving ventilation, removing airborne dust -- are said to eliminate the problem.
``Indoor air pollution can be licked by individuals,'' says Richard Ross, president of Ross Systems Inc., a New Jersey air-quality consultant company. Ross Systems has seen its clients jump from five to 50 in three years.
Of the $35 million earmarked for a global study on air pollution in the White House's proposed 1986 budget, only $1 million is sought for research on indoor air.
Some critics, such as Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D) of California, charge that the administration is deliberately attempting to divert attention from industrial polluters with a new emphasis on indoor air, as exemplified by the EPA efforts. But many consumer groups and other congressional critics accuse the administration of dragging its feet on indoor air-pollution issues.
``It's part of a deliberate policy by an administration that has accumulated a hostility to environmental issues across the board,'' says Sen. George J. Mitchell (D) of Maine, coauthor of the proposed Indoor Air Quality Act.
The measure calls for further examination of the hazards of radon and other indoor air pollutants.
While agreeing that ``we need further research to assess the extent of the problem and evaluate what control legislation is appropriate,'' Senator Mitchell complains that EPA efforts to exercise modest controls are thwarted by the tight-money policy of the Office of Management and Budget.
The EPA's Elkin, however, points out that some precautions are already being taken by manufacturers of potentially hazardous goods. Pesticides carry warning labels by federal law. He also notes a greater awareness among builders of the dangers involved in designing tight homes to save energy.