'Buttoned up' homes: polluted air?

According to the National Research Council (NRC), one of the more polluted environments in America may be your home. Indoor pollution is reaching levels that make it a matter "of immediate and great concern," warns a new report of the council. Indeed, with ventilation restricted by the tightening up of buildings to save energy, "indoor pollution levels regularly occur at levels above those permitted by law in the outdoor air ," says an NRC announcement of the study.

As the NRC notes, the need for such standards is urgent. Besides such obvious contaminants as tobacco smoke and cooking odors, indoor pollutants range over a variety of dangerous chemicals, many released by furniture or carpeting. They include the radioactive gas radon, released naturally from soil and some building materials, or the toxic chemical formaldehyde. In kitchens with unvented gas stoves, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels can significantly exceed outdoor standards.

Thus the NRC -- the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences -- adds a sense of urgency in warning of a largely unnoticed danger about which concern has been growing among pollution experts in recent years.

This latest report, prepared for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), follows similar warnings last year from the General Accounting Office (GAO) and the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), both of which are agencies of Congress. Its significance lies not so much in the fact that yet another prestigious agency has raised the warning as in its being a prod to the EPA to begin to do something effective about it.

As with the earlier studies, this one notes that experts are handicapped by a lack of adequate scientific and technology knowledge. Few systematic studies have been made in the detail necessary to define the problem adequately and to set standards for proper building ventilation and control of indoor pollution sources.

The main roadblock to conducting such studies and setting needed standards is the lack of a clear mandate for any one federal agency to take the lead. This has led to small, piecemeal efforts that have led nowhere, as the GAO, OTA, and now the NRC all point out.

At this point it is too early to know what the EPA response will be. Spokesmen point out the agency has not yet had time to study the report adequately. But it may mean asking Congress for a legislative mandate to conduct broad research and set some standards in this field at a time when antiregulation sentime nt runs high in Washington.

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