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First Baby Bottles, Now the Furniture?

First a new report raises "some concern" about the safety of BPA, a chemical found in many plastic products, including food containers and baby bottles. Now new research might make you want to throw out your furniture, toss your shampoo and tear the insulation out of your walls.

It's a big study that for the first time finds a possible link between formaldehyde -- which exists in small amounts in lots of household products -- and Lou Gehrig's disease, a progressive, incurable neurological disorder. But before you start ripping your life apart, there are some important caveats:

Marc Weisskopf of the Harvard School of Public Health and his colleagues analyzed data collected from nearly 1 million Americans to get clues about whether something in the environment might play a role in Lou Gehrig's, which is also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. The disease destroys cells in the brain and spinal cord. It's what physicist Stephen Hawking has, and what killed baseball legend Lou Gehrig.

Specifically, Weisskopf wanted to know whether people exposed to pesticides and herbicides are more likely to get Lou Gehrig's. That's what previous research had suggested. Turns out the researchers found no such link.

But people who reported being exposed to formaldehyde were 34 percent more likely to die from Lou Gehrig's. The longer the exposure, the greater the risk. Those who were around formadehyde a lot for more than 10 years were four times as likely to die from ALS as those who had no exposure.

The risk was greatest for people who had a lot of exposure on the job: Lab techs, doctors, veterinarians, dentists, firemen, nurses, photographers, printers and even beauticians. Beauticians may seem strange, but formaldehyde is in many cosmetics and shampoos. It's also in a lot of glues used to make furniture and other household furnishings.

But Weisskopf, who reported his findings yesterday at a meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Chicago, says it's way too soon to panic. The amount of formadehyde in common household products is really low. And since this is the first time this link has been suggested it has to be considered preliminary until confirmed by more research.

That said, there is good reason to avoid formaldehyde. It can trigger asthma attacks and other short-term problems. And the EPA declared the chemical a probable carcinogen.

The truth about toxicology is that the danger presented by a toxin usually depends on its dosage. It may be hard to take a "wait and see" approach, but that's certainly what the science -- so far -- suggests when it comes to formaldehyde and Lou Gehrig's.

By Rob Stein  |  April 17, 2008; 7:10 AM ET
Categories:  Environmental Toxins  
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Next: Know Your Poisons -- And How to Get Rid of Them

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