Safety…Not Quite First

SafetyNot Quite First

Some rules are not meant to be broken.

Over the holidays my husband needed to treat a small piece of wood with a spray shellac. It was raining outside and he couldn’t wait for the weather to clear, so he decided to do the spraying in our basement. The instructions on the can cautioned against use in enclosed spaces, but he was only spraying a piece of wood the size of a hockey puck. If he gave it a quick spritz and then bolted upstairs, that wouldn’t be a problem, right?


He took a deep breath, spritzed, ran up the stairs, and took another breath after he closed the basement door. Almost immediately he had a searing headache.

Looking back, his mistake is obvious: Spray particles must have adhered to his clothing, so even though he quickly fled the basement, his clothes picked up just enough acetone, ethanol, propane, and n-butane (I’m reading from the contents of the can) to aggravate his system.

But he was fortunate. A little more exposure and he could have easily developed something much worse: a case of chemical pneumonia.

Sign of the times

I thought there were only two types of pneumonia – viral and bacterial. But it appears that inhalation of chemical fumes can also prompt pneumonia-like lung inflammation.

According to an article in the New York Times, that’s what happened to a Michigan woman last summer when she applied a water repellent spray to a tent in her back yard. (Note that she didn’t try this in her basement!) But in spite of using the product outdoors, as instructed, she ended up in the intensive care unit.

The problem here wasn’t just inhalation of chemicals, it was inhalation of one specific chemical called fluoropolymer, which happens to be a common active ingredient in waterproofing sprays. Toxicology specialists estimate that thousands of people have suffered serious respiratory problems while using fluoropolymer water repellants.

Toxicologist Henry A. Spiller – the director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center – told the Times that he and others have called on the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to investigate the dangers of fluoropolymer. But he says there’s no interest. “When we talk to them, we get no action.”

Different singer same old tune

So why does the CPSC neglect the fluoropolymer issue? When the Times checked with the agency to get some answers, CPSC spokesperson Julie Vallese stated that budget constraints have prevented the agency from pursuing adverse reports about fluoropolymer.

Let’s see – a government agency responsible for ensuring public safety, but it doesn’t receive enough funds, so citizens are put at risk. Gee, that sounds familiar!

Earlier this month I told you how a lack of funding at the FDA has left the agency in shambles, with an outdated computer system, understaffed departments, and cutbacks in safety oversight. A recent FDA report states that an inability to keep pace with scientific advances “means that American lives are at risk.”

Apparently this may be a systemic problem throughout our government. Public safety? That’s a back burner issue. Meanwhile, in its most recent appropriations bill, congress earmarked billions of dollars for pork barrel projects that include a prison museum and a sailing school. Sure, museums are interesting and sailing is fun, but there are HUMAN LIVES at risk out here!

If you live in South Carolina, Nevada, Florida, Maine, or in any of the other states where primaries are coming up, and if you should cross paths with one of the presidential hopefuls, please pose this question: When is our government going to make public safety a priority rather than an afterthought?

“State Health Officials Fault Lack of Federal Action on Waterproofing Sprays” Eric Lipton, The New York Times, 12/29/07,