The Consumer Product Safety Commission is unnecessarily leaving the American public at risk through its failure to properly investigate a long-running series of lung injuries tied to widely available waterproofing sprays, public health officials from several states say.
The complaint concerns inexpensive sprays sold nationwide that rely on a water-repelling ingredient that contains a Teflon-like chemical known as a fluoropolymer.
Because the chemical resin is not considered hazardous at this concentration, federal laws do not require that spray-can labels mention its presence, and typically they do not, said Susan Smolinske, a professor of toxicology at Wayne State University in Detroit and the director of a Michigan regional poison control center.
But in the past several years, thousands of consumers are likely to have suffered respiratory problems - including shortness of breath, persistent cough and, in some cases, long-term lung injuries - after using these waterproofing sprays, Smolinske said, citing a smaller number of reports filed with poison control centers.
Most often, the ailment, which is typically diagnosed as chemical pneumonitis, is not life threatening, and it does not appear to be permanent. But in many cases it results in trips to emergency rooms because the resin, once inhaled, can cause inflammation in the lungs, preventing a person from getting enough oxygen.
"Am I like imagining this?" Chrisanne Zolnierek, 49, of Saginaw, Mich., recalled thinking when she had trouble breathing last summer after using Kenyon Water Repellent on a tent she had set up in her yard.
Zolnierek ended up in the intensive care unit instead of on a Boy Scout trip with her 11-year-old son, she said.
In October 2006, the director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, Janet Olszewski, wrote to Nancy Nord, acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, urging her to address the public health issue, one of several such requests.
Henry Spiller, a toxicologist and the director of the Kentucky Regional Poison Center in Louisville, who also has urged the agency to investigate, said: "There really has been no interest or effort to investigate the root cause of this. When we talk to them, we get no action."
Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the product safety commission, said the agency had received such requests and agreed that the topic merited attention. But a shortage of money has prevented it from doing the work, Vallese said.
Congress increased the agency's budget by nearly 30 percent before adjourning this year. New money may allow research on the products, Vallese said.
"The agency shares the concern of those people on the front line," she said, referring to emergency room doctors and staffs at poison control centers.
In recent years, the illnesses have been associated with a range of waterproofing products besides Kenyon Water Repellent, including Jobsite Heavy Duty Bootmate, Rocky Boot Weather and Stain Protector, and Stand 'n Seal grout sealer.
Of those products, the Consumer Product Safety Commission has issued a recall on only one, Stand 'n Seal, which had been involved in the most severe injuries, including two deaths.
Two of the others, Jobsite and Rocky Boot, were removed from sale last year at the request of Michigan officials.
No one has an accurate count of how many consumers are sickened each year as a result of these sprays. The illnesses are often not attributed to the sprays or recorded properly by poison control centers, preventing a reliable tally, health officials said.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.