Most research into effects of residential exposures on respiratory health has focused on allergens, moisture/mold, endotoxin, or combustion products. A growing body of research from outside the US; however, has associated chemical emissions from common indoor materials with risk of asthma, allergies, and pulmonary infections. This review summarizes 21 studies in the epidemiologic literature on associations between indoor residential chemical emissions, or emission-related materials or activities, and respiratory health or allergy in infants or children. Associations, some strong, were reported between many risk factors and respiratory or allergic effects. Risk factors identified most frequently included formaldehyde or particleboard, phthalates or plastic materials, and recent painting. Findings for other risk factors, such as aromatic and aliphatic chemical compounds, were limited but suggestive. Elevated risks were also reported for renovation and cleaning activities, new furniture, and carpets or textile wallpaper. Reviewed studies were entirely observational, limited in size, and variable in quality, and specific risk factors identified may only be indicators for correlated, truly causal exposures. Nevertheless, overall evidence suggests a new class of residential risk factors for adverse respiratory effects, ubiquitous in modern residences, and distinct from those currently recognized. It is important to confirm and quantify any risks, to motivate and guide necessary preventive actions.
Practical implications: Composite wood materials that emit formaldehyde, flexible plastics that emit plasticizers, and new paint have all been associated with increased risks of respiratory and allergic health effects in children. Although causal links have not been documented, and other correlated indoor-related exposures may ultimately be implicated, these findings nevertheless point to a new class of little recognized indoor risk factors for allergic and respiratory disease, distinct from the current set of indoor risk factors. The available evidence thus raises initial questions about many common residential practices: for instance, using pressed wood furnishings in children's bedrooms, repainting infant nurseries, and encasing mattresses and pillows with vinyl for asthmatic children. The findings summarized here suggest a need for substantially increased research to replicate these findings, identify causal factors, and validate preventive strategies.