Favored Floor Product Blamed for High Asthma Rates in a Jewish Community

Vol. 17 •Issue 4 • Page 28
Favored Floor Product Blamed for High Asthma Rates in a Jewish Community

Visit any unit in this area’s many 10-story apartment buildings and your eyes might land first on the hardwood floors and the wonderful sheen they cast. It comes from what families here call “moisture cure.” The actual chemical compound, moisture-cured urethane (MCU), is an industrial wood floor resurfacing product used in public facilities such as bowling alleys and basketball courts.

MCU is beautiful to the eye but toxic to the airways when first applied, especially the airways of children who abound in this community of large families. Health officials know this. They have documented that MCU, as it cures and dries, emits chemical vapors, including toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a possible carcinogen and one of the most common causes of occupational asthma. Many New York City apartment building managers know it too, and banned its use years ago. And more than anyone else, Rabbi Lipa Sofer knows it.

“This chemical is used in every single house once every two years,” Sofer, 35, said. “It gives the strongest, most beautiful shine to their house floors, but they are not knowing how harmful this is to them. Seventy percent of families in Hasidic communities have nebulizers for some of their kids. This is a thousand times worse than second-hand (cigarette) smoke.”

Apparently, word of mouth has promulgated the widespread use of this product, said Karen Marienau, MD, a medical officer in exposure investigations with the agency for toxic substances and disease registry, a sister agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“All apartments have wooden floors, and people are very proud of having nice-looking homes, including shiny, well-finished floors,” she said. “It’s very important culturally. MCU is very durable in addition to leaving a nice high gloss. It seems to have been passed along by word of mouth and taken hold there.”


News of MCU’s dangers has yet to penetrate this insular community that chooses to seal itself off from the secular ambiguities of the outside world. So the use of MCU persists, ingrained here as a cultural emblem.

“This community, they don’t read English newspapers, don’t have TV. They have no access to the outside world,” Sofer said. “These people don’t know about this chemical. They only see what they see in their local Yiddish newspapers. They say, ‘If this chemical is dangerous, the government would have taken it off the shelf.'”

For a year-and-a-half, Sofer has fought a one-man crusade to rid his community of MCU in favor of less harsh polyurethane finishes. He says his non-profit organization, Healthy Environment and Safety Solution, has spent nearly $90,000 placing ads in every Jewish newspaper in the area.

Largely through the rabbi’s efforts, Marienau and other environmental scientists will join with city and state health officials starting this week to monitor the extent of toxic off-gassing from MCU.

At Sofer’s urging, the New York City Department of Health has already done a preliminary air sampling in one apartment and found that some chemicals were off-gassing to the outside. “They established an exposure pathway where other people in the building could be exposed to some of these chemical vapors,” said Marienau, a medical officer in the Exposure Investigation section of the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“We evaluated their work and decided that, yes, this is something we should pursue.”


The team will monitor not only levels of TDI but also levels of two volatile organic compounds: ethylbenzene and three isomers of xylenes. “Some research articles suggest they might be related to asthma in children,” Marienau said. “They irritate the respiratory tract, and they have neurological effects. But generally they are not considered toxic in the same way as TDI.”

TDI is found in floor sealants and some paints. Millions of pounds a year are produced and sold worldwide. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopted standards for its use years ago.

Children may be particularly susceptible to the effects of both TDI and VOCs because these chemicals are heavier than air and tend to sink to lower levels, thereby exposing young children to higher concentrations, she said. Also, children have faster respiratory rates than adults, a much larger surface-to-body-weight ratio (more area for dermal absorption) and less mature immune and nervous systems.

“People who apply it are at risk if they don’t wear their respirators, coveralls and gloves, because TDI does absorb into the skin,” she said. “Once it dries and cures, everything suggests that’s the end of the concern because it is then inert. One of the things we’re trying to determine is, how long does it continue to off-gas after it’s applied to the floor? It is supposed to cure within 48 hours. We want to establish that.”


Sofer believes moisture cure’s dangers last far longer. “Up to a year, this product causes these symptoms,” he said. “We see clearly that children with no history of asthma, wheezing, eczema or allergies, as soon as someone starts using it in a building, have problems.”

The rabbi is an inexhaustible font of anecdotal evidence about MCU’s hazards. He tells of a mother whose child wheezed for three months, despite going through several nebulizer prescriptions. Her application of MCU to her floors coincided exactly with her child’s travails. When the woman found temporary quarters in an MCU-free apartment, her child’s symptoms vanished. Moving back home, his wheezing resumed the second night.

Another harried parent was inundated with wheezing, eczema and ear infections in his seven children, going through nebs, visiting doctors and ambulance trips to the ER. Last summer, he took his family to upstate New York for nine weeks, and every one of his children stabilized. Returning to Williamsburg, he moved his family into a new three-family house, and obtained assurances from the other occupants that they would not use MCU. For a year, all was well. Then a neighbor coated one small room two floors above. The father noticed the terrible, telltale smell of MCU, but the neighbor denied using it. Searching the trash, the father discovered otherwiseÉa can of MCU.

“Now, people still want to use MCU, but they are scared of their neighbors’ reactions,” Sofer said. “So manufactures are taking the labels off polyurethane and pasting then onto cans of MCU.”


Health officials don’t subscribe to all the Rabbi’s claims. For instance, he blames the chemical for miscarriages and cancer.

“If it’s inert, there is no problem,” Marienau said. “We know TDI is classified as a possible human carcinogen. But that applies more to someone working with that chemical. Xylene is not classified as a human carcinogen due to insufficient data. The International agency for research on cancer lists ethylbenzene as a possible human carcinogen.

Likewise, other predominantly Hasidic neighborhoods, such as Borough Park in Brooklyn, where the use of moisture cure is presumably just as ingrained, have lower asthma rates than Williamsburg, according to NYC Health Department surveys.

The rabbi counters that people in Borough Park are more educated to the dangers of MCU and use it far less. Furthermore, he said, Williamsburg consists mainly of attached housing and MCU’s toxic fumes can penetrate brick walls. Borough Park, by contrast, features unattached housing, with plenty of air between. Plus Borough Park has mainly two- and three-family houses. It’s far easier to alert three families that you intend to use MCU then to alert 50.

“(Williamsburg) is composed of all multi-family dwellings,” Marienau agreed. “Hasidic residents here have large families; they average 7 to 11 children. If they were only single family dwellings, it probably wouldn’t be an issue. But when one family applies the moisture cure urethane, they know to leave for a week. Other families in the building don’t leave and suffer adverse effects.”

It’s “frankly unbearable to be in an apartment where this is being used,” added Chris D’Andrea, MS, CIH, a certified industrial hygienist with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who will participate in the monitoring project this week.

“It is irritating and has a strong noticeable odor that can permeate to other units in the building. By the time (other families) notice the product’s smell, it’s hard to make alternative living arrangements by then.

“We want to see people move away from using this product, especially people who live in multi-family buildings. We would encourage any community using this product to consider alternatives that are safer,” such as oil- and water-based polyurethanes. These, too, should be used with caution, he added: they also contain solvents that off-gas until drying and hardening is complete.


Once testing is done, a summary of the report will be translated into Yiddish and distributed throughout the community, D’Andrea said. And a community meeting will be held in Williamsburg to discuss the findings publicly.

But Sofer moves faster. In the last seven months, he brought together all the community’s rabbinical leaders and had physicians explain the facts about MCU to them. As a result, rabbinical leaders are set to issue a ban on the product.

Not to be outdone, Councilman David Yassky, who represents Williamsburg, submitted a bill to City Council in the fall to ban MCU in multi-unit apartment buildings throughout the city, according to the New York Times.

“The rabbi has put much effort into educating this community,” Marienau acknowledged. “We’re hoping that with the educational efforts we will do in conjunction with the rabbi, the New York City Health Department and the rabbinical ban, all will combine to stop its use.”

If the moisture cure problem is eliminated, it will be on to other challenges for D’Andrea, whose turf, New York City, is a tapestry of ethnic enclaves, each proud of its cultural heritage. His office is now examining health problems stemming from the use of metallic mercury in some cultures for religious purposes.

“We have notified botanicas (retail outlets for spiritual/religious aids) to carry labels warning of the neurological hazards of these products,” he said. “We are really concerned about the inhalation of mercury. Since mercury evaporates over time, people can breathe it in. Sprinkling it on the floor can be problematic, especially for children who have developing nervous systems.”

You can reach Michael Gibbons at [email protected].

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