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Making-Hay Fever

As U.S. Allergies Grow, So Does Market for New Products

September 11, 1996|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine breathing air without much dust, smoke or other pesky contaminants. Imagine coughing up thousands of dollars to do so.

An expanding roster of companies are bringing out devices said to reduce the irritants in household air. The products are aimed at the growing number of people allergic to dust, molds and pets.

At least a dozen firms tout expensive, high-tech air cleaners. Vacuum manufacturers are hawking powerful and costly machines said to suck up the smallest of contaminants. DuPont has pillows that can withstand the hot-water temperatures needed to destroy microscopic pests living in bed linens.

What's more, at least eight mail-order firms peddle a range of anti-allergy products through catalogs distributed by allergists to their patients. Amid the frequently glowing claims, the catalogs sell such items as "smoke grabber" ashtrays and face masks for any occasion (cold weather, driving in traffic, gardening or housecleaning).

Not to be left out, auto manufacturers are also installing high-tech devices. Ford Motor Co. has spent more than $100 million to advertise car models containing its "micron air filter."

Although there are no reliable estimates on the size of the market for allergy-control products, apparently it's nothing to sneeze at. Sales of air cleaners alone topped $250 million last year, an increase of 14%. One leading catalog company reports sales of about $20 million, up from nothing 15 years ago.

"It seems like everyone who makes a coffee maker is getting into the business," said Ken Krugman, chief executive of Allergy Asthma Technology, a Chicago-based mail-order firm.

Manufacturers and retailers attribute the sales growth to concerns about indoor air quality and a sharp rise in asthma, a chronic respiratory disorder often linked to allergies.

"People are more conscious of closed-building syndrome and more aware of the dangers of lack of circulation and clean air," said Pam Green, a product manager at air cleaner manufacturer Holmes Inc.

What few people may realize is that there is no conclusive evidence about the benefits of some of the more expensive devices. The air-cleaner business, for example, has been bedeviled by exaggerated claims.

Ford and its advertising agency, Young & Rubicam, settled Federal Trade Commission charges that they had hyped Ford's air filter. The FTC said the auto maker and the ad agency falsely claimed the filter could remove "virtually all pollutants from the cabin."

Young & Rubicam settled similar charges in 1985 over a household air cleaner that claimed to "remove substantially all or most formaldehyde gas and tobacco smoke."

Many air-cleaner makers use a rating system developed by the Assn. of Home Appliance Manufacturers to help consumers sort out the claims. But experts say that even cleaners that live up to their makers' claims can be of little use for certain household allergies. Nonetheless, such products appeal to allergy sufferers seeking relief from itchy noses and watery eyes or worse.

Elizabeth Friedman, 37, encases her mattress and pillow in vinyl to control dust and runs an air cleaner in her bedroom and home office in West Los Angeles.

"These measures are the first line of defense," said Friedman, who also takes medication to control allergies to dust and mold that sometime prompt asthma attacks.

Friedman's arsenal is modest compared with equipment amassed by some indoor allergy sufferers. One loyal Asthma & Allergy Technology mail-order customer in Beverly Hills purchased six air cleaners at $300 apiece, two sets of pillow and mattress covers--one set is for use in hotels--and a face mask to filter out cigarette smoke on overseas flights.

According to government statistics, dust, molds and pets are among the leading causes of allergies, which affect an estimated 50 million Americans. Although exact figures aren't available, experts believe household allergies are becoming more widespread. They blame energy-efficient construction that permits little ventilation and a sedentary lifestyle that keeps Americans indoors for an average of 22 hours a day.

Experts link indoor allergies to a worrisome increase in asthma, especially among children. Government figures show that the prevalence of asthma among children has increased by about 40% since 1980, today affecting 4.8 million youngsters. Together with 9.8 million adult asthmatics, they form a sizable market for allergy-control products designed to help people control the sources of irritation around their homes. Catalogs, distributed mostly through allergists, brim with descriptions of devices intended to control dust and moisture, from humidifiers to nose masks to mold-detection kits.

Hoping to boost their credibility with consumers, several companies have hooked up with nonprofit groups. Air-cleaner maker Honeywell has a tie-in with the American Lung Assn. Holmes is linked to the Asthma & Allergy Foundation.

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