Putz Pillories Pollutants

Dr. Mark Sneller is a putz. It says so right on a wall above the booth closest to the Dr. Brown's sodas at Feig's Kosher Foods. Of course, Sneller, a charter member of the Feig's Club, had a role in his title. On this day, Sneller graciously accepted lunch--he's a member of the breakfast board of directors--to talk about mold, pollen, household pollutants, and the unhealthful and stinky stuff in perfumes, lotions and potions. Sneller is a SoCal kid. He was born in Venice in 1942 and received a bachelor's degree in education before going off to India to serve in the Peace Corps. He returned to earn a master's degree from Cal State Long Beach and a doctorate in both microbiology and biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma, with a specialty in medical mycology. He monitored pollen and mold for Pima County from 1984 to 1999, when the county penny-pinchers decided his valuable and popular service was too costly. His nifty new book, A Breath of Fresh Air, is a clean compilation of articles Sneller has written on all things allergenic.

What's the hot issue?

Mold. It has everyone going nuts. I've got all these mold jobs.

That's good, no?

(Groans) It's the latest flap. You can't buy or sell a house without a mold inspection. People are full of misinformation. They get their news from television, the Internet or word of mouth. But the lawyers are busy. It's created a whole new specialty.

Isn't mold a problem?

We've glorified it. We've made it into a vampire. Hollywood and television have made mold a monster. People believe it. I have had people call to ask which mold is deadly.

You could ride with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Yeah, right. I did meet the guy who wrote that. But really, there are people who want there to be mold out there. There is a small percentage of people who have an allergy to mold. And mold probably makes up one millionth of 1 percent of what we breathe every day. Yet all of a sudden, it is a national scandal.

What's the danger?

I'm much more concerned about other factors in our air. I have to be. We surround ourselves with cleaning products that actually are hazards to our health. We're being sold products that are not healthful, and there is no regulatory body to stop it. It is a seller's market.

What are the culprits?

Pretty much anything you've got under your sink. Furniture polish, oven cleaner, floor cleaners. And in your bathroom, nail polish has acetone that is neurotoxic. Indoor pesticides are bad. (So are) laundry detergents, fabric softeners and the little sheets we put into the dryer to make clothes soft and smell nice.

What happens?

You've got mom who washes her kid's sheets and makes a nice clean bed. And because of the detergents and treatment in the dryer, little Johnny, who is asthmatic, wakes up in the middle of the night with an asthma attack. So mom then might wonder and, later, vacuum the room. That raises up the dust about 1,000 fold. We also are confronted by formaldehyde in clothing and carpet. It is used in permanent press and for fire protection.

Not good to breathe?

Certainly not.

How about animals?

As I note in the book, allergy to cats is nearly twice that of allergy to dogs.

Let's hear it for dogs.

The interesting thing is cat allergen is often found in homes with no cats. It is tracked in.

You've consulted with companies, school districts and citizens. What's a day like at Aero-Allergen Research?

Interesting and busy. I get 125 to 150 calls a week. Business is way up since I got cancelled at the county. It is up four fold. They really showed me. I do inspections and check monitors, analyze the data and write reports. And then, I write--books, screenplays.

What about money? It's filthy.

Only if it has cocaine on it.

What did you do in India?

I was in a coastal fishing village and I taught science teachers how to improvise and make instruments from scrap material.

Well, you are a magician.

A member of the Society of American Magicians.

Did you surf in India?

No. They had dangerous riptides there. One colleague died before I got there. But being the California surfer kid, I did swim there a little bit.

Still swimming?

Yes. I put in six to seven miles a week. I'm in a master's group that kicks my ass at the Jewish Community Center. I'm up at about 4:30 in the morning and in the pool at 5:30. I'm a sprinter. Freestyle and butterfly. I've backed off the master's competition, though. I'm busy. That's why I've got a sofa in my office. So I can catch a five-minute nap.

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