Monday, December 31, 2012

Healthy Heat

Winter has arrived for those of us living in the northern hemisphere, and for most of us, that means the need to heat homes and other buildings has also arrived. Furnaces and other heating appliances can be a significant source of indoor air pollution, and heating methods can make a great deal of difference to the health of building occupants. In particular, any combustion inside a building (burning fuels like natural gas, propane, butane, oil, coal or wood) should be considered very carefully.

There are a wide range of pollutants produced by combustion. When a hydrocarbon fuel burns, each carbon atom should join with two atoms of oxygen and produce carbon dioxide ("di" meaning "two"). However, when oxygen levels are insufficient, carbon will join with one oxygen atom instead, and produce carbon monoxide ("mono" meaning "one"). Carbon monoxide can be very dangerous, but isn't the only problem associated with combustion.

Here are some things to consider when choosing a method of heating (including heating water and food as well as air):

  • High levels of carbon monoxide can lead to convulsions or death, but low levels can cause symptoms that sufferers might not connect to exposure. In his book The Healthy House, author John Bower reports on a study that found nearly 24 percent of people who thought they had the flu were actually suffering low-level carbon monoxide poisoning.

  • In the same book, Bower reports that more than 200 pollutants are present in wood smoke, some of which are carcinogenic. He notes that one study found 84 percent of children in wood-heated homes experienced at least one severe symptom of acute respiratory illness during the heating season, compared to only 3 percent in other homes.

  • Maintenance and venting of combustion appliances is essential, but not enough to solve air quality problems. In the book Staying Well in a Toxic World,  Lynn Lawson states that California’s Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory found that carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels from a vented natural gas stove can become as high as those in Los Angeles during a smog attack. In an unvented room, the levels can rise to three times that amount.

  • Carbon dioxide is not as dangerous to human health as carbon monoxide is, but elevated levels can be harmful in a number of ways. A recent study associated indoor carbon dioxide levels with impaired decision making. Carbon dioxide can build up even in buildings without combustion sources, because it is a product of human respiration. The buildup of carbon dioxide is one reason that adequate ventilation of a building is essential.

  • Many people believe that combustion appliances are cheaper to operate than electric, but this may or may not be true. Electricity and fuel prices vary widely by location and fluctuate throughout the year. Electric appliances are also much more energy efficient than they once were. Electric heat pumps, although they can be more expensive to install than gas or oil heaters, are the cheapest heat source to operate, Prices vary based on local factors, but the authors of an FAQ page on heating estimate that in their area gas heating costs about 50% more than running an electric heat pump.

Heating methods are very important to indoor air quality and human health because the exposures are ongoing and continual. Combustion appliances also raise the risk of fire or explosion. Winter can be challenging enough. Let's not make it harder than it has to be.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Singer

In celebration of Christmas, I thought I’d do something a little different this week and simply share one of my favorite retellings of the story. This is from The Singer by Calvin Miller.

The Father and his Troubadour sat down upon the outer rim of space.  "And here, My Singer," said Earthmaker,  "is the crown of all my endless skies—the green, brown sphere of all my hopes." He reached and took the round new planet down and held it to his ear. "They're crying, Troubadour," he said. "They cry so hopelessly." He gave the little ball unto his Son, who also held it by His ear.

"Year after weary year they all keep crying. They seem born to weep then die. Our new man taught them crying in the fall. It is a peaceless globe. Some are sincere in desperate desire to see her freed of her absurdity, but war is here. Men die in conflict, bathed in blood and greed."  Then with his nail he scraped the atmosphere and both of them beheld the planet bleed.


Earthmaker set earth spinning on its way
And said, "Give me your vast infinity
My son; I'll wrap it in a bit of clay.
Then enter Terra microscopically
To love the little souls who weep away
Their lives." "I will," I said, "set Terra free."

And then I fell asleep and all awareness fled.
I felt my very being shrinking down.
My vastness ebbed away. In dwindling dread,
All size decayed. The universe around
Drew back. I woke upon a tiny bed
Of straw in one of Terra's smaller towns.

And now the great reduction has begun:
Earthmaker and his Troubadour are one.
And here's the new redeeming melody—
The only song that can set Terra free.

The Shrine of older days must be laid by.
Mankind must see Earthmaker left the sky,
And he is with us. They must concede that I am he.
They must believe the Song or die.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rachel’s Children

I, like the rest of the country, am grieving the lives lost in Connecticut yesterday. Every life is precious, and it's important not to overlook the adults who were killed. The murder of so many children, however, is what makes the event especially shocking and painful. Something inside us wants to cry out, "They're just children. They're innocent and vulnerable. And it's almost Christmas."  In many ways, Christmas as we observe it in our culture is especially for the young among us, and the fact that the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School were denied the celebration their parents were preparing for them deepens the grief.

As I pondered that thought yesterday, I was struck by how incongruous it was. We rightly try to make Christmas celebrations full of joy, peace, and time spent with family, but the original Christmas story contained its fair share of grief, pain, and confusion. In fact, the original story involved parents who grieved for children — innocent, vulnerable children senselessly murdered because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That part of the Christmas story isn't usually portrayed in our pageants or songs, but it's there in the Bible. Matthew 2 relates the story of King Herod's fear that the "newborn king" the wise men came to find would usurp him. When the men returned to their homes without informing Herod of the child's location, he became murderously angry. Verses 16 - 18 say,  

Herod was furious when he realized that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, based on the wise men’s report of the star’s first appearance. Herod’s brutal action fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "'A cry was heard in Ramah — weeping and great mourning. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted, for they are dead."

Jesus escaped to Egypt, but other parents lost their children to the whims of a madman. There was a time in my life when I found that especially disturbing. It didn't seem right that God would spare His own child, but leave others to be murdered.

As I worked through those thoughts, however, I came to realize that God ultimately didn't save His child, and that the horrible story actually illustrates some deep truths about the message of Christmas. Christmas is about God coming to live with us here in this mess of a world and about preparing a sacrifice that would be offered to free us from the pain and consequences of sin on the earth. It's about Emmanuel, which means "God with us."  He is with us here, in a world that often seems to make no sense. He is with us in a world where innocent children are brutally murdered. Yet, he won't leave us here. He came to prepare the way for a joyful eternity.

Those of us with chronic illnesses have had to learn that Christmas can't always be celebrated the way we would like it to be. We've learned that Christmas means finding the joy that is often hidden in pain. Even before becoming seriously ill, I had Christmas experiences that opened my eyes to the challenges the original Christmas story participants endured. Four times my husband and I moved during the Christmas season. Once I was "great with child."  More recently, my chemical sensitivities have led me to sleep, not in a manger, but not in a conventional bed under a conventional roof, either. The experiences remind me that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus didn't live pain-free lives. They had very human experiences in a very challenging world.

I grieve for the children who lost their lives in Connecticut. I grieve for the children who lost their lives in Bethlehem. I grieve for the pain of this fallen world.

But I rejoice in Emmanuel. I rejoice that God Himself is with us. I rejoice that this world isn't all there is and that one day all will be made right. May we cling to Christ tightly this year and remember those truths.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Chemicals and Food Allergies

In a recent post I mentioned that food allergies and intolerances often accompany chemical sensitivities. Last week, an article in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology reported on a study which found an association between body levels of certain chemicals known as dichlorophenols and sensitization to food allergens. The authors conclude that "excessive use of dichlorophenols may contribute to the increasing incidence of food allergies in westernized societies."

Reports of the study found on WebMD and CBS sites among others note the following:
  • Dichlorophenols are common and can be found in purified drinking water, insect killers, air fresheners, disinfecting cleaners, deodorizer cakes, moth balls and commercial and residential weed control products.

  • People found to have the highest levels of the chemicals in their bodies were nearly twice as likely to be sensitive to at least one food as were people with the lowest levels.

  • Food allergy rates are rising in the United States. Between 1997 and 2007, rates increased 18 percent.

  • Food allergies can cause a wide range of symptoms, including gastrointestinal problems, respiratory distress, hives, and tingling in the mouth. The most serious food allergy symptom is anaphylaxis, a full-body reaction that can be fatal.

  • Because the chemicals are so widely used, the lead study author suggests that switching from tap water to bottled water is unlikely to reduce the body burden of dichlorophenols sufficiently. She notes that eating fewer pesticide-treated fruits and vegetables is a wise precaution.

This study provides one more in a long list of reasons to think twice (and then twice again) before using products designed to kill weeds, fungus, or insects in or around a home, church, or other public building. For links to studies associating pesticides with a wide variety of conditions, including diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, asthma, learning disabilities, Parkinson's disease, autism and cancer, see the resources provided by Beyond Pesticides. The group also provides information on the least toxic control of many common pests.

Studies are important. It has been said that knowledge is power. I would amend that to say that knowledge can be power. If we just read studies and don't let them change our behavior, knowledge is just knowledge. Individually none of us can change the world, but we each have more power than we might realize to significantly change our lives and the lives of those around us.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Let Them Wear Masks

Because chemical sensitivities make entering most stores challenging, I do 99% of my shopping either online or outside (garage sales, flea markets, or the occasional sidewalk sales). The weather has been mild enough here in Missouri lately that I went to our local flea market this weekend and was happy to find some vendors still vending,  It was great to search for treasures and enjoy some human interaction. I've learned, through some exceptionally lonely years, the importance of interacting with people (even strangers) as often as I can manage it without making myself ill.

There were plenty of people out and about on Saturday, and I had many conversations, including one with a precious little girl. Even when shopping outside, I keep my mask around my neck, ready to use whenever I encounter perfume, cigarette smoke, or other problematic chemicals. Children are often very curious about my mask, and this one asked about it. When I explained that I wear the mask so I don't get sick, she informed me that when you're sick you should get a bucket.

That conversation took a different turn than most do, but people often ask about my mask and I'm always glad to have the opportunity to talk a bit about the chemical toxicity issue. I've been wearing a mask long enough now that it doesn't bother me much anymore, but transitioning to wearing one in public means overcoming an emotional hurdle for most of us who do it. Mask-wearers cannot easily blend into the crowd.

Responses to my mask vary. Fear seems to be a common reaction. Once a young child stared at me, then said to her mother, “I’m scared. Let’s go home.” People often move away, which can actually be a good thing if they’re wearing fragranced products. My husband once explained to someone why I was wearing a mask, and the person then remarked to me, "Well, I'm glad that's the reason and you're not wearing it because you have a disease I might catch from you.”

Wearing a mask can be helpful and can buy some time in a toxic environment. There are many types of masks and respirators, and some people find one that works well for a them and discover a degree of freedom when using it. Masks are by no means the complete answer for those with chemical sensitivities, however. Some of the challenges related to masks include the following:

  • Most of them just don't work very well. An article in the journal Allergy reported on a study of patients with reactions to perfume. They clamped the subjects' noses to prevent them from knowing if they were breathing perfume or a placebo and found that the perfume provoked patient symptoms. They also found that when subjects wore carbon filter masks that it had no protective effect.

  • To be effective, the filters in masks and respirators must be matched to the chemicals in the environment. In the book Staying Well in a Toxic World, author Lynn Lawson tells the story of two workers in Chicago. The men died after inhaling fumes from a product they were using to strip wax from a bathroom floor. A spokesperson from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the masks they were given were inadequate for use with a particular chemical in the product.

  • Many masks and respirators are made of materials that are themselves problematic. I once counted the ones I have in my home that didn't work for me. There were more than 20.

  • They decrease the amount of oxygen the wearer receives.

  • It's difficult to talk in a mask or respirator and impossible to eat. People who wear masks may be able to watch and listen to the activity going on around them, but are essentially unable to participate.

  • Replacement filters, especially for respirators, can be very expensive.

  • Inhaling chemicals is not the only way they enter the body. They can also enter through the skin, so if people are not completely covered (even their eyes), they will not have complete protection from the chemicals around them.

  • In many places, wearing masks is illegal. I've heard many horror stories of suspicious police stopping MCS suffers in masks who then have to endure hours of exposures and questioning as they attempt to prove they don't have hostile intentions. I've heard of people in masks getting stopped and questioned in places you might expect, such as on a bench in front of a bank, and in places where you wouldn’t, such as simply driving down the street.

My point is not that masks are useless. I just sometimes sense a "Let them wear masks" attitude that feels somewhat like Marie Antoinette's famous "Let them eat cake."  Masks and respirators have their place, but they aren't the answer to the problem of a toxic environment. I dream of better masks and respirators, but mostly I dream of a world in which they are unnecessary.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Leaving Leaves

Thanksgiving week was filled with family, friends, and fun. Unfortunately, it was also filled with leaf burning, which compelled me to leave my home and houseguests a couple of times to search for cleaner air. My city allows open burning of yard waste for three weeks in the spring and three weeks in the fall. I always dread it, and the fact that it coincided with Thanksgiving this year made it doubly frustrating.

Most of the items that cause health problems for the chemically sensitive are synthetic products, often made from a complex mixture of petrochemicals. Because of that, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all synthetic products are harmful and all natural products are safe. That, however, is an oversimplification of the truth. Rattlesnake venom is natural, yet most understand it to be toxic. Many natural products that are generally helpful can be harmful in excess. It's even possible to die from drinking too much water.

Burning leaves are in a sense "natural."  Sometimes a lightning strike will begin a fire. In general, however, fire is not the way God designed for leaves to change form. They are designed to simply decompose and return their nutrients to the earth without any special help from humankind. Burning piles and piles of leaves for week after week is neither natural nor wise. It can cause great distress for those of us with already-weakened bodies, and isn't healthy for anyone.

In a publication on residential leafburning, the Environmental Protection Agency has this to say:

  • Burning leaves produce carbon monoxide. This enters the body, combines with red blood cells, and reduces the amount of oxygen that can be supplied to body tissues.

  • Leaf burning produces hydrocarbons, some of which are irritants of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and some of which are known to cause cancer. Leaves often produce high amounts of hydrocarbons because they tend to burn poorly due to moisture and insufficient air circulation.

  • Smoke from burning leaves contains microscopic particles (particulate matter) that can reach the deepest part of the lungs. Breathing these particles can reduce the amount of air that can be inhaled and impair the lungs' ability to use the air available. It can also increase the risk of respiratory infection and asthma attacks. The particles can remain in the lungs for months or years.

Communities offer varying options for managing leaves. Some encourage homeowners to rake or blow them to the curb, where trucks vacuum them up to be turned into compost. Some municipalities pick up bagged leaves or allow them to be disposed of with household trash. Household composting of leaves is another option.

One of the easiest ways to manage leaves is to simply mow over them and leave them on the lawn. A mulching lawn mower works best, and will chop them more finely, but any mower will do the job. It’s best to mow frequently enough that the carpet of leaves doesn't become so deep that it blocks sunlight from reaching the grass below. .

If you're in the habit of burning leaves, I pray you'll consider other options. Fallen leaves can be a nuisance, but burning them creates more problems than it solves, and for some of us, the problems created can be literally life threatening. I urge you to find healthier ways to manage leaves, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of those who share the air.

Monday, November 19, 2012


As Thanksgiving approaches, it seems a good time to stop and say a few words of thanks to those who make the journey of chemical sensitivity easier for those of us who walk it. There are many things for which to be grateful, and I’ll list a handful of them that come to mind, in no particular order. I'm sure I speak for many when I express true, heartfelt gratitude for the following:

  • Friends and family members who make the changes necessary so that we can be part of their lives

  • People who not only educate themselves about toxicity and chemical sensitivity issues, but make the effort to educate others, as well

  • People who help us meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing when doing so becomes challenging and complicated

  • Family members who take care of the home-related tasks we can no longer accomplish

  • Friends and family members who make an effort to stay in touch through e-mail or phone contact

  • People who are willing to endure some discomfort, such as meeting outside in non-perfect weather, so that we can be part of a gathering

  • Christian radio, television and internet ministries

  • Manufacturers who make healthier products and the retailers who carry them

  • Doctors who treat us and speak for us despite the battles they face with insurers and others

  • Neighbors who care for their lawns in non-toxic ways

  • Business owners who use safer cleaning and maintenance products

  • People who believe us when we describe our reactions to chemicals, although our experience is strange and foreign to them

  • People who work on behalf of the chemically sensitive community by maintaining websites, running support groups, writing books and doing other advocacy work

  • The comfort found through Christ, and the promise of a better life to come

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gift Giving

I've been asked for a post on my favorite fragrance-free products to give as Christmas gifts. There are so many variables (recipient age, gender, preferences and state of health, for example) that I'm not sure where to begin. I don't think I'll list specific products, but I'll say a few things about gift-giving in general and provide some links to online stores with generally safer offerings.

Here are some of my random thoughts:

  • Giving safer products as gifts is a great goal that serves multiple purposes. When we keep toxins in mind as we buy for others we not only protect their health, but we support the merchants and manufacturers taking the issue seriously. Every purchase we make is a statement about the kind of products we wish to see in the stores. Giving people safer gifts is also a good way to introduce them to items and issues they might be unaware of otherwise.

  • There are safer alternatives to for almost every traditional toxic product. A quick internet search will generally yield many results. Often, products marketed as being less toxic are more expensive than their traditional counterparts. In theory, I support paying more for healthier choices, but in practice I realize that budgetary restrictions are very real. When considering healthy options for personal use (not necessarily for gifting), there are many ways to spend less. Homemade cleaners (often based on vinegar or baking soda) are very cheap. Personal care products can be often be bought in bulk from suppliers who market to those who make their own formulations. I buy fragrance-free shampoo, conditioner and castile soap by the gallon. An internet search for "shampoo base" or similar terms will provide a variety of purchasing choices . Fragrance-free products marketed to hunters are also an option.

  • Because of lax labeling laws (see this previous post), it is challenging to know how healthy a product actually is. In general, a health food store or online retailer targeting health-conscious customers will have more products that are truly safe. Even those stores, however, may carry products made with synthetic fragrances or other problematic ingredients. Although there may be other reasons to avoid them, it is easier than it used to be to find healthier products at traditional stores. Many of the "big box" retailers now carry some fragrance-free personal care products and organic clothing and bedding.

  • There are personal differences, but many people with chemical sensitivities or other chronic health conditions appreciate gifts that are health-related. One Christmas when I was asked by extended family members for gift ideas, I responded with a list of vitamins and supplements in various price ranges. I don't remember what gifts I received that year, but I'm sure they were lovely and generous. I do remember that I didn't receive any of the supplements on my list. Maybe the idea just seemed too weird. Be aware that people with chemical sensitivities often have food allergies and sensitivities as well, so food gifts aren't always the best choice.

  • Many alternative products are fragranced with essential oils. This is a tricky issue to navigate. Although people can certainly be allergic to natural oils, they don't carry the same toxicities that synthetic fragrances do. Many people with chemical sensitivities tolerate them well, but others find they cause great problems. In some cases this is another labeling issue, since natural oils are sometimes actually mixed with synthetic fragrances. Some brands are also extracted with chemicals instead of being steam distilled.

There are many, many online retailers offering safer goods. Some are specialty stores selling one type of product (such as beeswax candles or non-toxic toys) and others have more extensive offerings. Here are a handful of retailers that offer a variety of generally safer products:

NEEDS (Nutritonal Ecological Environmental Delivery System)
The name is a little strange, but this company has been around a long time and generally offers products that are very safe.

Although they sell a variety of safer products, they also sell items with added synthetic fragrances, so check ingredients carefully.

Healthy Home

I'm grateful for those of you wishing to buy healthier Christmas gifts this year. Every purchase matters. What we celebrate at Christmas is the birth of our savior, and when we care for ourselves and others by making safer product choices, I think he is pleased.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Harmful Healthcare

I didn't see it myself, but I understand that chemical sensitivities were mentioned in a non-disparaging way on a television drama recently. Evidently, a character reasoned that a woman wearing a lab coat wasn't a doctor because she wore perfume. The thought was that a doctor wouldn't wear fragrance because she knew it would harm people with asthma or chemical sensitivities.

Hurray for the writers of the program for their awareness of the issue, but I'm not sure I could come to the same conclusion the character did. Unfortunately, more medical professionals use fragranced products than don't, in my experience. Those that don't actually apply perfume or cologne are still likely to use fragranced lotions, shampoos or other personal care products or to wear clothes coated in fragrances from detergents or dryer sheets. I've had  conversations with two medical professionals about the issue. Both told me the importance of being fragrance-free was mentioned in their training but they had never personally worked in an environment where the goal was mentioned or enforced.

Fragranced doctors and nurses aren't the only barrier to medical treatment for those with chemical sensitivities. Hospitals and doctor's offices are just as likely (maybe more likely) to be cleaned with toxic products than other buildings are. They are also just as likely to use "air fresheners" (see this previous post  for more information on their harm) as any other public space or to use dangerous pest control methods. Most people with serious chemical sensitivities eventually give up trying to access medical care.

Fortunately, there are a few organizations taking the toxicity issue seriously. Health Care Without Harm is a global coalition working to reduce pollution in the health care sector. Their website contains information and fact sheets on cleaning products, pest control and fragrances, among other topics.

The Massachusetts Nurses Organization is another group ahead of the curve. An article in their newsletter and on their website  discusses fragrance chemicals and their health effects, provides a model and sample of a fragrance-free policy, and includes a section on how to advocate for a fragrance-free policy in a healthcare environment.

One hospital that aims to be fragrance-free is Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. Their website states that they displayed posters near every elevator and in many clinics “promoting some of the things mostimportant to our patients and their families—equity, privacy, patient affairs and the WCH fragrance-free policy.” They developed a clever poster displaying various perfumes and personal care products labeled with names like “nausea,” “headache” and “wheezing,” which informed that “fragrances don’t smell beautiful to everyone” and asking people to respect the hospital’s fragrance-free guidelines.

Policies and guidelines that attempt to reduce the toxicity of healthcare environments are wonderful, and I pray the movement will spread. In the meantime, however, individual actions can make a difference. If you work in the healthcare field, your personal decision to use synthetically fragranced products or to be fragrance-free will impact every patient you encounter. If you don't work in the healthcare field, but occasionally visit a doctor's office, your product choices will also impact other people who share the air. If you're feeling brave, you might even want to mention to the office staff that their use of air fresheners and fragranced cleaning products isn't a good idea. Maybe you can make enough of a difference that some of us with chemical sensitivities will be able to access the medical care we desperately need.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Trying to Get a Product Off the Market

I read an article this week that did a good job of illustrating how little regulation there is for cosmetic products and how hard it is to remove them from the market. A special report by Environmental Health News looked at the history of a problematic hair straightener. That article and a page of information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) made the following points:

  • About 2,000 new cosmetic products enter the market each year and companies are not required to gain approval for them or disclose their ingredients.

  • Removing a product from the market requires a federal court battle. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have authority to recall cosmetic products.

  • The hair straightening formulation contains high levels of methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, which has been linked to a wide range of health concerns, including cancer. When OSHA tested the air in hair salons using the product, they found formaldehyde levels that exceeded the federal safely limit. During the blow drying phase of treatment, the formaldehyde levels in one salon were found to be five times the safety threshold.

  • An employee of the California Department of Public Health noted that the sale of the hair straightener violated five separate laws and resulted in numerous injuries, but that they had not been able to get it banned.

  • The product remains in salons despite the fact that several states have issued health alerts and the California Attorney General won a settlement regarding deceptive advertising and failure to disclose a cancer-causing ingredient. The Food and Drug Administration also cited the manufacturer for adulteration and misbranding of the product and  a review panel of health experts called it unsafe.

  • Stylists profiled in the article now suffer from what the author calls "an odd, lasting sensitivity" to products such as cleaning agents, fragrances and hair spray. Readers of the this blog know the situation is actually not odd at all. Formaldehyde is a known sensitizer, which often sets people on the path of chemical illness.

  • OSHA found that many products containing formaldehyde did not list the chemical on either the label or the MSDS (material safety data sheet). They note that even products that claim to be formaldehyde free can still expose workers to the chemical.

It's nice to assume that products allowed to be sold are safe and that those proved otherwise can be easily recalled. Unfortunately, that just isn't the case. We have to take the initiative ourselves to protect our health and the health of those around us. I mentioned in last week's blog post that I didn't think deodorant was worth dying for. I also wouldn't trade my health for straighter hair. How about you?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Death by Deodorant

When I'm not reading and writing about MCS, I'm often reading and writing about addiction, because I work part-time from home writing articles on the subject. My entry into the field was more by happenstance than design, but I find the topic interesting, especially the research into drug-related brain effects. There's a lot of overlap between MCS issues and addiction science.

The abuse of inhalants, often known as "huffing," is especially interesting to me because of its obvious tie-in to chemical sensitivity. As a culture, we seem to be a bit double-minded on the issue of whether we think common chemical products can harm us. We sell them, buy them, and use them in huge amounts without seeming to think about their safety too much, but we do seem to acknowledge the dangers of inhaling them intentionally. Unfortunately, although dosage does matter, our bodies react in much the same way whether we're huffing in an attempt to get high or we're inhaling products in the air around us because we have no way to escape them.

Do you wonder if a product may be affecting you or someone around you?  A look at some of the known effects of huffing may help you figure it out. The National Institute on Drug Abuse  and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration note the following among the possible effects of inhalants:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) which damages brain and other cells
  • Memory impairment
  • Difficulty holding a conversation
  • Breakdown of the myelin sheath around nerves, leading to possible muscle spasms, tremors, or difficulty walking
  • Hearing loss
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Damage to the central nervous system
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Blood oxygen depletion
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Violent behavior
  • Heart palpitations
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Excitability
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow or rapid heartbeat
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Poor learning skills
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability

When people abuse inhalants intentionally, there is a significant risk of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which is exactly what the name implies. Those who are simply exposed to inhalants throughout the course of their day are less likely to suddenly die from them. It's not impossible, however. I vividly remember hearing the story a few years ago of a 12 year old boy who collapsed and died after applying deodorant in his family home. A report of the event notes that the boy was fit and healthy and the pathologist found no evidence of substance abuse. Interestingly, when looking for the story, I found an almost identical one reported 10 years earlier. In 1998, a 16-year-old boy described as a "normal, healthy teenager who was not engaging in any form of substance abuse" was overcome by deodorant fumes and died.

What improved between 1998, when the 16-year-old died and 2008, when the 12-year-old met the same fate? Did the products get safer or did society become more aware of the dangers? It doesn’t appear so. How about 2018? Will things be different then? If anything is going to change, I suspect you and I are going to have to be part of changing it. I believe there are things worth dying for. Deodorant isn't one of them.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Conservation of Matter

I'm certainly no scientist, but I do remember a few tidbits of information from my school days. One of those nuggets is the law of conservation of matter, which states that matter can't be created or destroyed, but only changed in form. In other words, the fact that something can no longer be seen or smelled doesn't mean it has ceased to exist. When a consumer product is used in a building, it may lose potency as it’s diluted or broken down into constituent parts, but it doesn't just magically vanish.

I'm thinking about that fact this week because of an article in New York's Daily News entitled "New York's air is full of junk."  The article chronicles the results of air sampling in various parts of the city. Yes, New York's air is full of junk, and it isn't necessarily the junk you might imagine.

Results of the air sampling include the following:

  • The air in Brooklyn Heights was full of fat, perhaps from the many neighborhood restaurants. Other items found in the sample were cotton fiber, silica glass, and tire rubber.

  • In Williamsburg, the air was full of human hair. Testing also revealed small paint particles, which were associated with a nail salon.

  • Starch filled the air in Chinatown, a likely result of cooking starchy foods and the use of starch-containing laundry products at local laundromats.

  • Air in an area of the city containing numerous clothing stores was found to contain many tiny fabric fibers, including a microscopic bright red polyester thread.

  • Not surprisingly, the air in a busy area near Times Square contained soot and a large quantity of carbon from vehicle exhaust.

  • An area near La Guardia airport contained tiny bits of colorful glass, perhaps from the airplanes taking off or landing.

I found the article to be an interesting reminder of the far-reaching effects of our product choices. If we use a product, it will be in the air. If it's in the air, it will soon be in our bodies. If it's in our bodies, it will affect us biologically. Perhaps remembering the law of conservation of matter will help us make safer choices both for ourselves and for those who share the air.

Monday, October 8, 2012

“I” and “We”

Recently, a Facebook friend posted this quote: "When 'I' is replaced by 'we,' even 'illness' becomes 'wellness.'"  It's an interesting sentence, both linguistically and conceptually, and in general MCS terms there is a lot of truth to the slogan. Those of us with chemical sensitivities can make non-toxic product choices for ourselves, but for us to function in the world with any degree of wellness requires others to make the same decisions.

The concept is very appropriate for me this week, not just in general terms, but in a very specific way. On two recent days, a small army of people invaded my house in order to help make it safer for me. As I mentioned in a previous post, safe housing is a huge need in the MCS community. Although my situation is much less dire than that of many others, I've personally been unable to sleep inside for over a year. Some friends have decided to do what they can to get me back in my home before winter and I'm exceptionally grateful for their assistance.

This experience reminds me again that help can be both very welcomed and somewhat difficult to accept. For the reasons mentioned in the post Illness and Shame, limitations imposed by chronic sickness often bring with them a degree of embarrassment. I think I've made progress in confronting that thought pattern, but when my friends started talking about helping, I realized I hadn't come as far as I thought I had. The gratitude and relief I felt was mixed with a healthy dose of discomfort and awkwardness.

The truth is, though, that I do need help. The job of doing what needs to be done to keep myself functioning is bigger than my resources. I'm more fortunate than many of my fellow MCS sufferers because I have a wonderful, supportive husband who does what he can to take care of me. He needs help, too, though. The job is bigger than both of us.

I find it interesting that within the span of a few verses in Galatians 6 we are told both to bear one another's burdens and carry our own load. I don't know the nuances of the words in the original language or how to determine when loads become burdens. I do know, though, that sometimes they do and that together we can lift burdens that are too heavy to carry alone.

Thank you, burden-bearers. Thank you to all who have helped me, both financially and logistically, with my house project. Special thanks go to Karen and Roseann. Your friendship is a treasured gift.

There are many, many people with MCS who are struggling under burdens too heavy for them to carry alone. I read accounts literally every day of people with very serious MCS-related housing needs. The story in this recently posted You Tube video is far too familiar. I don't know this couple, but I empathize deeply with their situation and I know they represent thousands more who are equally desperate.

I pray for all of my fellow MCS sufferers who are struggling with burdens that are too heavy to lift without help. I pray that some aspects of "I" will be turned to "we" so that some aspects of illness can be turned to wellness. I'm so grateful for the help I've had this week and I pray that others will have the assistance they need, too. Hurray for the burden-bearers. May their ranks multiply. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Fresh Blog Post

I've been thinking about the word "fresh" recently. Although there are alternative meanings, the general definition of the word is "new."  Often something fresh replaces something old, stale, or worn-out. We put on fresh socks or ask a friend to help us think of some fresh ideas for a project.

The air inside a building gets contaminated by the products used within it. In addition, humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, so when people are in a building, the air gets progressively less healthy from the simple act of breathing. We replace old, stale air with new, fresh air by opening windows or using ventilation systems. In no way whatsoever do we improve air quality by using those ridiculously named products known as “air fresheners."

 Here are a handful of "air freshener" facts:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that most air fresheners contain formaldehyde and petrochemicals. They also contain a chemical known as 1,4-Dichlorobenzene (1,4,-DCB) which is an EPA-registered pesticide. It can cause cancer and lung damage and increases asthma rates. The chemical "freshens" the air by damaging nasal receptors. It does not remove odors, but removes people's ability to smell them.

  • A study comparing homes in which air fresheners were used every day with those in which they were used once a week or less found that babies in the daily-use homes had significantly more earaches and diarrhea, and their mothers suffered nearly 10% more headaches and had a 26% increase in depression.

  • Many air fresheners contain acetone and propane. They are toxic to the heart, blood, respiratory system, skin, gastrointestinal system, kidney, nervous system and liver.

  • Exposure to air freshener chemicals as little as once a week can increase your risk of developing asthma symptoms by up to 71%.

  • Most air fresheners contain phthalates, which are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can cause birth defects and infertility. These chemicals are even found in air fresheners designated as "unscented" or "all natural".

  • The human body stores chemicals like those found in air fresheners in fatty tissue. The body may hold onto fat as a way to protect itself from the release of the toxins.

  • Air freshener chemicals, including camphor, phenol, ethanol, formaldehyde, and artificial fragrances can cause a wide variety of health symptoms, including dizziness, coughing, rashes, mental confusion, and headaches, including migraines.

  • One study found that women with the highest usage of household chemicals, including air fresheners, had twice the risk of breast cancer of those with the lowest chemical usage rates.

Although air fresheners abuse and misuse the word "fresh," they aren't the only product to do so. I recently saw an advertisement for a laundry detergent that claimed it now had a higher percentage of "freshness."  Really?  I imagine what the marketers mean is that more fragrance chemicals have been added to the already potent and toxic mix. It's easy to get duped by marketing ploys, but we don't have to buy into the crazy-ness. We can break away from the crowd. We can have a fresh perspective. We can make a fresh start.

Are Air Fresheners Bad for Your Health?
Silent Menace
Air Fresheners: Easy Greening
How Air Fresheners Are Killing You
Air Fresheners' Real Impact on Indoor Air Quality

Monday, September 24, 2012


It appears that the issue of toxins in common products is beginning to penetrate the public consciousness. A recent Associated Press article reported on a study showing that 64 percent of Americans are concerned about potentially toxic ingredients in household cleaning, laundry, personal care and baby products. I would be happier if the number were closer to 100 percent, but the fact that nearly two-thirds of the population is becoming aware of the issue is a positive sign.

The task of creating a safer environment for 21st century humans involves education about the issues involved, but obviously more than that is needed. If two-thirds of us are concerned about toxins in common products, why do we keep buying them?  Lax labeling laws are probably part of the answer, but the issues are complex, and may involve time constraints, unfamiliarity with options, peer pressure, and general inertia.

Our product choices affect everyone around us. Certainly, choosing safer alternatives is the right thing to do, but this study and others indicate that it's also a practical matter. A 2004 report noted that 13 percent of randomly selected adults identified themselves as being hypersensitive to common chemicals. Other studies, including one associated with John Hopkins School of Medicine, have found rates as high as 33%. Businesses and churches who don't address toxicity issues are potentially alienating a large number of people.

Replacing synthetically scented products with fragrance-free ones in a church, business or retail establishment really isn't that big of a deal when you realize that the issue matters to a huge number of people you are trying to reach. How hard is it to forgo the use of air fresheners?  It's a pretty easy way to make at least 13% of the population more willing to enter your building. How about switching to non-toxic cleaners?  Nearly two-thirds of the population would applaud that choice.

We're making progress in the education arena. Now we need to move from thought to action.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Illness and Shame

I've come to love the Biblical book of Job and I re-read it often. Job experienced a great deal of loss and suffering, including a painful medical condition   The Bible tells us that Job was "blameless and upright," but his friends believed (and expressed their belief) that those who live godly lives are protected from harm and that Job's struggles were therefore related to personal sin.

This week I noticed a verse I had never really focused on before. In Job 10:15, Job says, "If I am guilty—woe to me! Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction." 

Full of shame -- it's an illogical but common emotion among the chronically ill. There are a number of reasons for this, including the following:

  • Pride is deep-rooted in the human psyche. Pride says, "I am capable and I don't need help from anyone."  Illness says, "You aren't as strong as you think you are or that you'd like to be."

  • The American culture has traditionally emphasized self-reliance and hard work. Stories of self-made men and women who pulled themselves up by their bootstraps are a part of our heritage and national character. Cultures define success in different ways. There are societies that value those who live their lives in solitude and contemplation. Ours puts a high value on tangible, material gains achieved through blood, sweat and tears. When illness keeps us from living up to our culture's standards, the sense of failure can be deep.

  • The self-determinism that defines our world fuels an unspoken message that all sickness can be overcome and that failure to do so is a personal deficiency. This message is communicated in many ways. Get-well cards are a prime example. I'm sure that the messages people are trying to communicate when they send the cards include things like “I care about you," "I'm sorry you're ill," and "I hope you don't suffer much."  That's not what the cards usually actually say, though. They say "Get well."  That's an imperative -- an order. They seem to imply that healing is within your control and that if you don't get well soon it is somehow your fault.

  • The Christian community can take that idea, magnify it exponentially, and attach spiritual significance to it. Some churches and denominations are very open about their theology that full earthly healing of all diseases is available to anyone who requests it and has enough faith. Some churches don't claim to believe that, but church members can manage to communicate that message anyway. Any ill Christian who ever listens to Christian radio, watches Christian television or webcasts, or communicates with other Christians online gets this message. Believe me, we get this message and it affects us deeply.

Condemning those who are ill certainly doesn't help ease the suffering. It compounds it and makes people afraid to express their needs. Job 42 tells us that God was angry with Job's friends and called their words and attitudes "folly."  Let's try not to imitate them.