Saturday, May 26, 2012

How Does Someone Become Chemically Sensitive?

It seems likely that chemical sensitivity has a variety of etiologies, similar to the way that nausea may be caused by such diverse factors as food poisoning, chemotherapy, and pregnancy. At the heart of the matter, however, is generally a problem with the body's detoxification system. When people are unable to fully process toxins they accumulate and cause damage and symptoms.

Despite the determined efforts of some to paint MCS as a psychological disorder, there is no shortage of evidence proving it to be a very real physical condition. For instance:

  • Animal models point to a physical cause. Studies show that animals exposed to repeated low levels of chemicals over a period of time can become extremely reactive and sensitive to minute traces of those chemicals.

  • People who became sick after exposure to certain chemicals in Operation Desert Storm were found to have lower amounts of a specific enzyme than others who had higher amounts and weren’t sickened.

  • Women with a genetic profile involving two genes associated with detoxifying toxic compounds were found to be over 18 times more likely to have MCS compared to women with a different genetic makeup. Women with variations in just one of the implicated genes were also more likely to develop chemical sensitivities.

  • Genetic abnormalities can themselves be caused by chemicals. Many chemicals are capable of mutating genes or turning them on or off.

  • Lab tests of some MCS sufferers reveal abnormal activity in one or more of the eight enzymes involved in heme production. (Heme is the primary component of hemoglobin in red blood cells.)

  • Nasal abnormalities consistent with chronic inflammation have been found in patients with MCS. Damaged mucosa enhances absorption of inhaled chemicals, and often permits rapid entry into the brain.

  • Testing often shows people with chemical sensitivities to be “pathological detoxifiers” in which Phase I of liver detoxification is faster than Phase II, leading to a buildup of toxic metabolites in the body.

  • Groups of independent researchers have found distinct abnormalities of brain metabolism in people with MCS. The neurotoxic pattern is very different from the abnormalities reported in psychiatric disease.

  • Tests measuring blood flow to the brain (SPECT scans) show differences between MCS patients and normal controls. MCS patients demonstrate severe deterioration when they are challenged by chemicals in concentrations found in everyday situations.

Certain people may be more likely than others to become chemically sensitive, but no one is immune to the danger. We all have finite bodies capable of detoxifying a limited chemical burden, and it's impossible to know who might be one exposure away from exceeding that limit. Although it's wise to reduce and eliminate all chemical exposures, some substances are especially likely to set people on the road to MCS. These are known as "sensitizers."  Pesticides and formaldehyde (found in many personal care, cleaning, building, and furniture products) are known sensitizers that are very important to avoid.

People with chemical sensitivities need your help to function in this world. Those without chemical sensitivities need your help to stay that way. You, yourself, may be one chemical exposure away from developing MCS. Reducing chemical exposures is the right thing to do for everyone's sake.

For more information:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fragrance Facts

On May 22, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania will celebrate “Fragrance Free Day,” following the lead of cities like Las Vegas who have held similar events in the past.  Why go to the trouble? Why is the issue important? Just what is "fragrance" anyway?

God has filled this world with a variety of pleasant-smelling flowers, foods, and other natural delights.  Today, however, the word "fragrance" generally refers to synthetic concoctions found in consumer products. An article entitled Scents and Sensitivity, originally published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, notes that an estimated 3,000 chemicals or more are used in the manufacture of fragrances,  A single fragrance may contain several hundred of these.

 A compilation of fragrance facts titled Making Sense of Scents notes the following:

  • The National Academy of Sciences reports that 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are derived from petroleum.

  • Many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer, central nervous system disorders, allergic reactions, and birth defects.

  • A large percentage (84%) of fragrance chemicals have been tested only minimally for human toxicity, or have never been tested at all. 

  • Some of the chemicals found in fragrances have been designated as hazardous waste.

  • The fragrance industry isn't regulated by any agency.

Synthetic fragrances saturate our culture for many reasons.  One is that olfactory fatigue (the inability to detect an odor after prolonged exposure to it) leads people to continually increase the amount of fragrance they use. Fragranced products are also the rule rather than the exception because manufacturers add synthetic perfumes to cover the smell of other chemicals in the formulations.

It's unfortunate that being fragrance-free in our culture takes some intentionality, but it's worth the effort.  Every personal fragrance-free day contributes to better health for everyone.  Every purchase of a fragrance-free product also sends a message to producers and distributors.  Let's send the message.  Let's take this seriously.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Who Regulates the Products We Use?

It's surprising to many people (it certainly was to me) to learn how many products make it to our store shelves without being tested for safety. I always assumed that either the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) or the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) was in charge of regulating such things as personal care and cleaning products. Nope.

The government's own FDA website has a page entitled What FDA Doesn't Regulate. Here's what they have to say about "consumer products":

"The agency has no jurisdiction over many household goods. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is responsible for ensuring the safety of consumer goods such as household appliances (excluding those that emit radiation), paint, child-resistant packages, and baby toys." 

See some things left out? How about the EPA? They say this:

"EPA has no authority to regulate household products (or any other aspect of indoor air quality). . . .Even if we had authority to regulate indoor air quality, it would be difficult to regulate household (or other) products because we have no authority to collect information on the chemical content of products in the marketplace (nor does any Federal Agency)."

If governmental agencies don't have the authority to protect us from toxins in common products, our choices are to either trust the manufacturers or do our own homework. This is more challenging than you might think, due to inadequate labeling laws (a topic I'll probably address in a future post), but is still both possible and necessary. Some basic Christian principles include taking care of our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Knowing whether the products we use are toxic to ourselves and those around us is part of that.

Yes, it's a pain. Yes, it's easier to just buy what's cheap or what removes stains with the least effort. But doing our homework on this issue matters. It matters a lot.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

How Many People are Unusually Sensitive to Chemicals?

A surprisingly large percentage of ingredients found in common products are untested, unregulated, and potentially unsafe. Sometimes people know that certain products cause them problems ("Strong perfume gives me a headache"), but often they don't think to associate a symptom with a chemical trigger.

Given that fact, it may be surprising to realize how many people self-identify as being unusually or especially sensitive to everyday chemicals. Studies of the general population have found rates that vary between 11 and 33 percent. The study that found the lowest rate (11%) asked separate questions in which 31% of respondents noted an aversion to scented products and 18% reported negative physical reactions to air fresheners.

Do you believe those statistics?  A lot of people evidently don't. There are reasons for the fact that chemical sensitivity is a largely hidden problem. Those who are most seriously affected by MCS must avoid the chemical exposures associated with public gatherings and as a result rarely come into contact with the general public. There are also reasons that those with lower levels of chemical sensitivities are sometimes hesitant to make their condition known.

Very often, people are afraid that talking about their chemical reactions will offend or inconvenience people, who may take requests to change their personal care products, for example, very personally. They often make the choice to pay a physical price to avoid that scenario. Also, MCS is not only poorly understood, but often ridiculed, so people may fear that speaking of their chemical sensitivities will earn them a label of crazy or manipulative.

If close to a third of the population identifies as being unusually sensitive to common chemicals or at least expresses an aversion to scented products, is it worth noting?  Is it possible that a few simple changes to a church building or other establishment could make a big difference for many people?  The issue of chemical contamination is a big one, but removing or replacing synthetically fragranced products is an easy place to start. Why don't we do it?  If the issue is disbelief of the extent of the number of people who are bothered, why not ask?  Poll your congregation or small group. Those who are most sensitive are probably staying away, and many who are being affected by chemicals probably haven’t yet made the connection. Still, I bet you'll be surprised at how many know they have reactions. They’ll be glad you brought it up.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Great Blog Dilemma

To blog or not to blog; that is the question. To date, my internal dialogue has gone something like this:

Reasons Not to Blog

  • I have MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), Lyme disease, and mold illness. It scares me to make commitments because I can't guarantee I'll be functional enough to keep them. Can I keep a blog going?  Can I manage to post on a regular basis?  When I'm not feeling well can I manage to be coherent?  I'm sure healthy people have a hard time understanding the fear of not being up to typing out a few thoughts, but I know those readers with chronic illness understand.

  • Choosing to blog means choosing to divert time and energy currently spent on other things. What do I give up?  I'm currently unable to sleep in my house (a surprisingly common MCS problem). If I blog, it means I have less time to work on making my home safe for me.      

  • The internet is full of blogs and blog carcasses. Does it need another? Will anyone find it? Will anyone read it?  Will it make a difference in any way?

  • Writing a blog that's primarily about MCS issues means forcing myself to think about things that can be very depressing. Is it worth doing that to myself on a regular basis?  Do I want to mentally camp out in such a barren place?

Reasons to Give it a Shot

  • I think perhaps this is something God would like me to do, at least for now. When I was praying about it recently, God's words to Gideon in Judges 6 spoke to me. Gideon was complaining about the state of affairs and God gave him a commission to act, saying, "Go in the strength you have." 

  • The Literary Powers That Be tell me that living a blog-free life isn't an option. I've written a book that I haven’t quite figured out what to do with, yet.  Whether I come up with the money to self-publish, manage to find a traditional publisher, or decide to just put the book up online somewhere, I’ve gotten the message that a blog needs to be part of the package.

  • I have something to say. Much of what I have to say pertains to MCS and the Christian church. Becoming part of the MCS community opened my eyes to an unseen world of Christians who are completely shut out of most church buildings and gatherings because of the common products people choose to use. That isn't OK. Christians are also unknowingly making themselves sick with the same products, and that isn't OK, either. Worst of all, there are people who are spiritually hungry who can't search for truth inside most Christian churches because chemicals shut them out. That really isn't OK at all.

The fact that you're reading this answers the question of what I finally decided. I'm blogging. See Martha blog. I have no idea where this is going to go, but I really appreciate you coming along for the ride.