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.