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.