As I've written before, primarily in the post entitled A Challenge that Hits Home, safe housing is a huge problem for the chemically reactive. Almost every day I read about a fellow chemical illness sufferer who is looking for some sort of temporary or permanent shelter. The fact that the great majority of homes, hotels, and emergency shelters are inaccessible to those with MCS is a huge problem. It's a serious issue any time of year, but in the winter it becomes a true crisis.
My situation is certainly not as bad as the situations many of my fellow sufferers find themselves in. I have a warm house to stay in during the day, but it becomes a problem at night, when mold levels rise. Because of my extreme sensitivity to mold, I sleep in a campervan. It’s pretty cold out there this time of year, but I'm able to stretch out, and I have electricity, which enables me to use a small space heater. It could definitely be worse.
People with MCS may find themselves struggling to stay warm for a variety of reasons. Some stay in trailers, sheds, workshops or other non-conventional buildings that are not well-insulated or designed for cold-weather living. Some live in conventional homes, but can't tolerate the home's heat source.
My healthy readers may wonder why an uncomfortable cold night is preferable to an uncomfortable night of reactions to a toxic environment. The short answer is that the body doesn't need to detox "cold." If I spend a cold night in my campervan, I may be tired the next day, but I don't have other lingering effects. If I spend the night in my home, I have continuing pain and other symptoms that just continue to worsen as my body is unable to rid itself of the mold toxins. There comes a point at which the cold itself is dangerous, but when it isn't life-threatening or likely to lead to permanent injury, choosing cold over toxins is reasonable.
Because this topic comes up so often, I've decided to compile some tips on staying warm at night. Some are things I've learned from experience and some are things I've heard from others. I haven't tried them all and they aren't all applicable to every situation, due to personal sensitivities, tolerances, and needs. I’ve written these primarily for those with toxic illness, but my healthy readers might want to read through them, too. You never know when an ice storm is going to take out your power. Here are some suggestions:
- Prepare in advance -- It's wise to have multiple layers of safe-for-you warm bedding and clothing ready, even if you don't need them now. Because it can take months to offgas newly purchased products, waiting until the need arises to purchase goods can be problematic. Even if you have stable housing now and think homelessness or semi-homelessness will never happen to you, I advise you to be prepared. I thought that, too.
- Invest in good quality bedding -- I'm personally a big fan of wool, which keeps me much warmer than other fabrics. In the winter I use a wool blanket inside a zero-degree sleeping bag, covered with a wool comforter. After looking for a zero-degree sleeping bag made of natural fabrics and not finding one, I finally decided on a nylon version. Nylon is the least toxic of the plastic fabrics and I find it much more tolerable than polyester or acrylic. I did need to wash my new bag many times and let it offgas for months before I could tolerate it, though. A cheaper bedding option is a mylar emergency blanket. They're a little loud and "crinkly," but do a good job of keeping a person wrapped inside them warm, and most people with chemical sensitivities seem to handle them well.
- Surround yourself with warmth on all sides-- The more cocooned you can be inside your bedding, the warmer you will stay. Sometimes people who can't find a tolerable sleeping bag will make a bag of sorts out of blankets. One blanket can be folded in half lengthwise and secured with pins or clips. It can go inside another folded blanket which has the opening on the other side. The goal is to minimize air intrusion. Keeping a blanket or another source of warmth below you as well as above you can be very helpful.
- Layers are your friend -- It's helpful to have some warm clothes that are too big for you so that you can easily layer other clothes underneath them. On the coldest nights I wear six layers of clothing to bed. The outer layer is a wool sweater that originally belonged to my husband who is much bigger than I am. By the time I have my other layers on, it fits me just fine.
- Cover as much of your body as possible -- A helpful tip I picked up from a fellow toxic illness sufferer is to wear a hooded sweatshirt at night. I had been wearing a sweatshirt and a knit cap, but the cap often fell off. A hooded sweatshirt solves that problem and also covers my neck. Although I haven't tried it, I've thought that wearing a ski mask to bed would probably be helpful. Tucking pant legs into socks will keep your legs fully covered.
- Put something warm in bed with you -- Sometimes people use microwaveable cloth bags filled with rice, corn, or beans. Most people with toxic illness don't handle the rubber or vinyl of traditional hot water bottles, but the same results can be obtained from filling a metal water bottle or canteen. Be careful not to burn yourself, of course. I've become a fan of air-activated hand warmers ("HotHands" is one brand). They stay hot all night long and seem very non-toxic.
- Pre-warm your body -- Some people recommend exercising to warm up, but too much exercising close to bedtime can interfere with sleep. Others prefer to take a warm bath or eat a small amount of spicy or hot food.
- Pre-warm your clothing --I've heard of people warming bedtime clothing in a dryer before putting it on.
- Pre-warm the bed -- A bed can be pre-warmed with a hair dryer. People concerned about electromagnetic fields don't generally recommend sleeping with an electric blanket or mattress pad, but some people use them to warm the bed, then turn them off and unplug them before sleeping.
- Insulate and block drafts -- Rolled towels or blankets can keep air from entering underneath doors. Reflective insulation or bubble wrap can be used for windows.
I've learned that keeping myself warm is not the only overnight wintertime challenge. For safety reasons, it seems wise to keep a cellphone with me, but I've learned that the batteries stop working if my phone gets too cold. I now wrap my phone in a wool sock and make sure it stays warm enough to function.