Monday, April 29, 2013

Take a Stand

I've written before (primarily in the posts entitled Who Regulates the Products We Use and Trying to Get a Product Off the Market) about the surprising lack of testing and regulation of the chemicals that fill our lives. A recent editorial in The New York Times, entitled A Toothless Law on Common Chemicals addresses the issue.  The author makes the following points:

  • The 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act is supposed to ensure the safety of chemicals used in manufacturing and household products. The author notes that "it would be hard to design a law more stacked against the regulators."

  • Manufacturers do not need to prove that their chemicals are safe before they are sold and used.  

  • The government must prove chemicals are unsafe before they can be removed from the market, but it is difficult for the Environmental Protection Agency to get the information needed to conduct the required tests. The author notes that "the agency can only ask the company for data or require testing if it first proves there is a potential risk, which is hard to do without the company’s data."

  • There are about 85,000 chemicals in use. Since 1976, the EPA has issued regulations to control five of them.

The good news is that there is potential for change. Recently, two senators introduced the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013. If enacted, it would require manufacturers to prove the safety of products before they are sold. More information on the bill can be found at the legislative update page of Safer Chemicals: Healthy Families.

You can make a difference in this important effort by contacting your senators. The Center for Environmental Health has provided an easy way to do so at their Urge Your Senator page.  Contacting your senators through the site is quick and easy and can make a difference. Please take a moment to take a stand.  

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fatal Fertilizer

The horrible tragedy in Texas last week has focused the nation's attention on some of the usually unrecognized problems associated with commercial fertilizers. There are good questions being asked about the wisdom of building houses, schools, and nursing homes near fertilizer companies. There are other important questions about commercial fertilizers that need to be asked, though, including the following.

Q:  How are modern fertilizers made?
A:  Most fertilizers are composed primarily of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium. These can come from various sources, including toxic industrial waste.

Q: How common is the practice of using industrial waste in fertilizer?
A:  The Washington Toxics Coalition reports that the practice is widespread. A report prepared by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) states that “more than six hundred companies from 44 states mix over 270 million pounds of hazardous waste with fertilizer as a cheap and unregulated means of disposal."

Q:  What kinds of waste products are used? 
A: An article first published in Catalyst magazine states that  "industrial and mining wastes — including plutonium, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead, PCBs and dioxin — are taken from tailings, sumps, holding ponds, furnaces, and even captured from pollution control devices, and legally sold to fertilizer companies or spread directly on farmland."  

Q:  Is the waste treated first to remove the toxins?
A: A report entitled "Waste Lands: The Threat of Toxic Fertilizersays, "Unfortunately, the recycling of hazardous wastes into fertilizer products does not always include the process of treatment or cleaning of hazardous waste, but rather dilution of the waste. Dilution involves adding substances to a waste to reduce the concentration of toxic substances that are present in the waste. Dilution does not reduce the toxicity of the hazardous constituents."

Q:  What are the laws about using toxic waste for fertilizer?
A:  An international treaty known as the Basel Convention or the Basel Ban addresses "toxic colonialism."  It prevents developed countries like the United States from calling hazardous waste "fertilizer" and exporting it to poorer countries. Industrial waste is allowed to be used in the United States because of loopholes in hazardous waste disposal regulations. An individual quoted in a Seattle Times article discusses the loopholes. Referring to a toxic by-product of steel making, he says, "When it goes into our silo, it's a hazardous waste. When it comes out of the silo, it's no longer regulated. The exact same material. Don't ask me why. That's the wisdom of the EPA."

Loopholes also allow products to be sold without full ingredient disclosure. Labeling laws only require the beneficial nutrients to be listed. Contaminants, which the CHEJ report calls 'toxic stowaways," are not legally required to be included on the label.

Q: What contaminants may be present?
A: The Waste Lands publication reported on a study that tested 29 fertilizers for 22 toxic metals. They found that 20 fertilizers exceeded levels of concern for nine toxic heavy metals. All 29 fertilizers contained some level of each of the metals evaluated. The report notes that the metals are associated with cancer, birth defects, and reproductive problems.

Q: What can people do to help combat the problem and reduce the health risks?
A: The obvious place to start is by choosing not to purchase and use chemical fertilizers on lawns and gardens. Those that advertise weed control as part of their benefit are especially important to avoid, because they generally contain pesticides. The website Eartheasy has a helpful page on natural lawn care, and natural and organic fertilizers can be bought many places, including Grow OrganicWe can also influence the use of toxic fertilizers on commercial crops by voting with our wallets. When we buy organic produce, we send the message that the issue is important to us.

The explosion in Texas was sobering and heartbreaking, but if it causes us to examine our use of chemical fertilizers, maybe we can salvage a bit of good from the tragedy.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Nomadic Wanderings

I've addressed the topic of housing for the chemically ill several times, and I'm sure I'll continue to return to the issue. People who are very reactive to chemicals and other toxins (including those produced by mold) generally find that acquiring and maintaining safe housing is one of their largest struggles and needs. This week, an online friend detailed her search for safe housing over the last few years. I've asked if I could share her story with you, because I think it illustrates the problem well. She writes:

 April 2010: We left our moldy house.

June 2010: I was chased (by chemicals/toxins) out of our townhouse.

July 2010: We stayed near family while looking for a rental in a drier climate. I experienced a lot of pain there.

August 2010: We rented a wonderful home in a dry climate.

July 2011: A TERRIBLY wet spring/summer (like wetter than in 20 years) created enough outdoor mold in the woods and on the house's wooden decks (etc.) that I was having 24/7 trouble breathing, couldn't eat, etc. I camped for two weeks.

August 2011: We rented a home and I was chased out by new chemicals (plus I was feeling horrible anyway because the house was very "mediocre" and there was an airport nearby).

October 2011: We rented a home with a great outdoor environment, but indoors it harbored mold. Eventually, I couldn't breathe well or function there. I slept in the car two nights.

February 2012: We rented another place because I was desperate. (It doesn’t work well when it’s very cold, you have three kids, and you can’t breathe in your house.) I only lasted in the new place two weeks. I couldn't stop having dry heaves, plus I had other scary symptoms. I stayed in an expensive camping cabin in a nearby state park for a week or so. I had heat and a bed, but I wasn't allowed to cook in it. My husband had to drive 30 minutes to bring me food.

Friends and family helped provide an almost-all-aluminum camper for me to use. I stayed in a campground by myself for six weeks. I had a tiny fridge and griddle and I came back to our rental home every few days for showers. I improved quite a bit during those six weeks. Then the campground owner stained all his picnic tables and sprayed his trees. But by then I could tolerate living at the rental again for another couple of weeks before it became impossible again. I bounced around to various places in my (wonderful) camper to survive April and May. I sweltered in the rental cabin a few times because opening the windows gave me asthma from wood burning and the air conditioner unit had mold.

June 2012: Someone GAVE us a Winnebago, so we camped in the Winnebago and my camper. We did three months of dry camping (yikes, difficult), then two months at campgrounds because there was a burn ban (which kept me safe from campfires) and tourist season was winding down (reducing propane exhaust, etc.) I got SIGNIFICANTLY better during this time. Not totally healed by any means, but way better.

October 2012: We began staying in this "decent" mobile home (with real wood walls, not formaldehyde-laden paneling), but with the second worst outdoor environment of our homes, which became worse over time.

January 2013: We became aware of an increasing mold problem here. It's not reasonable to ask the landlord to do anything about it (long story), especially because the outdoor environment here is so bad for me.

February 2013: I REALLY started to go downhill. The outside air here has made my camper unusable unless we move it. There's no safe place to move it that has electricity to keep it warm. We've been searching for rentals almost every day since January. We actually DID find that needle-in-a-haystack house (for sale, not rent) that would probably work amazingly well. It's half the price of what we estimated to build from scratch (not to mention no headache of building.)  But, we don't have the money for contract for deed and absolutely can't get financing (so far, unless there's something we missed), even if our church raised a big down payment for us. We have also been turned down by over 20 major organizations for help, both religious and secular.

This is where the story currently stands. Will you pray for my friend?  Will you pray for all of us struggling with health-related housing issues?  I'm still trying to reclaim my own house, hoping to be able to sleep inside again at some point.

In addition to prayer, people who care about this issue can help in other ways, some of which I've previously mentioned.

1. Do your best not to contribute to outdoor air quality problems. Your choice of laundry products, for instance, affects your neighbors because the chemicals are pumped into the neighborhood air through your dryer vent. When you choose to use lawn chemicals or burn leaves, it doesn't only affect you and your family, but also those who live nearby.

2. Financial help is always appreciated. Chemical illness is an expensive condition to manage. In 2003, an article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reported on a study that examined the efficacy of over a hundred treatments used by people with MCS. The study found that participants had spent more than a third of their annual income on health care costs and had spent an average of $57,000 in their attempts to create safe homes. My friend is still struggling with housing issues, but as you read, the help she received made a significant difference for her. I am also extremely grateful for help that I've received. A previous post mentions two non-profit organizations trying to raise funds to address the problem.

3. Consider participating in activities to raise awareness and help for the chemically ill. The Jennifer Parker Foundation is sponsoring a series of walkathons to be held on Sunday, May 5th. See their website for more information and to register.

Housing problems are daunting, but not insurmountable. Thank you for caring and helping.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Addicted to Perfume?

Can people literally be addicted to the personal care products they use? It's possible. Although research on huffing (the deliberate inhalation of chemicals) has lagged behind research into other types of drug abuse, recent studies are intriguing and may help us understand not only inhalant abuse, but how everyday chemical exposures may affect us.

It was once believed that inhalant addiction was more psychological than physical, but research is dispelling that notion. Findings include the following:

  • A 2007 article in Neuropsychopharmacology reported on the way in which the solvent tolulene increases dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens (the brain's pleasure center). Dopamine is part of the body's reward system and is associated with the development of addiction.

A number of studies have shown that inhalant abusers experience withdrawal symptoms when they cease huffing.

  • A 2011 article in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation  found that almost half of people with inhalant dependence experienced three or more withdrawal symptoms. The authors note that “the percentage of persons with inhalant dependence reporting clinically significant inhalant withdrawal symptoms was almost equal to the percentage of persons with cocaine dependence reporting clinically significant cocaine withdrawal symptoms.”

What do these findings mean for the general population?  They may mean that sometimes when people "really like" a perfume or "have to use" air freshener, there is a physical basis for the desire. It's unlikely that any withdrawal symptoms (such as craving a product) would be recognized for what they are. It may be similar to the way in which people who "really like" coffee may be unconsciously feeding a dependence on caffeine.

The addiction-like nature of certain chemical exposures can make it difficult for people to associate chemicals and symptoms. In the book Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, authors Nicholas A. Ashford and Claudia Miller note that people may be simultaneously experiencing stimulatory symptoms from one chemical and withdrawal symptoms from another. The pattern makes it difficult to correlate cause and effect.

When people are addicted to a substance, they can manage to avoid withdrawal symptoms by making sure the substance stays in their body. This doesn't forestall toxicity effects, however. When people smoke cigarettes, for example (which also increase dopamine), they increase their risk for cancer, no matter what immediate smoking-related health symptoms they may or may not experience. Likewise, chemical exposures have serious long-term consequences, whether or not people initially find them pleasant.

Ashford and Miller note that "The difference between chemical exposures and cigarettes, alcohol, or caffeine is that in the former case addiction is an unwitting process. The individual may have no idea it is occurring." The answer is simple and one I repeat often. Avoid chemical exposures however and wherever possible, both for your own sake and the sake of those who share the air.

Monday, April 1, 2013

But I Don't Smell Anything

For a variety of reasons, people tend to associate toxic chemicals with "smells."  Many chemicals do have strong, identifiable odors. The association is also made because when people begin to recognize that chemicals cause them problems, they often first notice symptoms caused by perfumes and other synthetic fragrances. Unfortunately, the flip side of this association is that people tend to believe that if they can't smell something, it isn't there or can't be problematic.

The truth is that many dangerous chemicals can be neither seen nor smelled. Carbon monoxide is a well-known example. As with carbon monoxide, people can be greatly affected by other toxins without being aware that they are being exposed to them.

Some chemicals do have a noticeable odor, but in any given situation the odor may not be detected. This is generally due to a phenomenon known as olfactory fatigue (also known as odor fatigue or olfactory adaptation). Olfactory fatigue occurs when prolonged exposure to a compound renders a person unable to smell it any longer.

When people stop smelling an odor, they naturally assume that the odor-causing chemicals have dissipated. This may or may not be true. In fact, in the case of olfactory fatigue, the inability to smell a compound is not due to the fact that there is less of it, but to the fact that there is more of it than the nose can process.

One online source explains the phenomenon this way:

"Have you ever noticed a particular scent upon entering a room, and then not noticed it ten minutes later? This is due to olfactory fatigue. The olfactory sense is unique because it relies on mass, not energy to trigger action potentials. Your ears do not "stop" hearing a sound after a certain period of time, nor do your eyes stop seeing something you may be staring at. This is because both the ears and the eyes rely on energy to trigger them, not mass. In the nose, once a molecule has triggered a response, it must be disposed of and this takes time. If a molecule comes along too quickly, there is no place for it on the olfactory hairs, so it cannot be perceived."

All of our senses, including our sense of smell, can be helpful in warning us of danger. Relying on our sense of smell too heavily, though, isn't wise. Our noses can help us, but the organ we most need to rely on is the brain.