Monday, July 23, 2012

Do It for the Grandkids

There are many reasons that the issue of chemical toxicity tends not to be taken very seriously by most people. Perhaps the most natural and common reason is that the issue doesn't feel personal. People don't associate their health symptoms with chemical exposures and generally assume they're handling everyday toxins just fine.

Yes, there are certainly biological differences in the way people's bodies process chemicals, and some people do have stronger detoxification systems than others. I truly believe, however, that everyone alive today is being affected by chemicals in the everyday environment to one degree or another. We're also evidently affecting the next couple of generations as well.

Chemicals can impact the human body in a number of different ways. They can directly affect organs and systems, they can mutate genes, or they can change the way genes express themselves. The latter are known as epigenetic changes and, like mutations, can be passed on to future generations.

 A recent article entitled How Your Great Grandmother’s Chemical Exposures May Affect You discussed a study in which exposure to common chemicals was associated with ovarian diseases that lasted for three generations. We've long known that when a pregnant mother is exposed to certain chemicals that her child may be affected. It's becoming increasingly clear, however, that an exposure may not only affect her child, but her future grandchildren, and even their children as well. (There is also a growing awareness that a father's exposure to chemicals before a child is conceived can have significant implications. A World Health Organization publication, for instance, notes that "exposure of either father or mother to pesticides before conception . . . has been associated with an increased risk of fetal death, spontaneous abortion and early childhood cancer.")

An article entitled Epigenetics:Chemicals Turn Genes On and Off at the Wrong Times notes that epigenetic changes have been linked to a wide range of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, prostate cancer, Parkinson's disease, learning disabilities and asthma. This is serious business. It's easy for those of us past childbearing age to think the issue isn't relevant for us, but the truth is that our product choices affect others.. The personal care products we choose and the cleaning supplies, bug sprays and other products we use in our homes and churches may cause significant harm to the people around us and to individuals yet unborn. We are interconnected. Our product choices matter.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Deciphering the News

There has been a bit of media coverage this week of a recent study noting that 20 percent of low-income patients screened by two Texas family medicine practices were found to have "chemical intolerance" or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). A number of news outlets, including CNBC, Fox News, and the Chicago Tribune reprinted a Reuters article  on the study. As usual when MCS-related news is reported, there are aspects of the coverage to both applaud and bemoan.

Here's my take on the study and the coverage:

  • The essential bit of news is that a significant percentage of patients recruited from the waiting rooms of two family medicine clinics were given a screening survey and found to meet the diagnostic criteria for MCS. I'm glad that the prevalence of the disorder is being reported, because MCS is far more common than most people imagine, and an awareness of the size of the issue may spur action.
  • The study found a prevalence rate of 20% among the patients examined. This is, as the report suggests, "sizeable,” but it isn't a total surprise or completely out of line with previous findings. Previous studies of the general population have found MCS prevalence rates between 11 and 33%. Studies of specific populations have found much higher rates. A  study of Gulf War veteran outpatients, for example, found a rate of 86%.
  • The report noted that the patients in the study were low-income and stated that previous studies focused on "higher-income, white people." If that's true of previous studies, I'm unaware of it.   In fact, this report of a prevalence study noted that "both allergy and chemical sensitivity were distributed widely across age, income, race, and educational groups" and one published in the American Journal of Epidemiology  stated that "marital status, employment, education, geographic location, and income were not predictive of reported chemical sensitivities ."  Studying sub-groups for rates of chemical sensitivity has merit, but I hope all people will take the issues seriously and realize that no one is immune.
  • The author of the Reuters report states that an MCS diagnosis is "controversial."  I suppose that's true, in the strictest sense of the word, but only because of the special interests with deep pockets that work hard to make it so. See the previous post titled “The Misinformation Campaign” for more information.
  • The author notes that there is no agreement on the cause of MCS. That is also technically true, I suppose, because companies that manufacture chemicals don't "agree" (at least publicly) that their products have anything to do with the symptoms MCS patients experience. It's very reminiscent of previous denials by tobacco companies that their product had any association with lung cancer.
  • The study found that the patients with chemical sensitivity had higher rates of depression and anxiety than others. This is a touchy subject among many with MCS, because those who attempt to disprove the validity of the condition generally try to paint it as a mental disorder. Fortunately, the report quoted lead researcher Dr. David A Katerndahl who noted that "some people might become depressed or anxious because of their chemical intolerance symptoms."  Of course we do. I imagine that people with cancer or those injured in automobile accidents also have higher rates of depression and anxiety. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives notes that only 1.4% of patients with chemical sensitivities had a prior history of emotional problems, but 37.7% developed emotional problems after the physical symptoms emerged. See this previous post for an overview of research pointing to physical, rather than psychological causation.
  • Only one-fourth of the patients found to have MCS had been previously diagnosed. This is an important point. If people don't associate their symptoms with exposures, they don't know to avoid (or at least attempt to avoid) substances that cause their distress. Katerndahl also pointed out that chemically sensitive patients are often intolerant of many medications, which is important for their physicians to understand. 
  • I found a bit of good news in Katerndahl's statement that among primary care doctors there is a growing acceptance of the validity of MCS. I pray that acceptance turns into action and that doctors will work to make their offices and clinics less toxic and more chemically safe for all of their patients.
  • The suggestion for those with MCS is that they get a referral to go see an allergist. This is, unfortunately, not likely to be of much help to most who suffer from chemical sensitivities. Although people can have both allergies and MCS, true allergies involve an immune response that differs from the detoxification abnormalities common in MCS. Appropriate and helpful medical care for those with chemical sensitivities is extremely hard to find. An interesting study of treatment efficacy found that survey participants with MCS had consulted an average of 12 healthcare providers each and found 3 to be helpful. They had spent over one-third of their annual income on health care costs. The survey rated the perceived efficacy of 101 treatments and found the three most highly rated interventions to be creating a chemical-free living space, chemical avoidance, and prayer.
Knowing how many people suffer from MCS is important. The real question, though, is how many is too many?  How many must suffer before we make changes in our product choices?  How many people is it OK to shut out of our churches? These are questions that deserve serious consideration.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How to Know if a Product is Safe

People often ask me about the safety or toxicity of various products. Sometimes I know the answer and sometimes I don't. It isn't easy to keep up with the barrage of new offerings continually entering the marketplace, and since formulations change constantly, even a product that was safe one week may not be so the next.

It's important for consumers to be aware of the chemical safety of the products they use, but manufacturers certainly don't make that task easy. There are large loopholes in labeling laws, and a great deal of marketing hype that is often difficult to decipher. Manufacturers have responded to the rising demand for safer products in varying ways. Some have introduced less toxic products into their consumer lines (while generally continuing to sell their toxic standard-bearers) and others have simply re-branded products as "all-natural," "non-toxic," or "green." These terms are used indiscriminately and have very little meaning. Consumer Reports' Greener Choices website has a helpful label search function which notes, for example, that the "non-toxic" label is not meaningful, verified, consistent, or free from conflict of interest.

The term "green" is especially problematic. A green product is purported to be better for the environment than standard fare, but better for the environment does not necessarily mean better for human health. Recycling a toxic product, for example, does not make it less toxic. People who are chemically sensitive often call themselves "canaries" after the birds that miners once took with them to warn of harmful gases. Perhaps we should adopt the color of the canary as a new standard and look for products that are not just green, but also yellow, or safe for human use.

Although it is difficult to get all the information needed to make truly informed product choices, there are some general rules of thumb. Products purchased at health food stores or from companies that cater to the health-conscious are generally safer than products purchased at major retail outlets, although there may be exceptions. There are also websites that help provide information and there are clues to toxicity even on imperfect labels. Reading labels is important and it is wise to note the following warnings or listed ingredients:

  • Fragrance - Products do not have to have any odor at all to be toxic (carbon monoxide, for example, is both odorless and deadly), but synthetic fragrances are almost always problematic. (For more information, see the previous post entitled Fragrance Facts.) Heavy fragrances are often added to a product to cover the odor of other objectionable chemicals. I've recently begun seeing the word "aroma" in ingredient lists and assume it is simply another term for synthetic fragrance. If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know.

  • Keep out of reach of children - A product containing this warning is obviously hazardous to some degree, and is likely to be harmful for adults as well.

  • Use in a well ventilated area  - Abundant ventilation is always a good idea, but seeing the advice on a product label may indicate that another product is a safer choice.

  • Wash hands well after using - Obviously, washing hands frequently is a good idea for many reasons, but seeing the advice on a product label may mean that the product contains toxic chemicals likely to be absorbed through the skin.

The following websites are helpful (though sometimes hard to navigate) resources for evaluating aspects of safety for certain products:

  • evaluates the safety of products in many categories, including children’s goods, pets, cars, and apparel.

  • The Household Products Database is offered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and  provides health and safety information on household products of many kinds, including yard, home maintenance, auto, home office, and arts and crafts.

  • Skin Deep is a searchable safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products.

Making informed product choices is more challenging that it needs to be, but it isn't impossible. Sometimes a quick internet search using the product name and the word "toxic" is all that is needed to obtain good information. A search for "non-toxic alternatives to . . ." can also yield helpful results at times. No matter the inconvenience, educating ourselves about product toxicity and making safer choices is worth the effort. The seemingly small choices we make in the products we use can have profound and life-altering consequences, not only for ourselves, but also for those around us. Let's value our health and the health of those who share the air enough to take this issue seriously.

Monday, July 2, 2012

How Beautiful

I've just returned from a vacation trip to Yellowstone National Park. It's very difficult for me to stay in motels or in other people's homes, so my husband and I travel in a 29-year-old campervan. The campervan makes travel possible, but not completely easy. Taking a trip always involves unavoidable chemical exposures, but most of the time the benefits of getting away make it worth the physical cost.

I've been to Yellowstone before, and my soul was as fed by the vast unspoiled beauty this time as it was on my previous visit. This trip had an added bonus, though. This time I was able to attend an outdoor worship service. Actually, I got to attend two: one Sunday morning and another one later that evening. The evening service was a bit problematic because of bug repellant, which many people applied at the same time and in close proximity to me. I moved away from the group, but was able to stay for the service, and was grateful for that.

 Fortunately, the chemical exposures were very low for the morning worship gathering. There was a lot going on in my head and heart during that service and I found myself getting very emotional. Primarily I felt gratitude and joy for the opportunity to worship with others, since it's a very rare privilege for me these days.

As I sat in the midst of strangers from all over the country who had come together because of a common love for Jesus, I kept thinking of a line from an old Twila Paris song: "How beautiful is the body of Christ."  Yellowstone is full of natural beauty, but I had to agree, looking around at the other worship participants representing parts of Christ's body on this earth, that they were beautiful, too.

There were also a lot of memories coming to the surface that morning. The summer after my freshman year in college I served as a summer missionary in a tourist area, and one of the things I did was to lead worship services in a number of campgrounds. The morning service at Yellowstone was led by a college girl, and when I looked at her I saw a younger me.

I began to wonder what I would tell the younger me, if I could. I wasn't naïve or untouched by life's challenges at that age. My mother died when I was 13, so I already knew that life could be hard. I never imagined MCS, though. I never imagined being shut out of church.

I think what I would tell my younger self is that corporate worship is a valuable treasure that shouldn't be taken for granted. I would say that providing worship services in unconventional settings is an important ministry and well worth the effort. I would thank the younger me for being part of providing worship opportunities for all sorts of people, some of whom might, like the current me, have no other options.

Would the younger me listen to the current me if I told her to value and store up in her heart every element of every worship service she was able to attend?  Probably not. At the time, the ability to freely worship with others seemed to be a "given" rather than the privilege it really is. Now I understand. Now, when I'm able to worship with others I soak up all the moments of corporate grace and I treasure them. I truly treasure them.