Monday, October 29, 2012

Trying to Get a Product Off the Market

I read an article this week that did a good job of illustrating how little regulation there is for cosmetic products and how hard it is to remove them from the market. A special report by Environmental Health News looked at the history of a problematic hair straightener. That article and a page of information from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) made the following points:

  • About 2,000 new cosmetic products enter the market each year and companies are not required to gain approval for them or disclose their ingredients.

  • Removing a product from the market requires a federal court battle. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have authority to recall cosmetic products.

  • The hair straightening formulation contains high levels of methylene glycol, the liquid form of formaldehyde, which has been linked to a wide range of health concerns, including cancer. When OSHA tested the air in hair salons using the product, they found formaldehyde levels that exceeded the federal safely limit. During the blow drying phase of treatment, the formaldehyde levels in one salon were found to be five times the safety threshold.

  • An employee of the California Department of Public Health noted that the sale of the hair straightener violated five separate laws and resulted in numerous injuries, but that they had not been able to get it banned.

  • The product remains in salons despite the fact that several states have issued health alerts and the California Attorney General won a settlement regarding deceptive advertising and failure to disclose a cancer-causing ingredient. The Food and Drug Administration also cited the manufacturer for adulteration and misbranding of the product and  a review panel of health experts called it unsafe.

  • Stylists profiled in the article now suffer from what the author calls "an odd, lasting sensitivity" to products such as cleaning agents, fragrances and hair spray. Readers of the this blog know the situation is actually not odd at all. Formaldehyde is a known sensitizer, which often sets people on the path of chemical illness.

  • OSHA found that many products containing formaldehyde did not list the chemical on either the label or the MSDS (material safety data sheet). They note that even products that claim to be formaldehyde free can still expose workers to the chemical.

It's nice to assume that products allowed to be sold are safe and that those proved otherwise can be easily recalled. Unfortunately, that just isn't the case. We have to take the initiative ourselves to protect our health and the health of those around us. I mentioned in last week's blog post that I didn't think deodorant was worth dying for. I also wouldn't trade my health for straighter hair. How about you?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Death by Deodorant

When I'm not reading and writing about MCS, I'm often reading and writing about addiction, because I work part-time from home writing articles on the subject. My entry into the field was more by happenstance than design, but I find the topic interesting, especially the research into drug-related brain effects. There's a lot of overlap between MCS issues and addiction science.

The abuse of inhalants, often known as "huffing," is especially interesting to me because of its obvious tie-in to chemical sensitivity. As a culture, we seem to be a bit double-minded on the issue of whether we think common chemical products can harm us. We sell them, buy them, and use them in huge amounts without seeming to think about their safety too much, but we do seem to acknowledge the dangers of inhaling them intentionally. Unfortunately, although dosage does matter, our bodies react in much the same way whether we're huffing in an attempt to get high or we're inhaling products in the air around us because we have no way to escape them.

Do you wonder if a product may be affecting you or someone around you?  A look at some of the known effects of huffing may help you figure it out. The National Institute on Drug Abuse  and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration note the following among the possible effects of inhalants:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Drowsiness
  • Lack of coordination
  • Confusion
  • Nausea
  • Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) which damages brain and other cells
  • Memory impairment
  • Difficulty holding a conversation
  • Breakdown of the myelin sheath around nerves, leading to possible muscle spasms, tremors, or difficulty walking
  • Hearing loss
  • Peripheral neuropathy
  • Damage to the central nervous system
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Blood oxygen depletion
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Violent behavior
  • Heart palpitations
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Excitability
  • Low blood pressure
  • Slow or rapid heartbeat
  • Lack of concentration
  • Poor memory
  • Poor learning skills
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability

When people abuse inhalants intentionally, there is a significant risk of Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome, which is exactly what the name implies. Those who are simply exposed to inhalants throughout the course of their day are less likely to suddenly die from them. It's not impossible, however. I vividly remember hearing the story a few years ago of a 12 year old boy who collapsed and died after applying deodorant in his family home. A report of the event notes that the boy was fit and healthy and the pathologist found no evidence of substance abuse. Interestingly, when looking for the story, I found an almost identical one reported 10 years earlier. In 1998, a 16-year-old boy described as a "normal, healthy teenager who was not engaging in any form of substance abuse" was overcome by deodorant fumes and died.

What improved between 1998, when the 16-year-old died and 2008, when the 12-year-old met the same fate? Did the products get safer or did society become more aware of the dangers? It doesn’t appear so. How about 2018? Will things be different then? If anything is going to change, I suspect you and I are going to have to be part of changing it. I believe there are things worth dying for. Deodorant isn't one of them.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Conservation of Matter

I'm certainly no scientist, but I do remember a few tidbits of information from my school days. One of those nuggets is the law of conservation of matter, which states that matter can't be created or destroyed, but only changed in form. In other words, the fact that something can no longer be seen or smelled doesn't mean it has ceased to exist. When a consumer product is used in a building, it may lose potency as it’s diluted or broken down into constituent parts, but it doesn't just magically vanish.

I'm thinking about that fact this week because of an article in New York's Daily News entitled "New York's air is full of junk."  The article chronicles the results of air sampling in various parts of the city. Yes, New York's air is full of junk, and it isn't necessarily the junk you might imagine.

Results of the air sampling include the following:

  • The air in Brooklyn Heights was full of fat, perhaps from the many neighborhood restaurants. Other items found in the sample were cotton fiber, silica glass, and tire rubber.

  • In Williamsburg, the air was full of human hair. Testing also revealed small paint particles, which were associated with a nail salon.

  • Starch filled the air in Chinatown, a likely result of cooking starchy foods and the use of starch-containing laundry products at local laundromats.

  • Air in an area of the city containing numerous clothing stores was found to contain many tiny fabric fibers, including a microscopic bright red polyester thread.

  • Not surprisingly, the air in a busy area near Times Square contained soot and a large quantity of carbon from vehicle exhaust.

  • An area near La Guardia airport contained tiny bits of colorful glass, perhaps from the airplanes taking off or landing.

I found the article to be an interesting reminder of the far-reaching effects of our product choices. If we use a product, it will be in the air. If it's in the air, it will soon be in our bodies. If it's in our bodies, it will affect us biologically. Perhaps remembering the law of conservation of matter will help us make safer choices both for ourselves and for those who share the air.

Monday, October 8, 2012

“I” and “We”

Recently, a Facebook friend posted this quote: "When 'I' is replaced by 'we,' even 'illness' becomes 'wellness.'"  It's an interesting sentence, both linguistically and conceptually, and in general MCS terms there is a lot of truth to the slogan. Those of us with chemical sensitivities can make non-toxic product choices for ourselves, but for us to function in the world with any degree of wellness requires others to make the same decisions.

The concept is very appropriate for me this week, not just in general terms, but in a very specific way. On two recent days, a small army of people invaded my house in order to help make it safer for me. As I mentioned in a previous post, safe housing is a huge need in the MCS community. Although my situation is much less dire than that of many others, I've personally been unable to sleep inside for over a year. Some friends have decided to do what they can to get me back in my home before winter and I'm exceptionally grateful for their assistance.

This experience reminds me again that help can be both very welcomed and somewhat difficult to accept. For the reasons mentioned in the post Illness and Shame, limitations imposed by chronic sickness often bring with them a degree of embarrassment. I think I've made progress in confronting that thought pattern, but when my friends started talking about helping, I realized I hadn't come as far as I thought I had. The gratitude and relief I felt was mixed with a healthy dose of discomfort and awkwardness.

The truth is, though, that I do need help. The job of doing what needs to be done to keep myself functioning is bigger than my resources. I'm more fortunate than many of my fellow MCS sufferers because I have a wonderful, supportive husband who does what he can to take care of me. He needs help, too, though. The job is bigger than both of us.

I find it interesting that within the span of a few verses in Galatians 6 we are told both to bear one another's burdens and carry our own load. I don't know the nuances of the words in the original language or how to determine when loads become burdens. I do know, though, that sometimes they do and that together we can lift burdens that are too heavy to carry alone.

Thank you, burden-bearers. Thank you to all who have helped me, both financially and logistically, with my house project. Special thanks go to Karen and Roseann. Your friendship is a treasured gift.

There are many, many people with MCS who are struggling under burdens too heavy for them to carry alone. I read accounts literally every day of people with very serious MCS-related housing needs. The story in this recently posted You Tube video is far too familiar. I don't know this couple, but I empathize deeply with their situation and I know they represent thousands more who are equally desperate.

I pray for all of my fellow MCS sufferers who are struggling with burdens that are too heavy to lift without help. I pray that some aspects of "I" will be turned to "we" so that some aspects of illness can be turned to wellness. I'm so grateful for the help I've had this week and I pray that others will have the assistance they need, too. Hurray for the burden-bearers. May their ranks multiply. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Fresh Blog Post

I've been thinking about the word "fresh" recently. Although there are alternative meanings, the general definition of the word is "new."  Often something fresh replaces something old, stale, or worn-out. We put on fresh socks or ask a friend to help us think of some fresh ideas for a project.

The air inside a building gets contaminated by the products used within it. In addition, humans inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, so when people are in a building, the air gets progressively less healthy from the simple act of breathing. We replace old, stale air with new, fresh air by opening windows or using ventilation systems. In no way whatsoever do we improve air quality by using those ridiculously named products known as “air fresheners."

 Here are a handful of "air freshener" facts:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that most air fresheners contain formaldehyde and petrochemicals. They also contain a chemical known as 1,4-Dichlorobenzene (1,4,-DCB) which is an EPA-registered pesticide. It can cause cancer and lung damage and increases asthma rates. The chemical "freshens" the air by damaging nasal receptors. It does not remove odors, but removes people's ability to smell them.

  • A study comparing homes in which air fresheners were used every day with those in which they were used once a week or less found that babies in the daily-use homes had significantly more earaches and diarrhea, and their mothers suffered nearly 10% more headaches and had a 26% increase in depression.

  • Many air fresheners contain acetone and propane. They are toxic to the heart, blood, respiratory system, skin, gastrointestinal system, kidney, nervous system and liver.

  • Exposure to air freshener chemicals as little as once a week can increase your risk of developing asthma symptoms by up to 71%.

  • Most air fresheners contain phthalates, which are hormone-disrupting chemicals that can cause birth defects and infertility. These chemicals are even found in air fresheners designated as "unscented" or "all natural".

  • The human body stores chemicals like those found in air fresheners in fatty tissue. The body may hold onto fat as a way to protect itself from the release of the toxins.

  • Air freshener chemicals, including camphor, phenol, ethanol, formaldehyde, and artificial fragrances can cause a wide variety of health symptoms, including dizziness, coughing, rashes, mental confusion, and headaches, including migraines.

  • One study found that women with the highest usage of household chemicals, including air fresheners, had twice the risk of breast cancer of those with the lowest chemical usage rates.

Although air fresheners abuse and misuse the word "fresh," they aren't the only product to do so. I recently saw an advertisement for a laundry detergent that claimed it now had a higher percentage of "freshness."  Really?  I imagine what the marketers mean is that more fragrance chemicals have been added to the already potent and toxic mix. It's easy to get duped by marketing ploys, but we don't have to buy into the crazy-ness. We can break away from the crowd. We can have a fresh perspective. We can make a fresh start.

Are Air Fresheners Bad for Your Health?
Silent Menace
Air Fresheners: Easy Greening
How Air Fresheners Are Killing You
Air Fresheners' Real Impact on Indoor Air Quality