Monday, February 25, 2013

Surviving Winter

As I've written before, primarily in the post entitled A Challenge that Hits Homesafe 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.

Stay warm, friends. Spring is coming!

Monday, February 18, 2013

People, Pests, and Pesticides

In last week's post I talked about triclosan, which is added to many consumer products to combat germs. In researching the issue, I ran across a couple of interesting sentences. One article said that triclosan was originally developed as a pesticide. Another said that triclosan was added to certain pesticide products. These sentences seemed strange to me, because triclosan IS a pesticide. In the broadest sense of the term, a pesticide is a chemical designed to kill unwanted biological life. defines a pesticide as "a chemical preparation for destroying plant, fungal, or animal pests." The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that triclosan was first registered as a pesticide in 1969.

Because pesticides are specifically designed to kill (which is, of course, what the “cide” suffix means), they are potentially very dangerous. In fact, Zyklon B, the poison used to kill prisoners in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, was a pesticide. A 2009 article in Environmental Health News reported on a study finding that children who live in homes where pesticides are used are twice as likely to develop brain cancer.

Some pesticides are more dangerous than others, but it's important to recognize pesticides in all of their forms. Is a product designed to kill something? If so, it’s probably a pesticide. Pesticide products can target bugs (such as sprays, bug bombs, mothballs, flea collars and lice shampoo), weeds (such as weed killer and weed-control fertilizer products), or pathogens (such as antimicrobial soaps or treated clothing). 

The list of diseases and symptoms related to pesticide exposure is long. The website Beyond Pesticides includes a Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database which provides information linking pesticides to Alzheimer's disease, asthma, birth defects, cancer, diabetes, endocrine disruption, learning and developmental disorders, Parkinson's disease, and reproductive issues, among others. The EPA notes the following health effects from some commonly used pesticides.

  • 2, 4-D is found in over 1,500 pesticide products, is often used on residential lawns, and is frequently found in the dust of homes and other buildings. Studies link it to blood, liver, and kidney toxicity, coughing, a burning sensation in the lungs, loss of muscular coordination, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

  • Atrazine is an herbicide often used on golf courses, roadway grasses, and residential lawns, and is frequently found in drinking water. It is an endocrine disruptor with effects on hormones, the central nervous system, and the immune system. Atrazine exposure increases the risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and pre-term delivery and decreased birth weight of newborns.

  • DDVP (Dichlorvos) can be found in flea collars, pest strips, pesticide sprays, and foggers. It affects the brain, plasma, and red blood cells and can cause nausea, anxiousness, restlessness, teary eyes, heavy sweating, and many cancers.

  • Pyrethroids are generally used in lice shampoos, pet flea shampoos, household foggers, and municipal mosquito abatement products. Exposure can cause dizziness, twitching, nervous disorders, skin and respiratory irritation, and immunotoxic effects.

 A quick Internet search or a trip to the library will often yield a natural solution to a pest problem that can be not only magnitudes safer and surprisingly effective, but cheaper as well. The websites Beyond Pesticides and The Best Control are good places to start. Pesticides of all sorts have ruined and even taken lives, and I urge people to take the issue very seriously. For your own sake and the sake of those around you, please stop and research alternatives before using any chemical designed to kill.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Killing Germs While Killing Ourselves

It's flu season, and there seems to be even more talk than usual about the need for disinfecting surfaces and killing germs. Our culture certainly takes the fight against germs seriously. We add anti-microbial chemicals to soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, dishwashing detergent, cosmetics, clothing, shoes, carpets, countertops, children toys and all sorts of other products. One of the chemicals that has been used most frequently for the purpose is triclosan.

Here are some of the things we know about triclosan:

  • A study reported in August of 2012 found that triclosan impairs muscle contractions, which can cause weakness and improper heart functioning. A Daily Tech article quotes a researcher who observes that "Although triclosan is not regulated as a drug, this compound acts like a potent cardiac depressant in our models."

  • When triclosan in consumer products comes into contact with chlorine (such as in tap water), the chemicals can combine to produce chloroform, which has been linked to a number of negative health effects and may contribute to cancer development. Authors of a 2007 study on triclosan-containing antibacterial products conclude that "exposure to chloroform can be significant under some conditions."

  • Overuse of triclosan and similar chemicals may contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant "superbugs."  A 2006 article in the journal Microbial Drug Resistance states that "Since 2000, a number of studies have verified the occurrence of triclosan resistance amongst dermal, intestinal, and environmental microorganisms, including some of clinical relevance."

  • Triclosan has been found to hinder an enzyme related to estrogen metabolism. A report of the study observes that this may have significant implications for pregnancy and fetal development.

  • A higher level of triclosan in the bodies of children and teens under the age of 18 is associated with higher incidence of allergies. A Science Daily report notes that this supports the "hygiene hypothesis,” which postulates that living in a highly germ-free environment may impair the proper development of the immune system.

  • A recent analysis of Minnesota lakes found increasing levels of triclosan and triclosan derivatives (chemicals which are formed when triclosan and chlorine mix during wastewater treatment). When these are exposed to sunlight, they form dioxins. The World Health Organization designates dioxins as "highly toxic" and among the "dirty dozen" chemicals that are especially dangerous and persistent in both the environment and human body.

To sum it up, manufacturers put a potentially dangerous chemical which doesn't appear to have much benefit into a huge array of consumer products. Good idea?  I don't think so. Purchasing and using products containing triclosan?  I don’t think that’s a good idea, either.

Monday, February 4, 2013

What Does Clean Mean?

A recent study determined that developing asthma was strongly associated with the workplace environment. The researchers associated 18 jobs with an increased risk of developing the condition. Four of these were cleaning jobs, and three more were noted to involve likely exposure to cleaning products.

This is far from the first study to correlate asthma and cleaning products. In 2006, a literature review determined that "accumulating, consistent evidence” linked asthma risk and cleaning work. In 2010, the same journal re-visited the issue. In an article entitled "Update on Asthma and Cleaners," the authors noted that further studies had verified and strengthened the link between jobs in the cleaning industry and evidence of asthma. They added that others who worked around and with cleaning products, such as homemakers and healthcare professionals, showed similar effects. Other articles and studies have also made that point. A study examining people who cleaned their own homes found that the use of cleaning sprays at least weekly was associated with asthma symptoms.

In a previous post I mentioned the need to think about what the word "fresh" really means. Similarly, I think it's wise to ponder the word "clean." Is coating a surface with chemicals that cause asthma and other health effects making it clean? I don't think so.

There are many non-toxic options for cleaning. The cheapest and most basic cleaning aid is water. It’s known as the universal solvent because of its ability to dissolve more materials than any other substance. The power of pure water can be enhanced with such things as heat (using a steam cleaner, for instance), pressure (using a pressure washer), time (soaking an item for a while), or special applicators, such as microfiber cloths. Water alone can’t clean everything, but it can clean more than we’re likely to give it credit for.

Sometimes the goal is simply to make a surface free of visible dirt. Other times the goal is to disinfect. Water can do that, too. The heat of a steam cleaner can kill germs, of course, but water doesn't have to be heated to perform that task. A test of various disinfectant products used to clean a computer keyboard found that “all disinfectants, as well as the sterile water control, were effective at removing or inactivating more than 95% of the test bacteria.” In other words, wiping for five seconds with clean water was as effective as wiping for five seconds with bleach, alcohol, or the other disinfectant wipes tested.

Another study of disinfectants also verified the power of water (salt water in this case) to disinfect. Researchers at the University of Alberta looked at whether a quick swipe with an antibacterial product was enough to disinfect a surface. They found that it was not, and that three passes was the optimal number. Interestingly, they also found that three wipes with a salt-water solution were equally effective. The authors note, “When the surface was swiped three or more times, the saline wipe appeared to be equally effective as disinfectant wipes.”

Let’s refuse to believe the marketing hype. Let’s protect our own health and the health of those around us by refusing to use products that are not only unnecessary, but harmful. Let’s think about what “clean” really means.