Toxic homes, toxic bodies
As soon as Brenda Peck walked into the small two-bedroom house in Goderich, Ont., she knew she’d found her home. Not because it was the gorgeous house of her dreams – it was a simple 1950s-vintage red-brick bungalow her brother called a fixed-up fixer-upper. She knew because she felt normal – no shaking, shortness of breath or weakness. Nothing.
Peck, 56, has been dealing with environmental sensitivities since 1992, so her six-month house hunt had occasionally been hazardous. “I had been in a lot of houses, and some of them I had reacted very badly to,” she says. “I couldn’t tell if it was the materials or what they cleaned it with – or what.” Like the majority of people with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Peck is extremely sensitive to scent, but everyone has different symptoms. “I get very shaky and unable to walk,” she says.
Her illness is linked to environmental conditions indoors and out. And is it any wonder? Since the Second World War, thousands of chemicals have flooded into our world for use in agriculture, construction, interior decor, food preparation and preservation, fashion – virtually every phase of modern life.
The health effects of poor indoor air hit the radar screen after energy costs soared in the 1970s, and better insulated buildings were tightly sealed to conserve energy. As trapped contaminants accumulated indoors, people began to feel ill. Symptoms included headaches, tiredness, sinus congestion and difficulty concentrating. Today, new homes and buildings usually have heat recovery ventilators or heat, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to provide fresh air. New homes, however, also have an abundance of chemicals that affect air quality – chemical loads that can tip people over the line into MCS.
Statistics Canada reported in 2003 some 1.2 million people had been diagnosed with MCS, chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia – related illnesses with sometimes overlapping symptoms. Peck was one of the 643,000 Canadians (2.4 per cent of the population) known to have MCS. Researchers in Georgia estimated in Environmental Health Perspectives the same year,that 12.6 per cent of Americans suffer from the disorder. They also noted a connection between MCS and certain kinds of asthma, including reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS).
Peck’s symptoms began in 1992, after she moved from a new apartment to a new house. Asthma and food intolerances got worse and she had trouble concentrating. Eventually, at age 50, she had to leave her career as a physiotherapist.
MCS is only one problem caused or made worse by polluted indoor air. We’re an indoor nation – spending up to 90 per cent of our days inside. Young children, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses get outdoors least, and so are among the most vulnerable to indoor air contamination. Health Canada notes poor indoor air leads to or aggravates asthma, allergies, respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and other serious conditions.
What’s inside the inside air?
Indoor air pollutants include biologicals such as moulds, dust mites, pollens, fibres and animal dander. Mould and dust mites flourish when relative humidity is more than 50 per cent and both exacerbate asthma and allergies. It can also cause eye irritation, headaches, fatigue, runny noses, cough and permanent lung disease. Mould may also cause lung infections in people with immune suppression or chronic lung disease.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that escape as gases (a process known as off-gassing) from paints, plastics, cleaning products, pesticides and building materials. Off-gassing is highest in new houses and renovation projects, so ventilation is important. Formaldehyde gas emitted by furniture and insulation as well as particleboard and plywood can irritate eyes and the respiratory tract.
Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that increases risk of lung cancer, can seep into basements through cracks and joints. Since levels vary from house to house, testing is the only way to determine the household threat.
Carbon monoxide gas, a product of incomplete burning, can kill if present in high concentrations. It can enter a house from a car running in a closed attached garage or when a fireplace or gas stove malfunctions. It’s also produced from tobacco smoking.
A cubic foot of air may suspend more than 400 million particles of smoke, dust and pollen. Dust particles can carry pesticides, products of combustion (including candle smoke) and heavy metals – some of which are cancer risks. Visible dust – and the motes floating in a sunbeam – is lint, broken fibres from carpets or clothing or tiny pieces of pet or human hair. It’s most hazardous if it contains asbestos fibres, a serious threat to lungs. (Disturbing or removing asbestos should be left to professionals.)
Getting back to basics
The renovations to Brenda Peck’s home had been done about 10 years before she bought it, so chemicals had long ago off-gassed and didn’t present a problem. She had the rooms painted with low-VOC paints, the carpeting removed and the maple floors stained with water-based stain and finished with protective seal a month before moving. “If it had been a traditional varnish, it probably would have been a minimum of six months before I could have lived here,” she says.
Peck has to be constantly vigilant, but she has learned to live with her illness. Ironically, what she has to do to avoid symptoms also turns out to be good for the environment as a whole – using low-VOC products and forgoing harsh cleaning compounds in favour of plain old baking soda and vinegar, for example. If we all acted as though we had multiple chemical sensitivities, our planet would ultimately be healthier, too.
Although Peck tolerates the natural gas heating, she replaced the gas stove with an electric one. A charcoal water filter system and a portable air purifier also help keep her reactions at bay. In fact, it was water that made her move from the apartment she’d been managing in comfortably. She couldn’t have chlorine-free laundry appliances there and when her parents died and she had to sell their farm, she no longer had access to their non-chlorinated well water.
Mould hasn’t been a problem as the basement is tight and dry. She’s even found she can quilt there for up to two hours in spite of its glued-on indoor-outdoor carpet. Peck is grateful to have found two local painters who understood the seriousness of her problem. She had them remove carpeting on the basement stairs and carefully chip out, not sand, the underlying adhesive. Before that, she says, “I had to be very careful not to linger on the stairs or I would start getting dizzy or too weak and I’d have to pull myself up on the railing to get back up.”
MCS is a hair-trigger illness
Characteristically, symptoms of MCS involve many organ systems and occur in response to low levels of chemicals most people tolerate. They reoccur with each exposure to the offending chemical but improve when it’s eliminated. Patients who fit this profile tend to react to odours and may have “brain fog,” an unfocused feeling. Women are more often affected. And, as Peck has discovered, MCS is a chronic condition.
Symptoms may follow a sudden or heavy exposure (through breathing, eating or absorption through the skin) or a stressful illness or injury or may occur with chronic exposure or continuing stress. Unlike an allergic reaction in response to a specific chemical, allergic-like reactions occur with many unrelated compounds, possibly through a whole different immunological pathway. University of Toronto research suggests the illness has a genetic component. Patients have faced skepticism – that it’s all in their heads – but studies have also reported psychological distress most often follows, not precedes, onset.
Dr. Riina Bray, director of the Environmental Health Clinic at Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital, is convinced of its reality. “Patients’ stories are much the same when they come in – the template of stressors and triggers. It’s very text-bookish,” she says.
Bray doesn’t think the illness receives the attention it deserves even though its incidence is significantly higher than a disease such as AIDS. “It’s on par with other chronic illnesses,” she notes. “But this illness is causing people to lose their jobs and have miserable lives. And it’s all so preventable.”
It’s as if patients’ bodies have been through war and are suffering a physical post-traumatic stress, Bray suggests. But in addition to toxic exposures, patients have also had other significant stresses: emotional, physical exhaustion self-inflicted by Type A personalities or driven athletes, infections or abuse. Their bodies have become hypersensitive; they feel more anxious. “All they need is a tiny whiff,” she says. “It’s like post-traumatic stress, a flashback and their body gets thrown into that tizzy again.”
THE RISK OF HOME RENOS
Home renovations have been the trigger for some. “It’s the last thing that tips the balance,” Bray says. “When they start reacting, the reno has to stop. Then the big process of cleanup and detox, which can take a couple of years.”
Since so many systems are involved and they’re not working harmoniously, Bray says, the triggers have to be removed. Getting rid of toxins in the body is part of the treatment, but any detoxification plan has to be person-specific, she emphasizes. “The best thing to do is to see a physician or naturopath who is skilled in this area and get a plan,” she says. “It’s not one size fits all.”
Learning to handle stress on a psychological level is part of treatment as well. “That does not mean taking medications,” she says firmly. “It means biofeedback and other mind-body techniques.”
Bray agrees that the most important thing is to make the home chemical- and dust-free, adding that electromagnetic fields may be a problem for some with a lot of electrical equipment. And she adds, “You don’t want a lot of artificial stuff – things that off-gas.”
Working for a cleaner, safer world
Linda Nolan-Leeming, president of the Ottawa branch of the Allergy and Environmental Health Association (AEHA), knows the importance of trigger-free housing from personal experience. She thinks her personal road to MCS began as a child, playing hide-and-seek in the fog behind a tractor spraying pesticide to kill mosquitoes at a Girl Guide camp. Her family’s apartment was frequently sprayed with pesticide as well. Later, after living in a series of new homes, she became so ill she had to quit work. “I would get a Parkinson’s-like tremor when exposed to perfumes and pesticides,” she says. “To this day, if I get a big hit of pesticides, I’ll have convulsions, so it’s quite serious.”
AEHA plans to build an apartment-condominium building in Ottawa to provide safe housing for people with MCS. Leading-edge technology will ensure the best achievable air quality, even preventing odours from transferring from one unit to another.
She vows the project by a high-profile company in Ottawa dedicated to “green” building will exceed Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. (LEED is a system for evaluating buildings in terms of sustainability, healthful interiors and energy use.) Nolan-Leeming expects the AEHA building will be better than platinum, the highest LEED rating.
Clean indoor air – the better option
People with environmental sensitivities are affected by extremely low levels of irritants that don’t seem to bother others. But notice them or not, chemicals are entering our bodies and there’s not much research on what they’re doing.
A Harvard School of Public Health report concluded that of 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals in global use, perhaps 25 per cent could be capable of harming human brains – especially young, developing brains.
While debate rages over how dangerous and at what level some chemicals are toxic, some governments are endorsing a precautionary principle – to take precautions when human health is threatened, even though scientific proof of harm may not be complete. Going green – reducing chemical exposures and improving air and water quality – seems at the very least, a wise approach.
The current interest in a clean environment is encouraging to Dr. Riina Bray.
“I think it will help. There’s a movement now for people to stop using so many chemicals in the home. I think the most important thing is getting our air clean, because it doesn’t matter how clean your home is if the air outside isn’t great, there goes your immune system.”
Women’s College Hospital Environmental Health Clinic
Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation (Healthy Housing)
Allergy and Environmental Health Association Ottawa