Toxic homes, toxic bodies
By: Jayne MacAulay
Reprinted with permission
copyright © May 2007 CARP magazine |visit:
One woman's illness sounds the alarm bells about toxic
substances in homes that have the potential to make us all
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).
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
interest in a clean environment is encouraging to Dr. Riina
"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."
copyright © May 2007 CARP magazine
Reprinted with permission