Lourdes Salvador's Column
...Co-founder of MCS America discusses the latest Multiple Chemical Sensitivity issues.
Lourdes Salvador volunteers as a writer and social advocate for the recognition of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). She was a passionate advocate for the homeless and worked with her local governor to provide services to the homeless through a new approach she created to end homelessness. That passion soon turned to advocacy and activism for people with MCS and the medical professionals who serve them. She co-founded MCS Awareness in 2005 and went on to found MCS America in 2006. She serves as a partner for Environmental Education Week, a partner for the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE), and a supporter for the American Cancer Society: Campaign for Smokefree Air.
Chemical Free Housing, A Lifeline to Many
by Lourdes Salvador
"Home Sweet Home." Most of us take the safety and accessibility of our homes for granted. We view our home as a safe haven where we can escape the world to rest, relax, recharge our batteries, and reemerge to pursue our work, social, athletic, and religious dreams. But are our homes truly safe?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the air in our homes and other buildings may be more polluted than the air outside. Indoor air is often hermetically sealed and contains both biological and chemical contaminants. Many of the chemical contaminants are inherent to the building materials, furnishings, and even the cleaning and personal care products we choose.
Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington recently discovered the presence of numerous toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in every fragranced laundry and air freshening product she tested.1 These chemicals were not listed on the product labels and many were listed on the EPA´s "no safe limit" list. In other words, no exposure, no matter how small, is safe for anyone.
Yet these "air fresheners" are found in homes and offices. It´s interesting to consider that air fresheners don´t actually freshen the air. They just add a scent on top of problem air, adding to the pollution. Easy solutions are removing the "air fresheners", cleaning to eliminate odors, and opening windows for better air circulation.
Fragranced laundry products frequently permeate the air for two or more blocks from the source, especially during the dryer cycle. The chemicals fused into the air by these products put children, pets, the elderly, asthmatics, and the chronically ill at serious risk. Steinemann said, that of the identified VOCs, "ten are regulated as toxic or hazardous under federal laws, with three classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs). Results point to a need for improved understanding of product constituents and mechanisms between exposures and effects." 1
People with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) are the canaries in the coalmine, the individuals who first fall ill from these chemicals, serving as a warning to the rest of us. Pets and small children are also at greater risk due to their smaller size. The increasing rates of childhood illnesses such as autism, asthma, sudden infant death, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are other red flags of warning.
For people disabled by MCS, "Housing may be the single most crucial element in survival and possible improvement. Yet it is almost impossible for people with MCS to find places to live that are truly safe for them," according to Pamela Reed Gibson, PhD of James Madison University. 2
MCS is a condition in which any exposure, no matter how small, causes negative health effects akin to poisoning by a much larger dose. Medical treatment requires a "clean room", or chemical free home that is devoid of VOCs and petroleum based products found in carpets, new furniture, new paint, varnishes, wallpapers, paneling, new construction, plastics, linoleum, gas heat, gas appliances, pesticides, fertilizers, personal care, laundry, cleaning products, and molds.
A home in which previous tenants used fragranced household cleaners, air fresheners, and laundry products, is often completely inaccessible as these fragrances can permeate everything, remaining in walls and appliances.
According to every respondent in a recent informal survey of people with self-reported MCS, chemical free housing is crucial, a "lifeline" to enable recovery and normal living. A chemical free home can be the difference between being well enough to be able to participate in social and work activities, and being totally disabled.
One respondent, Kate, says, "If I had chemical-free housing I would be able to live. I would be able to have a life, instead of having to move every few months and getting sicker and sicker each time. I would be able to contribute to the community and world if I didn't have to focus on my illness so much."
Carole shared, "´if I had chemical-free housing, I would be able to be my optimum self and work." Limiting exposures in the home environment can help to reduce overall exposures, improving health sufficiently to allow short trips to grocery stores and other public places.
When asked what the biggest obstacles were to finding chemical-free housing, respondents indicated:
"Finding something that meets all the criteria required to be 'safe' and still be affordable."
"Lack of unscented, well-maintained and unrenovated properties, in any price range, far enough from neighbor's dryer vents to be safe."
"I react to people's scented products such as perfumes and cleaners as well as building materials such as treated wood floors, rug, etc."
"I think the biggest obstacle for me is mold. Money is also an obstacle. It is hard to keep fragrances out too since they are on everything.. .including grocery bags."
"Fabric Softener has become the biggest obstacle to me for safe housing."
Fabric softeners and other laundry products often present the largest challenge to living in a community area. Fragrant fumes from laundry products are pumped into the air from dryer vents around the clock in most neighborhoods. Steinemann´s study is conclusive proof that these fumes are dangerous not only to people with MCS, but others as well.
Fortunately, the answer is simple. If everyone made a health choice for their family by switching to fragrance free products, many of the chemical contaminants in our homes and neighborhoods would be eliminated. By thinking carefully about renovations and choosing non-toxic materials to bring into our homes, everyone benefits.
For those already afflicted with MCS, our survey showed the solution involves a move toward safer, chemical free housing complexes and realtors who are aware of their needs.
In addition, neighborhood ordinances banning the cosmetic use of herbicides and pesticides, the emissions of hazardous chemicals from fragranced laundry products, and the burning of wood and garbage would provide outdoor air that can be enjoyed by everyone, including pets, children, asthmatics, and those with MCS.
1. Steinemann AC. Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients. Environ Impact Asses Rev (2008), doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2008.05.002.
2. Gibson, PR. Understanding & Accommodating People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in Independent Living. The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research. 2005. Retrieved on August 16, 2008 from: http://www.ilru.org/html/publications/bookshelf/MCS.html
For more articles on this topic, see: MCSA News.
Copyrighted 2008 Lourdes Salvador & MCS America