Avoiding the chemicals which trigger symptoms is a vital part of coping with and treating multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). This reduces the burden on the body's overwhelmed detoxification pathways and tissues. Creating a home environment that will not trigger symptoms is the most important aspect of this. Many people find that if they tightly limit the amount of exposure to offending chemicals that they experience at home, they are able to tolerate more exposure without serious adverse effects when they are out and about. Obviously this allows them to lead more normal lives, which in turn brings about greater well being which is beneficial for their overall condition. It should be noted that the indoor environment is much more polluted than that outdoors due to extensive use of chemical cleaning agents, cosmetics, perfumes and tobacco to name the most common. Reducing intake of chemicals in foods and water and in the form of drugs is also important. We will look at measures that can be taken with respect to all of these below.
Identifying Sources of Chemical Exposure in the Home
Probably the first thing that an MCS sufferer looking for a safe place to live should know is that a newly built house or apartment is a definite no go. The large majority of modern building materials contain volatile organic chemicals (VOC's) that will "off gas" for a considerable time (sometimes years) after the building is constructed. This means that gases will be expelled from the materials and pollute the indoor environment, especially if ventilation is poor. This also goes for materials used in new kitchens, for example, so a home with a recently refitted kitchen would also be a bad choice for the MCS sufferer. The World Health Organization classifies chemicals according to their volatility from highest to lowest as follows:
Very Volatile Organic Compounds (VVOC's)
The main example of a VVOC is formaldehyde. This chemical is present in a wide range of materials used in building construction and furnishings. Materials with the highest output of formaldehyde include pressed particle board products such as medium density fibreboard (MDF), urea formaldehyde foams and wood sealants and lacquers. Particle board is used extensively in interior walls, fitted kitchens and self assemble furniture, while urea formaldehyde foam is used in wall and roof insulation.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC's)
The main examples of VOC's are solvents. The worst offenders used in buildings include soft plastics, mastics, rubber, paints, varnishes and waxes. Obviously in the average house all of these substances are used liberally throughout the building.
Semi-volatile Organic Compounds (SVOC'S)
A major example of SVOC's are pesticides. In the home the worst offenders are typically timber treatments used on the timber of roof frames and interior paneling, carpets and carpet tiles, and wallpaper and wallpaper pastes. It's worth noting here that the fashionable wooden floorings that are found everywhere these days whilst at first may seem a better bet than carpeting, are in fact a lot worse with regards to off gassing as they are made from particle board.
Particulate Organic Matter (POM)
Particulate organic matter refers to solid particles of material suspended in the air such as dust and the various particles in smoke. The worst offenders in the home include carpets, soft furnishings, ventilation ducts and tobacco smoke. Dust is a problem for the MCS sufferer as it is very good at absorbing VOC's.
Which Materials are Safe to Use?
A general rule is that the simplest and most natural materials are what an MCS sufferer should look to use in their home. These are generally materials that not so long ago were the norm but have now been replaced with the ubiquitous particle board derived materials. We're talking about solid untreated woods, stone, metal, ceramics, glass.
Here are a few examples of products that are generally safe to use for common applications:
- Flooring - Hard wood floorboards treated only with natural beeswax or woodstain designed especially for MCS sufferers, ceramic tiles, stone, secondhand carpet or carpet which has been thoroughly aired out for at least 6 months (there are companies that do this then sell you the safe carpet). There are now also a number of companies making pure wool carpets backed with hessian or jute and containing no chemicals, especially for the chemically sensitive.
- Furniture - Hard wood furniture treated only with beeswax, stainless steel and glass tables and chairs.
- Wall Coverings - Water based paints are the best to use here. A number of the big paint manufacturers are now making "fume-free" paints which are significantly better than regular paints. The best paints though are those made by specialized eco-friendly companies, look for "solvent-free" on the tin. Wallpaper is best avoided because the paste may cause symptoms and a lot of papers themselves, especially vinyl types, may offgas significant VOC's.
- Furnishings - Organic cotton curtains and bedding. Furnishings with the least amount of foam padding/cushioning. Furnishings with the least flame-retardant material (obviously other fire-safety measures should be implemented)
Obviously these examples are at the safest end of the spectrum and not all will need to be adhered to by every MCS sufferer. There is generally no need to replace furniture made from particle board, for example, if it is more than a few years old as all VOC's will have off gassed by that time. These guidelines are mainly useful when looking for new furniture, flooring etc.
Organic cotton is mentioned because mass produced fabrics used in home furnishings have often been treated with pesticides and other chemicals. This also goes for clothing, although most people have no trouble. Washing new items of clothing before first wearing them is a reasonable measure. All the main allergy supply companies offer organic cotton bedding and clothing.
Domestic Cleaning Products
A quick look through kitchen and laundry room cupboards in most modern western homes reveals an extensive array of chemical products for every application, both essential and rather less so. Most people would need more than the fingers on both hands to count the number of different chemical products in their homes from laundry detergent and softeners, to kitchen and bathroom cleaning products and a wide range of "air freshening" products. Air fresheners being placed in quotes because they do not freshen the air in any way, rather they simply disguise odours by supplying a stronger synthetic chemical based odour. All of these products contain synthetic chemicals, mainly petroleum based hydrocarbons, that can be troublesome for the chemically sensitive. Arguably the biggest problem for MCS sufferers with regards to modern domestic chemical products is that fragrances are added to the vast majority. Fragrances aren't essential to the action of any cleaning products but it has become a popular way to market products by adding different fragrances to almost anything. This, along with the widespread use of air fresheners means that the air in most houses is heavily polluted with petroleum based chemicals.
In addition, chemical sprays, particularly glass and furniture cleaners, as well as air fresheners, have been implicated in raising the risk of asthma. A study published in October 2007 concluded that these products were the cause of 15% of new asthma cases in adults (Zock et al).
The following chemicals, and any other scented or synthetic products should be removed from the home or at least their use reduced:
- Biological Washing Powders
- Air Fresheners
- Fabric Conditioners
- Window Cleaning Fluids
- All Sprays and Aerosols
- Perfumed Vacuum Bags and ShakeNVac type products
Which Products are Safe to Use?
Not long ago, only a matter of years, there was very little alternative for the MCS sufferer than to use old fashioned cleaning products such as plain soaps or sodium bicarbonate to wash clothes and for general cleaning, borax for washing floors, and washing soda for cleaning toilets. Although these may still be the best things to use for the severely affected or when you are initially identifying the things that affect you, there are now a growing number of companies producing more attractive products that are safe for the chemically sensitive individual to use. These products are either fragrance free or are scented with natural plant extracts.
One such company is Ecover. This is a well respected international company whose wide range of products provides everything you could need from laundry detergents and dishwasher tablets to toilet and bathroom detergents. All of their products are plant based, using both plant based soaps and fragrances in place of the usual petroleum based chemicals. The Ecover range can replace all of the cleaning products that trigger your symptoms and best of all, their products are available in all major supermarkets in the US, UK, France and the Netherlands.
You will almost certainly be able to find other brands in your local store or supermarket that are also safe to use. Many manufacturers are now producing lines with fewer unnecessary additives. Products labeled with the following are the ones to look out for:
- Fragrance Free
- No Added Colour
- For Sensitive Skin
Toiletries and Cosmetic Products
Just as with cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetic products are a ubiquitous part of modern life. Unfortunately for the chemically sensitive nearly all of those in common use are again based on petrochemicals and thus pose a threat as a trigger for symptoms. The most troublesome are perfumes, aftershaves and deodorants/antiperspirants which by their very nature contain potent VOC's. Along with these being the most powerful chemicals, another factor that makes them particularly bothersome is that by using them you are constantly exposed to them throughout the day, everyday. Chemical fragrances are also found in almost all other common toiletries from soaps and shampoos even down to toilet paper. Along with perfumed products there are also a number of other powerful chemicals, such as solvents and alcohols, present in products that most people commonly use such as hair sprays and nail polish/nail polish remover. A basic indicator of the volatility of particular chemicals is how strong they smell so you'll recognize that these products are particularly volatile.
The following is a list of the most common problem products:
- Fragrances - Perfumes, Aftershaves
- Deodorants - Sprays, Roll-on's, Antiperspirants
- Hair Products - Hair spray, Gel, Mousse, Dyes
- Cosmetics - Nail Polish and Remover, Make-up
- Other Toiletries - All Fragranced Soaps, Shampoos and Bath products, Shaving Foam, Moisturizers
Which Toiletries and Cosmetics are Safe to Use?
As with cleaning products the situation for the chemically sensitive is much better now than it was as little as a few years ago with regards to toiletries and cosmetics. Commonly available at the local store are pure soaps and shampoos that are fragrance and additive free which are generally the same price or cheaper than the fragranced alternatives. As with cleaning products look for products designed for sensitive skin or otherwise labelled as fragrance free. As an alternative to bath products you can use pure essential oils. As well as adding fragrance to your bath you will also get the benefits of aromatherapy which depending on the particular oil can relieve a number of symptoms!
Obvously the above won't replace all of the products you may need to avoid, but don't panic, there are a number of specialist companies producing products for the chemically sensitive that provide for everything you could need including deodorants and cosmetics. Good places to look for MCS safe products are health stores, espcially the larger chain stores. These will often stock a number of products like soaps and shampoos that are fragranced with plant extracts only and don't contain any chemicals that will cause problems. The best sources however are online. There are a number of companies that have extensive ranges of products where you'll find everything you might be looking for. One such company that can't be recommended highly enough is Needs.com. This company is aimed specifically at MCS sufferers and carries product ranges from all the major manufacturers of MCS safe products. They will be able to supply you with everything from deodorants and hairstyling products to lipstick and eyeliner. They also have the biggest range of MCS safe domestic cleaning products and nutritional supplements we have found. Please understand that The Environmental Illness Resource isn't affiliated with Needs.com in any way, they are simply the best one stop shop for the chemically sensitive individual that we have found.
Water, Drugs and Food Additives
Drinking water, prescription drugs and food additives are all sources of chemicals which may be a source of problems for the chemically sensitive. Many MCS sufferers find that they can no longer tolerate any prescription drugs due to the severity or the side-effects. The same can be said for foods which contain, colours, flavourings and other additives. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a common additive used to enhance flavour that is particularly troublesome. MSG is an excitory neurotransmitter which is why it commonly causes hyperactivity in children. Hypersensitivity of the brain is implicated as a cause of MCS so MSG may cause any number of mood, cognition problems in sufferers. Some MCS sufferers even experience symptoms after drinking water from the tap. Tap water obviously contains chlorine in most countries and also may contain low levels of other chemicals such as pesticides that filter down into the water table. The levels of these chemicals may be within government guidelines but this is no gauranntee that they will not trigger symptoms in those that are sensitive. It's not commonly known but a substantial amount of chemicals can be absorbed through the skin from the water when you take a bath or a shower. In fact you'll absorb substantially more chlorine by taking a bath than by drinking a glass of chlorinated water. Of course hot water in showers and baths may also cause chemicals to evaporate.
Advice Regarding Water, Drugs and Food Additives for the MCS Sufferer
Water - Drinking water should be either filtered or bottled. The best filters use a process known as "Reverse Osmosis" but ceramic filters/carbon filters may be equally as effective for most people. You can buy table top filters that filter the water from one tap in your home, usually the kitchen, or you can purchase a whole house filter that is plumbed in at the main supply to the house and provides filtered water to every tap in the house. Filters are also available that attach to the shower head so you shower in filtered water.
Click for more information on water filtration
Drugs - The prudent thing is to avoid all drugs unless absolutely necessary, particularly those which require substantial metabolism by the liver.
Food Additives - Best to avoid all food additives
Although the above may not cause overt symptoms relating to your chemical sensitivities, any chemical entering the body requires detoxification and these things will only add to the burden on already overworked detoxification pathways. As a result they may contribute to worsening of reactions to airborne chemicals.