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.
Welcome to MCS - Time to Look at Your Living Space in a Different Light
by Stephen Collette
For many people who have had MCS for some time, they have slowly made their living space their sanctuary. For those who are newly diagnosed, things are going to be different, and need to be for you to stay as well as possible. That means looking at your home in a different light. This series of articles will walk through the kinds of elements that I look for in a healthy house, and where the potential problems lie within a home. We will focus on the sneaky things that you may have missed in your own process.
This is a main gathering space, both for social events, and relaxing, but also for potential toxins and triggers. Consider this space as a place that improvements can be made, if you take the time to figure out what could be causing a reaction.
Furniture, in all it’s soft comfortable goodness, can be a trigger for many people with it’s chemicals and dust occupying a couch just as much as a teenager. Most furnishings have a petroleum-based fabric such as polyester and other synthetics. It’s structure is typically framed together with a fiber board or particleboard, which is bits of wood product glued together with some formaldehyde based glue, that off gasses quite a bit. Add to this the typical flame retardants, PBDE’s, which can leach out during use, and you have the potential toxic couch that for many people can impact their health. So what do you do? I recommend old furniture, first, so that many chemicals have off gassed. That could be second hand, used, thrift store finds or antiques; call them what you want, get them where you can. They are a good start, and for the budget conscious, a smart solution.
Of course it comes with challenges, as the last person could have been a heavy perfume wearer, smoker, or sprayed cleaning products everywhere, so it’s not a trip to be taken lightly. Since all of these are impacted by the presence of soft goods on the furniture (read fabrics and cushions) find something with little bits or no fabrics and cushions and add them later.
Ditto for the particle board made stuff. It wasn’t good quality the first time around, so don’t think the second time around it’s worth anything. Keep your money in your pocket and search for solid wood furniture so you can eliminate one thing from your concerns. Much solid wood furniture can be cleaned if odors are present. TSP (Tri Sodium Phosphate) or other cleaners that you can tolerate are good places to start on anything you bring home. Pull drawers out, tear off the thin fabric covering on the bottom of a couch, whatever it takes for you to get in and get it cleaned. Try to do this cleaning outside of your house in case things go bad and it can’t stay. You don’t want to have the new furniture make the rest of the house toxic. If you can’t clean it elsewhere, put it on a balcony or make a plastic containment to keep it in while you work on it and wait to see if it’s suitable.
If you do buy something with fabrics, use a HEPA vacuum to remove as much of the dust and debris as possible. Take it out into the sun and let the sun’s ultraviolet light bleach out the dust mites and other yucky stuff. That will also help freshen it up a fair bit. If you have carbon or charcoal that you can tolerate. you can use that to help take out odors. Finally, pull off all the fabrics that you can and wash them in safe laundry soap.
The foam can be a challenge since most foam is petroleum-based and glued together with formaldehyde. If it’s in bad shape it may be off gassing, especially if it’s starting to break down into little pieces. Consider wrapping any exposed pieces of foam to prevent spreading or becoming airborne.
Leather furniture is typically better suited for those with sensitivities. It is significantly better with respect to dust and because the surface is less flexible, it does not shed chemicals as easily as a softer fabric. Everyone is different and I have had people react to leather. It has to do with things like how it’s tanned, the colors added, and other such variations. It’s not free of chemicals by any means, but it could be a more tolerable option for you.
You may consider covering offending furniture with a cover of tolerable fabric. In a pinch this could be an old sheet that you have lying around. You could then look at some tolerable organic cotton, hemp, or other fabric. Wash it first in powdered milk, rinse, and follow by a regular washing. Repeat as often as necessary to make the fabric safe. This recipe came from the founder of the International Institute for Building Biology and Ecology.
Fireplaces are typically found in living rooms and there may be problems with these units. First, hot air rises. That, we all seem to know. Do you also know that cold air falls? So when the chimney isn’t hot from a fire, cold air is drawn in. Since you don’t wash and vacuum your chimney very often, it’s dirty, sooty, and possibly contains bird nests. Air is drawn into your house due to the building pressure, which is affected by temperatures inside and outside, the number of openings in the house, and the direction and strength of the wind on the house.
Even airtight fireplaces are not completely airtight. If you have a fireplace and are not in the midst of using it, consider plugging it up until you are. A cost effective solution is to find a batt of insulation and put it into a big garbage bag. Stuff that bag of insulation into the fireplace hole as best as you can. Now what you have is a thermal barrier (the insulation) stopping heat loss. The garbage bag is an energy sieve and an air barrier which stops the airflow between the chimney and your space. PLEASE NOTE that you should hang a flag of some kind low enough that you will see it if you go to open the fireplace and start a fire, otherwise you will have a toxic gooey mess on your hands in short order. Also, remember to have your chimney inspected and cleaned frequently to ensure proper operation and safety.
Flooring is a whole article unto its own. Consider the installation of hard surface flooring over soft flooring as a best practice to reduce dust loads and to control chemical inputs into the home. If you want something soft, look at area rugs as they can be washed, beaten, and taken outside to be aired out, which is significantly trickier with regular carpets.
By adding this information to other elements such as paints and ventilation, you can improve the living space that you relax in by quite a large amount. This information will also help you make choices for newer pieces to your home to help you live healthier and safer.
Stephen Collette is a Building Biology Environmental Consultant and LEED accredited professional, an Energy Star trained evaluator, and has used almost all the green building guidelines in some form or another. Stephen owns Your Healthy House, and is living with his family in Lakefield, Ontario.
For more articles on this topic, see: MCSA News.
Copyrighted 2009 Lourdes Salvador & MCS America