Part 1: Ways & Benefits Of Avoiding Harsh Chemicals At Home
Why Should I Be Concerned About Chemicals?
When exposed to certain chemicals or compounds, many of our chemically sensitive customers experience allergic reactions similar to those that dust-mite allergy sufferers experience. Chemical exposure can aggravate eczema and cause asthma flare-ups for those who are particularly sensitive. In fact, there are millions of chemically sensitive Americans and millions more of us who are concerned about the negative health and environmental impact chemicals can have.
Every house has certain bottles and cans of liquid and powder that have "Caution" or "Danger" labels on them. In fact, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) reports that the average American household generates 15 pounds of household hazardous waste each year. Most people know and understand that direct contact or inhalation of such substances is probably not the best idea. However, recent studies show that prolonged exposure to a variety of common cleaners can cause problems, particularly in children. Researchers from Bristol University, UK, in an article published in the journal Thorax, studied 7,019 families to discover the effect of household chemicals such as bleach, paint stripper, and carpet cleaners on childhood asthma and wheezing. They discovered that families that frequently used household cleaning products had much higher incidences of asthma and wheezing among their children.
The chemicals and substances identified in the research studies include chemicals which many of us have in our homes: disinfectants, bleach, carpet cleaners, window cleaners, dry cleaning fluids, aerosols, turpentine or white spirits, air fresheners, paint strippers, paints and varnishes.
Listing the many multi-syllable chemicals in each of these common household items could become exhaustive and make you wish you had paid more attention in chemistry class. Instead, I will list a few household chemicals that the EPA says to look out for and where they are found:
- Sodium hypochlorite (in chlorine bleach): if mixed with ammonia, releases toxic chloramine gas. Short-term exposure may cause mild asthmatic symptoms or more serious respiratory problems.
- Petroleum distillates (in metal polishes): short-term exposure can cause temporary eye clouding; longer exposure can damage the nervous system, skin, kidneys, and eyes.
- Ammonia (in glass cleaner): eye irritant, can cause headaches and lung irritation.
- Phenol and cresol (in disinfectants): corrosive; can cause diarrhea, fainting, dizziness, and kidney and liver damage.
- Nitrobenzene (in furniture and floor polishes): can cause skin discoloration, shallow breathing, vomiting, and death; associated with cancer and birth defects.
- Formaldehyde (a preservative in many products): suspected human carcinogen; strong irritant to eyes, throat, skin, and lungs.
- Hydrochloric acid or sodium acid sulfate in toilet bowl cleaner; either can burn the skin or cause vomiting diarrhea and stomach burns if swallowed; also can cause blindness if inadvertently splashed in the eyes.
- Residues from fabric softeners, as well as the fragrances commonly used in them, can be irritating to susceptible people.
- Spray starches may include formaldehyde, phenol, and pentachlorophenol. Furthermore, any aerosolized fine particle, even cornstarch, can be a lung irritant.
Source: Davis, Gary. "Safe Substitutes at Home: Non-toxic Household Products." http://es.epa.gov/techinfo/facts/safe-fs.html
I didn't intend to scare you with that laundry list (no pun intended) of potentially harmful household items. Remember that negative implications often occur only in sensitive individuals like asthmatics, or after prolonged exposure as mentioned in the UK study above, or when the potentially harmful substances are mixed with other chemicals. You should always use caution when handling chemicals, so here are some tips to protect yourself around the house:
- Use non-toxic products where possible.
- Read the product label and follow the directions for usage.
- Wear gloves and protective clothing if the product can cause skin irritation.
- Wear goggles if product can harm the eyes.
- Do not wear contact lenses when working with solvents.
- Stop using the product if you become dizzy, sick to your stomach, or develop a headache.
- For proper ventilation, it is best to use chemicals outdoors when possible.
- Do not smoke when using flammable products.
- Never mix household products. Toxic fumes or explosions may result.
- Store compatible products together.
- See your health care provider immediately if you suspect you have been poisoned or injured from exposure to a household chemical.
Source: Seattle & King County Public Health
The good news for asthmatics, and all of us concerned with chemical avoidance, is that there are alternative treatments to common, potentially harmful chemicals. And many of the alternative products have as good, if not better results, and are healthier in the long run! Here are some suggestions of safe products you can find in your pantry, as well as some convenience items you can find at National Allergy.
- Baking soda is a wonderful tool for neutralizing acid, deodorizing, cleaning and polishing, as well as removing stains. Combine it with some dry table salt for a great scouring powder.
- Lemon juice does more than jazz up your ice water! The citric acid it contains can deodorize, clean glass and disinfect cutting boards. Combine with 2 parts olive oil for a safe furniture polish.
- For chemical-free cleaning, I find no handier tool than the Microfiber Miracle Towel. With a small bit of water, the tiny fibers grab dust, dirt and even grease. Don't forget that you get a FREE 3-pack of these towels with orders of $95 or more!
- Borax is a naturally occurring mineral that may inhibit mold and mildew growth, boost the cleaning power of detergent and remove stains. Note: Boron compounds like those in Borax are also known to eliminate household critters, including dust mites! That's why it is the active ingredient in our Dustmite And Flea Control.
- Vinegar is a smelly, but handy cleaning tool. It can dissolve grease, remove soap and wax buildup or clean out the metallic taste in coffeepots. Be sure to dilute your vinegar solution: use about a 1/2 cup vinegar per quart of warm water.
- NAS-12 is a non-toxic, multi-purpose cleaner that works especially well to remove mold and mildew stains. Use it before applying No More Mildew and say goodbye to mold growth for months!
- EnviroRite's Tub and Tile Cleaner contains no chemical additives or harmful chemicals and does tough work on stains and soap scum.
- Sodium chloride, otherwise known as salt, can be combined with lemon juice to make a chemical-free stain remover for clothes and carpets. (Salt is famous for helping with red wine stains).
- EnviroRite Laundry Detergent is 100% biodegradable, free of allergy-inducing agents, and super-concentrated so you use less (just 1/8 cup for regular loads). Gentle Wash for delicates and Laundry Pre-Treat Spray are also available.
- AllerSearch Allergen Wash is a safe, popular product that not only cleans, but also has surfactants to bind to allergens found in your clothes.
- Static Eliminator Re-Usable Dryer Sheets keep you and your dryer safe, giving you the benefits of dryer sheets without the buildup and harmful chemicals.
- A tablespoon of De-Mite Laundry Additive takes care of dust mites in blankets, bedding and clothing with natural ingredients like tea tree oil. This product works great for cold-water washing.
- Cornstarch is great for thickening up a stir-fry, but can also be used to clean windows, polish furniture and starch clothes.
- The GlassWizard removes fingerprints, greasy smudges and other soil from glass and other shiny surfaces so you can avoid using ammonia. For the car, we offer the handy Glass & Dash Kit
- Atmos-Klear is a popular, all-natural odor-eliminator that fights odors at their source instead of masking them with chemicals and artificial fragrances.
- The IQ Air HealthPro Plus is the ultimate air purifier for those concerned about formaldehydes, furniture and carpet off-gassing, and odor control. Not to mention its superior HEPA allergen-filtration.
Part 2: More Ways & Benefits Of Avoiding Harsh Chemicals At Home
Why Should I Be Concerned?
As we explained last month, in part one of this series, our lives are more inundated with chemical exposure than we realize. Recent studies have linked exposure to various chemicals and compounds to everything from asthma to cancer. The latter of these health risks is a huge issue about which many of you may have concerns. However, our primary concern in this series is about the effects of chemicals on allergy and asthma sufferers. I will list some outside resources should you want to read further about other dangers associated with chemicals commonly found in personal care items.
Last month I gave you many commonly-found household chemicals to look out for, and some alternative product ideas. This month I will take a closer look at the ways we keep our skin and body looking and feeling healthy.
Are There Potentially Harmful Chemicals In My Personal Care Products?
Here are some substances commonly found in personal care items that could be harmful. This list is not intended to scare you, but to educate you on a few ingredients to look out for. In fact, according to the CDC, "a measurable amount of a compound in a person's body does not mean it causes disease or other damage." I have not listed every chemical that I read about in my research, but mainly those that negatively affect our general health, our skin or have irritating effects for asthmatics.
- SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) is found in toothpaste, shampoo, dish soap, liquid hand soap, bubble bath, and some nutritional supplements. It dries out the lining of mouth (making it susceptible to canker sores), dries skin and causes it to flake and become rough.
- Propylene Glycol is a humectant (which prevents drying out) used in deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, lotions and shaving gels. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, this irritant causes a significant number of reactions, including skin dehydration and thickening of the skin, even at low concentrations (below 2%).
- Aluminum Chlorohydrate is found in many anti-perspirants and prevents pores from perspiring. It is easily absorbed through the skin, particularly when the underarms have been recently shaved. In a 2004 clinical trial aluminum chlorohydrate was linked with higher risks of Alzheimer's.
- Phthalates (plastic softener, solvent) have been making news recently. A recent study by Swedish researchers published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that higher concentrations of phthalates were associated with symptoms of asthma, hay fever, and eczema. Phthalates are found in hair spray, deodorant, nail polish, hair gel, mousse, hand lotion, body lotion, and perfume, as well as children's toys and PVC plastic. Unfortunately, they're rarely listed on ingredient lists. In addition to asthma and eczema, phthalates have also been shown to damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system.
- Mineral Oil makes skin feel soft and smooth and is found in liquid foundations, blush, skin creams and baby oil. Ironically, mineral oil, a derivative of petroleum, can also dehydrate skin by inhibiting oils you produce naturally.
- Fragrances (synthetic) are used in most personal care products unless labeled as truly fragrance free, or only using natural essential oils for fragrance. Synthetic fragrances are made up of hundreds of chemicals.
- Formaldehyde (preservative, fixative, disinfectant) is found in shampoo, nail care, cosmetics. Formaldehyde can irritate the respiratory system, cause skin reactions and weaken the immune system.
- Coal tar dye is most commonly used in D&C Blue #1, Green #3, Yellow#5, Yellow #6, Red #33, and phenylenediamine. It is found in shampoos, especially dandruff shampoos, bubble bath, toothpaste and hair dyes. Coal tar dye can cause severe allergic reactions, asthma attacks, headaches, nausea, fatigue, nervousness, and lack of concentration.
- Alcohol acts as a solvent and is found in mouthwash, astringents and facial cleansers, as well as some toothpaste. The National Cancer Institute (4/22/91) cites alcohols in this context as implicated in mouth, tongue and throat cancers (women have 90% higher risk; men have 60% higher risk than non-mouthwash users). Used on skin, alcohol strips away natural protecting oils, and when ingested, may cause body tissues to be more vulnerable to carcinogens. Damaged skin generally takes 24 hours to repair itself.
What Are Some Safe Alternatives To Chemical-containing Products?
People sensitive to chemicals do have other options. Fortunately, safe, non-toxic products are more commonly available these days. Here are a few skincare and personal care products that we have identified to keep your body safe. For more information about skin care and allergy-related skin conditions, refer to our January 2005 Newsletter.
- Vanicream Skin Care products are free of dyes, perfumes, fragrance, lanolin, parabens and formaldehyde. They offer complete chemical-free care for dry, cracking or tired skin. Products available through National Allergy Supply include light lotion, sunscreen, and the popular bar soap.
- Robathol is a safe bath oil from the makers of Vanicream. It contains NO perfume, lanolin, dyes, or mineral oil and naturally moisturizes skin.
- AqtivPURE Non-alcohol Hand Sanitizer is a wonderful alternative to common hand sanitizers. AqtivPURE won't dry out hands, and has healing properties to promote healthier skin.
- MoistStik All-Natural Lip Balm is soothing for dry cracked lips, and offers SPF 15 protection. MoistStik is not advised for lanolin-sensitive individuals.
- Green Mountain's Naturally Pure Soap is made the way nature intended soap to be. It is moisturizing, highly effective and contains no color or fragrance additives. It is available in bar or liquid form.
- Combine A1 Cup lemon juice with Aý cup water and rinse your hair for a natural alternative to chemically-laden hair dyes and highlights. A little time in the sun will activate the lemon juice's bleaching properties.
- Free & Clear Hair Care products, from the makers of Vanicream are also free from potentially harmful chemicals. The line includes Shampoo and Conditioner, Hairspray, and a gentle Liquid Cleanser.
- Naturally Fresh Deodorant uses only pure mineral salts. It contains no perfumes, alcohols or aluminum, and it won't block your pores. It comes in stick, roll-on and spray forms.
- A few drops of hydrogen peroxide mixed with baking soda makes a super cleansing toothpaste. Use this formula about once every 2 weeks as a natural tooth cleaner and whitener.
- For daily use, Biotene Toothpaste is doctor-recommended for dry mouth relief. It contains no sodium lauryl sulfate so it is gentle on mouth tissues, as are the rest of Biotene's dental products.
One of the biggest chemical culprits in our homes is chlorine in our water. However, as I researched the prevalence of chlorine and other chemicals in the water, I was presented with a great irony. For developing nations and those in disaster situations, such as the tsunami victims in Asia, the presence of chlorine in their water is perhaps their greatest life-saver because it disinfects from harmful organisms. However, the extent to which those in certain developing nations are exposed to chlorine through drinking water and showers is minimal compared to those of us in developed nations who may experience more serious levels of exposure. In fact, scientific studies have linked chlorinated water to potentially harmful by-products that can, over time, contribute to such health-threatening conditions as cancer of the bladder, liver, stomach and colon. Heart disease, high blood pressure and allergies have also been linked to chlorine.
Our bodies are 70% water and must be replenished daily, so drinking good quality water is very important. Many counter-top and under-sink filters are available to remove chlorine and other irritants. In addition to the presence of chlorine, recent research has also shown noticeable levels of various other types of chemicals in drinking water. Sometimes called "emergent contamination", this new class of substances showing up in our drinking water includes traces of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, as well as industrial run-off from farms and factories. The effect of these contaminants is unknown, and the amounts are so small that any problems would probably manifest from consistent long-term exposure. If you'd like to read further about the "emerging" contaminants in U.S. water supplies, a more thorough article by The Academy of Natural Sciences is available through this link:
Many people use installed or counter-top water filters to minimize their exposure through drinking water. In-home water filtration not only contributes to good health, but it helps the environment and our budgets because we're not buying and disposing of hundreds of bottles of water each month. What many people may not know about chlorine exposure is that half of it occurs in the shower. Unfiltered shower water can double exposure to chlorine by absorption through the skin and by inhalation of chlorine vapors. Chlorine vaporizes in hot shower water and is inhaled into the lungs, then transferred into the blood stream.
Because of this absorption process and its potentially harmful effects, we recommend shower water filters such as the Sprite Royale Handheld Filter, which minimizes exposure to chlorine, as well as other potentially dangerous chemicals that have been found in the water supply. The further benefits of such filters are softer hair and smoother skin.
If you are concerned about what, if any, other substances may be in your home's water, visit the EPA's "What's In My Water" site for specific information on your town or county's water supply. For those who have well water, the EPA's website offers information so you can find out more about possible chemicals, metals or other substances in your water.
The topic of water purification is an extremely broad one that we can only touch on in this article. Equally far reaching is the general subject of chemical avoidance. So many household elements have implications for our readers that we needed two articles to tackle the topic! I truly hope this month's tips and information, combined with last month's newsletter, have helped you discover some ways to reduce your exposure to potentially harmful substances.