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Can You Avoid Chemicals?

How hard is it for a chemically sensitive person to avoid the chemicals that will trigger a reaction? The short answer is – ridiculously hard. It is virtually impossible to do so unless you are okay with having no home, no car, no job, no bed, no clothes, no books, no computer, and definitely no social life. For someone with severe Chemical Sensitivities, it is even harder because very low levels of a chemical will trigger a reaction and cause symptoms. Keep in mind that most chemical exposures occur by breathing in a chemical that is in the air. This makes it more difficult to be aware of and have control over the chemicals one is exposed to. It is not very difficult for a chemically sensitive person to stop using chemicals and fragrances themselves, but they have no control over what others use. Another factor that makes it difficult to control what chemicals one is exposed to is the lack of full ingredient disclosure on many products. (For more information on ingredient disclosure, check out this excellent video interview with Dr. Anne Steinnemann, an independent researcher and professor of civil and environmental engineering.)

To illustrate the vast prevalence of toxic chemicals, let’s take a more detailed look at four specific types of chemicals/toxins, what products they are used in, and how we are exposed. There are many other sources of these chemicals and many other chemicals aside from these four; but this will give you a good idea of the incredibly widespread use of toxic chemicals.

1) Formaldehyde – Formaldehyde is a petrochemical, meaning it is derived from petroleum (see #3 for more information on petrochemicals). Formaldehyde is released as a gas into the air from formaldehyde containing products. It is commonly agreed upon that formaldehyde is toxic to the body and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has listed it as a known carcinogen. Commonly recognized symptoms of formaldehyde exposure include breathing difficulties, chronic headaches, central nervous system disorders, and when in contact with the skin, burns and irritation. However, it is still used in an alarming assortment of products, and is a common trigger of very disabling symptoms for someone who is chemically sensitive. The following is a non-inclusive list of formaldehyde containing products:

  •   Household and automobile carpeting
  •   Plywood, particle board, and other pressed wood products (furniture, cabinets, etc.)
  •   Household insulation
  •   Fuel burning stoves and heaters
  •   Smoke (from cigarettes, wood stoves, and camp fires)
  •   Resins, glues, and adhesives (flooring glue, wood glue, and even some craft glue)
  •   Air fresheners and disinfectants
  •   Polymers and plastics
  •   New clothing, bedding, and other textiles and fabrics
  •   Fertilizer, fungicide, and germicide
  •   Paints and dyes
  •   Cosmetics, laundry detergents and fabric softeners, hair products, and body soaps
  •   Paper products
  •   Electrical appliances and components    

2) Fragrance Chemicals – When the word “fragrance” is listed in the ingredients of a product, it is a generic term that can represent literally hundreds of chemicals and chemical combinations. Unfortunately, there is no FDA requirement for full disclosure of these chemical ingredients. Fragrance chemicals are designed to stick to people’s skin and clothes, and also to waft long distances through the air – that is why they create such problems for the chemically sensitive person. These are possibly the most harmful types of chemicals as well as the hardest to avoid. You can read “Not So Sexy: The Health Risks of Secret Chemicals in Fragrance” published by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics for more information. 

Here is a non-inclusive list of products containing fragrance chemicals:

  •  Perfume and cologne
  •  Shampoos, hair spray, and other hair products
  •  Soaps, lotions, and creams
  •  Scented laundry products (detergent, fabric softener, and dryer sheets)
  •  Cosmetics (blush, foundation, powder, lipstick, chap stick, mascara, etc.)
  •  Air Freshener in spray or plug-in form, including Febreeze
  •  Candles and incense
  •  Household cleaning products 

 3) Petrochemicals – The term “petrochemicals” refers to several thousand distinct chemicals derived from petroleum (crude oil) or natural gas. Formaldehyde, noted above, is an example. But as we look at this broader category, we see that petrochemicals are virtually everywhere. A few names you might have heard include ammonia, chlorine, methane, propylene, ethanol, benzene, butane, acetone, polymers, phthalates, dioxin, detergents, solvents, surfactants, BPA, DEA, and PABA. There are many more. Petrochemicals have been linked to many negative health effects, including asthma, cancer, birth defects, brain and nervous system damage, kidney, liver, and other organ damage, and disruption of endocrine function.
There are far too many sources of petrochemical exposure to list here, but let's take a look at  some of the most common ones:

  •   Household cleaners, detergents, and disinfectants
  •   Pesticides and fertilizers (and therefore our food and water)
  •   Soaps and shampoos, lotions, creams, and body oils
  •   Cosmetics, including nail polish and remover
  •   Sunscreen and insect repellant
  •   Dryer sheets and fabric softener
  •   Gasoline, Kerosene, Diesel fuel, and Propane
  •   Synthetic fibers, rubbers, and fabrics (polyester, nylon, etc.)
  •   Paraffin wax or oil (candles, crayons, etc.)
  •   Hard plastics such as dishes, electronics, etc.
  •   Soft plastics such as garbage and shopping bags
  •   Flooring (vinyl, tiles, etc.) 

4) Metals & Heavy Metals – There are many naturally occurring metals, some of which are termed "heavy metals" due to their specific gravity. Some metals are required by the body, in small amounts, for healthy functioning (i.e. iron, copper, manganese, zinc). Other metals are very harmful and toxic to the human body (i.e. arsenic, aluminum, lead, mercury) and very difficult to remove from the body as well. Heavy metal toxicity can cause significant damage to many organs and body systems, including brain, lungs, kidneys, liver, central nervous system, and the body's ability to detoxify. There is significant research suggesting that long-term heavy metal exposure can lead to physical, muscular, and neurological degeneration that mimics Parkinson's Disease, Alzheimer's Disease, Muscular Dystrophy, and Multiple Sclerosis. There is also research that linking certain metals to increased risk of cancer.

The following lists only a few of the many heavy metals and just a sampling of the common methods of exposure.

  • Mercury: Dental fillings, some vaccinations, some fish/seafood and supplements made from fish/seafood (i.e. fish oil), older paints or painted surfaces,  sewage sludge, and occupational exposures such as mining/processing of mercury, gold, or silver.
  • Aluminum: Cookware, antacids, anti-perspirants, aluminum cans, baking powder, cigarette smoke, car exhaust, paint, aspirin, many medications, many infant formulas, some forms of table salt, some toothpastes, some baby powder, and some food additives.
  • Lead: Car exhaust, wood smoke, cigarette smoke, hair dye, cosmetics, newsprint, contaminated water, lead-based household plumbing, older lead-based paints, PVC plastic, paint pigments, pesticides, and occupational exposures such as construction work, smelter operations, and radiator repair shops.
  • Arsenic: Contaminated water, contaminated shellfish, pesticides, fungicides, paints, wood preservatives, rat poison, and occupational exposures such as industrial smelting and manufacturing processes.
  • Cadmium: Cigarettes, insecticides, fungicides, fertilizers, batteries, PVC plastics, paint pigments, dental alloys, motor oil, car exhaust, and occupational exposures such as industrial ore smelting.

The above four categories of chemicals and their prevalence illustrate how difficult it is to avoid exposure to toxic chemicals. They are just about everywhere. So you can understand the frustration when a chemically sensitive person is told that “avoidance” is the best (or possibly only) way to get better. This is why it is so important for every individual to do their part by eliminating as many chemicals and fragrances as possible in their daily lives. Every person plays a part and every action makes a difference. You have powerful choices to make. You can change people’s lives if you are only willing to make a few minor changes yourself. For more information, please see Why Is Fragrance-Free/Non-Toxic Living So Important? and How To Go Fragrance-Free/Non-Toxic.


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