Poisoned bodies, poisoned minds

By Andrea DesJardins
© 2001, All rights reserved. This article may be printed for personal use. All other uses must retain this copyright notice, a link to our website (/index.html), and must not be reprinted for sale.

The other day I was behind a woman in the grocery store who was buying a dozen scented "air freshening" candles and half a dozen cans of aerosol air freshener. I wanted to walk up to her and ask her if she realized that she was putting her health, and that of the child that was with her, at risk, but I didn’t. I wouldn’t want some stranger coming up and lecturing me in the grocery store, so I kept my mouth shut. It was a frustrating moment.

For me, frustrating moments come often. Every time I see someone purchasing pesticides, cleaning products, air fresheners, disinfectants and fragrances I get frustrated. I get frustrated that these products are even allowed on the market, foisted on an unsuspecting public by expensive advertising campaigns. I get frustrated that voices like mine and others get drowned out by the promise of greener, cleaner, fresher and less effort. I get frustrated that I know important information about the safety of the everyday products that people use and yet it isn’t ‘politically correct’ for me to shout it from the roof-tops, let alone approach strangers in a store. And I get frustrated that I too was once just like the people I want to lecture.

What is a person to do?

I didn’t come by this information easily, nor did I immediately realize the implications this information had on my own life. For several years I was an Environmental Health Technical Information Specialist for a hotline sponsored by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. Daily I dispensed information to the public about the health effects of products they used, but my audience were people seeking out my advice.  As such they were generally motivated to make the lifestyle changes I suggested. It took me two-and-a-half years of working the hotline before I started taking my own advice and implementing the lifestyle changes I had preached to so many others.

You see, I too had been taken in by the promise of commercial products. Yes, despite what I knew, even my home was filled with cleaning products, air fresheners and disinfectants, and fancy personal-care products. The only reason that I even bothered to take my own advice was because I had been living for over a year with an unremitting headache. My doctors were unable to find a cause for my pain, nor were they able to cure it. 

One day I happened to notice that my pain would flare whenever I got a good whiff of a perfume. Since I generally was not a perfume wearer I decided to run an experiment with my boyfriend. "Don’t wear your cologne when you come visit me next time," I told him one day. On his next visit he was cologne free, and I was headache-free (relatively speaking anyway). The next day I had him put on some cologne and presto, migraine city. The proverbial ‘eureka’ had struck.

At that point I realized that I could not be around any perfumes or colognes, but it took me several more years before I realized that I couldn’t be around any product that was scented with synthetic fragrances. This meant that my hair gel, deodorant, soap, shampoo, and conditioner had to go. Replacing these products with unscented varieties has been quite the challenge.

While I was undergoing this transformation to a fragrance-free lifestyle, I was realizing that there were some scented products that bothered me in a different way. Instead of the usual symptoms of numbness and tingling, disorientation, giddiness, profound fatigue, and general ‘drunkeness’ that came with fragrance exposures, these products were causing a distinctly different type of symptom picture: a severe burning of the sinuses and a rapid progression to an indescribable pain that was simply untreatable. After much research I came to discover that the common factor among the products that caused this sort of reaction was a family of chemicals called ‘Glycol Ethers.’

I had already known about the health effects of pesticides and fragrances from my previous work at the hotline, but I knew nothing about these glycol ethers, so I started digging. To my amazement I found that this chemical, which was formerly believed to be relatively safe for use (and even allowed in products marketed as ‘non-toxic’), had been re-classified by the federal government as toxic. Yet as best as I can tell, they are still a frequent ingredient in dozens of commercial products, with absolutely no labels to warn consumers about the health risks they pose.

One of the reasons, I believe, for this complacency on consumer products is that little is known about the health effects of using small amounts of a product over long periods of time. Traditional toxicology testing (the testing of chemicals for their health effects) has simulated exposures that might be found in the workplace. The information from these studies is then extrapolated, erroneously, to attempt to predict the health effects of chemicals in homes.

At the heart of this extrapolation error is the ‘No Observed Effect Level,’ or NOEL, that is determined through this toxicity testing. The NOEL is determined to be the level of exposure to a chemical that a person can withstand without any obvious signs of toxicity, either through observation of the test subject, or by biochemical analysis of the blood and other bodily fluids (it is important to know that not all toxic effects can be quantitated through biochemical analysis. Some symptoms, like pain, are purely subjective, which makes for errors in establishing toxic effects).

The reason this extrapolation is erroneous is because of the way the studies are done. First, the study assumes that the individual will be exposed to only the chemical in question, and not to other chemicals simultaneously. In the home the consumer is virtually never exposed to only a single pollutant, and the possible combination of pollutants, and their interactions, is impossible to predict.

Second, the studies are predominantly done on healthy males and lab animals. These test subjects are hardly representative of the population as a whole, and are completely inappropriate when children are involved. They do not represent the millions of people who have compromised immune systems, central nervous system disorders, or any host of other common underlying health problems found in the general population. Further, animal test subjects can’t report sub-clinical symptoms such as headache, vision disturbances, stomach upset, etc. that would indicate that a toxic effect is indeed taking place.

Thirdly, the studies generally last for a short duration, anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Over the short haul the body might be able to handle high doses of a chemical without it causing damage to body systems, but without tests conducted over the long haul it can’t be assumed that there is truly a threshold of exposure below which the body will never have a toxic response. Unfortunately, this assumption is made anyway.

Finally, the tests do not simulate typical exposures in a home environment where there may be complex mixtures of chemical pollutants in the air 24-hours a day. When a chemical product is used in the home it will evaporate and be dispersed into the air that is breathed by the members of the household. It may also adhere to the fibers of carpeting, curtains and bedding, as well as onto porous surfaces such as walls and ceilings. When multiple products are used around the home, the various chemical ingredients may interact to form new chemicals, or one chemical may make another chemical more potent in a phenomena called ‘synergism.’ In homes that are sealed so as to be more energy efficient, these chemicals may remain in the air for long periods of time… long enough that the product will probably be used again, thus adding more of the pollutant to the air.

So, because most typical home exposures are assumed to occur in isolation and fall below the NOEL range, consumer products containing toxic chemicals are allowed to be sold for use in the home with little or no instruction or warning labels to guide the consumer.

But are typical home exposures really below the NOEL level? When multiple products are used in the home, it is possible that the combination of products would exceed 'safe' exposure limits. Thus, it is very possible that these products might be contributing to the significant rise in asthma, allergies and neurological disorders (i.e. migraines, but also personality disorders such as depression) that has been occurring over the past few decades. 

Certainly it is known that the chemicals used in household products can cause or exacerbate these conditions when overexposures occur in the workplace, so the possibility that some more susceptible individuals might be adversely affected in the home environment should also be considered. 

Babies are certainly susceptible populations because their central nervous systems, their immune systems and their detoxification systems (i.e. liver, kidneys) continue to develop long after birth. Perhaps exposure to cleaning chemicals, fragrances, pesticides and other products are affecting our children in ways we can’t even imagine. Unfortunately, because these chemicals are environmental ‘stealth fighters,’ there will be no way for us to definitively determine that, for example, neurological disturbances (i.e. depression, rage, etc.) in an adolescent were the ultimate result of having a plug-in by the crib as a baby.

I have never been a confrontational person, so I have never really considered becoming one of those "in your face" activists. But somehow I must do what I can to get the message out that supposedly safe chemicals can poison. I can’t keep moving into the future knowing what I know and not making the effort to share my knowledge with others.

Wake up America… we can not continue to ransom our future generations for the convenience of green lawns, sweet smelling homes, and effortless cleaning. It is becoming apparent that we have no choice… We must stand up to corporate America and tell them to stop poisoning our bodies – and our minds. 

Please heed my words and use this website as a tool to become an informed consumer.  We owe at least that much to our children.

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