So Sensitive!

Take a Chemical Inventory of Your Home

Are you feeling tired most of the time? Does your spouse have a continuous cold and your child a mysterious rash? Chemical sensitivities could be responsible for these ailments. And your house—as well as the stuff in it—is likely to be the source of your discomforts.

Household chemicals can be dangerous—in more ways than one.
© Roy Morsch / Corbis

"Migraines, asthma and sinusitis, as well as more serious conditions, such as cardiovascular, neurological and auto-immune diseases, are likely to be inspired by chemicals found in the typical American household," says Dr. Grace Ziem, a public health physician specializing in chemical injuries.

"Early warning signs of chemical sensitivities are burning and irritation of the sinuses, nose or throat—usually not with a fever—and itching or sneezing," says Ziem. If you think some chemicals might bother you, she suggests keeping a log to help pinpoint the causes.

"One of the characteristics of chemical sensitivities is that people tend to have bigger reactions to ever-smaller amounts of substances," says Suzanne Olson of the Environmental Health Network.

Focus on Prevention

Prevention is the key to escaping chemical sensitivities. And removing toxic compounds from your home is the strategy. "You can begin under the kitchen sink," says John Bower, author of The Healthy House. Most household cleaning products introduce a whole menu of harmful chemicals into the home. "Replacing your traditional choices is easy," says Olson. "Buy the products your grandmother bought. Borax, vinegar and baking soda will clean most items around the house." Olson uses vegetable oil to polish her furniture, and she shuns any items with a fragrance.

"If any ingredients end in -ethylene or -ethane, it's not a healthy product," says Cynthia Wilson, executive director of the Chemical Injury Information Network. She recommends using scent-free and dye-free clothes products, and an oxygen laundry additive in place of its toxic counterpart—bleach. The price for a fragrant environment might be your health. "Most consumers are unaware that a key ingredient in air fresheners is really a sweet smelling pesticide," says Wilson.

Automobile exhaust emits many harmful chemicals that can find their way into the home via an attached garage. Olson recommends parking cars outside.

"Synthetic home furnishings, especially those with stuffing, can create sensitivities," says Ziem. Foam, particleboard and veneers have all been found guilty of aggravating a variety of symptoms. Ziem adds that indoor and outdoor pesticides incite sensitivities. She advocates using natural, organic pest control methods.

Even something as innocent as a shower can induce reactions. "Chlorinated water creates chloroform," says Ziem. "And high temperatures, large volumes and long durations produce more of this gas." For people dealing with frequent ear infections, skin irritations and other recurring complaints, Ziem suggests installing water filters to rid the water of possible contaminants.

Outside air is almost always cleaner than indoor air, so add fresh air to your indoor air as often as possible. "On the other hand, if you sleep by an open window and wake up congested, you might want to evaluate the area immediately outside your bedroom for possible irritants," says Ziem.

"Gas appliances can cause sensitivity attacks," warns Bower. When installing gas fireplaces, water heaters and furnaces, select appliances with sealed combustion chambers. An added bonus of this alternative is greater energy efficiency.

Sweet dreams may elude you if you have chemical sensitivities to items in your bedroom. "Most mattresses are made from artificial materials," says Bower. Some beds have chemical mold inhibitors and almost all have fire retardant.

Bower selected a mattress manufactured from organically raised cotton. And because permanent press products include formaldehyde, he shuns wrinkle-free linens.

Home Improvement?

Home improvements present another area for chemical vigilance. Bower urges care when deciding on interior finishes, paints and floor coverings. It was remodeling, after all, that provoked his wife's sensitivity to chemicals. As a result, the couple had to build a new house constructed with totally "green" goods.

"We can't easily control the pollution we're exposed to from cars and factories, but we can control many aspects of our home environment," says Olson. Ziem believes non-toxic homes are essential for both preventing and healing chemical sensitivities. And that gives the saying "Home sweet home" even more meaning.

DIANE M. MARTY is a Colorado-based freelance writer.