Kids and Chemicals

glowingember

Like an ember glows bright red when blown upon, my son’s skin reddens in response to chemicals.  His nose runs, his eyes become glassy, and his breathing labored.  As if someone had slipped speed into his drink, his mind races and so does his body.  This has been my son’s reaction to substances like fragrance, cleaning chemicals, and car exhaust since he was just a baby.

About a year and a half ago, we were forced to remove our boy, then 12, from public school.  The state of his health had reached crisis level.  Weepy, bloody, septic eczema plagued him day and night.  Asthma left him breathless.  He cried nearly every evening when we insisted he go to school the next day.

Public school, far from being a place of safety, can be one of the most dangerous places a chemically sensitive child goes.  Things like regular fumigation for pests, application of lawn chemicals, use of strong cleaning chemicals and air fresheners in classrooms, and even kids who come to school with heavy fragrance hanging about them from fabric softener, deodorant, hair products, and cologne all contribute to the creation of a very toxic environment.  No child should be subjected to these things.  But for a chemically sensitive child, school is very often a nightmare beyond anything most of us can imagine.

Sick-building syndrome surfaced in the 1970’s when to conserve energy, many naturally ventilated homes, schools, and offices were replaced with airtight, air-conditioned buildings. Insulation, treated wood, volatile adhesives, and synthetic fabrics and carpets were often incorporated into these buildings and their furnishings.

Especially when new, many of these products release low levels of potentially harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde, into the recycled air. Carpets add to the problem by absorbing various cleaners and solvents and then releasing them over a long period of time. “Vapors from various solvents are the most prevalent of indoor air contaminants,” says the book ChemicalExposures—LowLevelsandHighStakes. “Solvents,” in turn, “are among the chemicals most frequently implicated by chemically sensitive patients,” the book states.

While most people seem able to cope with the environment inside such buildings, some develop symptoms ranging from asthma and other respiratory-tract problems to headaches and lethargy. These symptoms generally disappear when the affected people leave that environment. But in some cases, “patients may develop multiple chemical sensitivities,” says the British medical journal TheLancet. But why do some get sick from chemicals while others do not? This is an important question because some who seem unaffected may find it difficult to be understanding of those who become ill.

When Chemicals Make You Sick, Awake!

I never wanted any of my kids in school.  But for my middle son especially, it felt wrong.  It was like trying to pound him into a wrongly shaped container.  It made him sore, out of sorts, and very sick.  That’s why I was so relieved when my health finally improved enough to pull him back out.  Just in time, too.  I’m not sure he could have taken much more.

At first I didn’t even know how to begin to clean up the emotional and physical mess school had made of my son.  We talked and talked.  I put him in soothing baths of clay and Epsom salts.  I gave him things to help his body heal and detoxify.  I tried to teach him how to relax and think positively.  But he remained fearful, depressed and exhausted until he saw the doctor, who informed him that he was not, in fact, dying.  From that moment forward he began to rally.  Although his rash had slowly been healing up until that time, he now made rapid progress in spite of the fact that we used almost none of the medicine prescribed for him, dramatically demonstrating that doctors can act as powerfully healing placebos.

My son’s travails must have begun in my womb.  When I was pregnant, our home was brand-new and smelled like it too.  It was making me sick.  Imagine what it was doing to my tiny baby, developing in that chemical soup.

“We know the developing fetus is one of the most vulnerable populations, if not the most vulnerable, to environmental exposure,” said Anila Jacobs, EWG senior scientist. “Their organ systems aren’t mature and their detox methods are not in place, so cord blood gives us a good picture of exposure during this most vulnerable time of life.” –Scientific American, Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood

Three months after my son was born, he developed his first rash, a little patch on his cheek.  No big deal, right?  Soon, a pustule formed near the red patch which broke and gave rise to more pustules until his entire face was covered in weepy impetigo.

The antibiotics seemed to clear the rash right up.  Or had they?  Just as we began giving my son his medicine, we left for a vacation on the Olympic Peninsula.  As the rash cleared, I assumed the pink liquid was doing its job.  By the time we arrived home, not only was the infection gone, but so was the rash.  It was the first and last time for many years that the poor boy would have clear skin.

A day after our return, the rash reappeared, and for the first time it began to dawn on me that home might be the problem.  Not only did we live in a brand-new house still off-gassing toxic chemicals, but also in a dirty, dusty agricultural valley, reeking of cow manure and drenched in pesticides.

On our trip, we had breathed some of the cleanest air available on planet earth, air that was continually scrubbed by frequent rain, rich in oxygen, and infused with calming ocean salt.  I believed then, and still believe now, that it was the air that healed my son’s rash, not the antibiotics.  From that time forward, I would continuously look for ways to move our family to cleaner air.

Why Living Near the Ocean is Beneficial to Your Health, Natural Health Ezine

Straight of Juan de Fuca where the air is pure

Straight of Juan de Fuca where the air is pure

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.

– Isak Dinesen

My son finally has clear skin.  We have not moved out of our home, but most of the chemicals seem to have moved out of it.  We still live in the dirty, dusty valley.  But the combined effects of pulling the boy out of school, plus our efforts to use only non-toxic products, to feed our kids healthy, clean foods, and to keep the air in our home clean and free of most chemicals seems to have finally made a difference.

What a novel and wonderful thing it would be to live in a world where keeping our kids safe and healthy is easy, where chemical toxicants in common products are unheard of and all children are safe.

The Biodwell Blog, Holistic Home Ecology

 

Photo by Sharon Mollerus

Photo by Alex Thomson

 

 

 

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Behind the Mask

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“We think caged birds sing, when indeed, they cry.” – John Webster

I’m very, very sensitive to chemicals; not just the ones everybody knows are dangerous, but the ones people use every day on their bodies and in their bathrooms and kitchens and on their sofas and in their yards. And what happens to me when I am exposed to those chemicals is not trivial. The sore throat and headache and heavy chest were uncomfortable, but not enough to stop me from living my life.

What stopped me was when I began to lose my mind. I don’t mean that I become overwrought and anxious.  I literally lose my mind when I’m exposed to chemicals. I mean, I lose IQ points. I become stupid. I also lose my ability to function normally due to exhaustion and pain.  Neurological symptoms such as numbness and tremors are also part of the mix. That’s not okay with me, and that’s why I avoid triggering chemicals.

The social implications are enormous. It’s not just that I have to be careful about what I use in the shower, or what I use to clean the toilet, although that’s part of it. It means I have to avoid other people who use the things that I can’t use. I can’t go into their homes or be close enough to them to hold a comfortable conversation. Public areas like places of worship and schools are very difficult places to be.

It seems like some people think, if they are aware of chemical sensitivity at all, that it takes a special kind of crazy to be this way. Because of the skepticism I’ve encountered and because I do not want to be defined by illness, I don’t like to talk about this.  In spite of that, I often find myself doing it anyway, feeling all the while like I’m treading on thin ice.  If I talk too long, eventually something will slip out that sounds like slap on the wrist:

“Yeah,  fabric softener really does me in.  I think it’s worse than some perfumes.”

My unfortunate victim looks away, searching for a graceful escape.  “Oh really?” she says, “I didn’t know that!” all the while thinking, What a loon!  I use fabric softener every day and I’m fine.

My face reddens as I quickly change the subject, mentally slapping my own wrist for creating an uncomfortable moment.

I have not had to stop meeting at my place of worship, the Kingdom Hall.  This is because I am allowed to sit in a back room with my air purifier and my family.  Behind a wall of windows, I am able to see and hear the meeting.  It is a blessing.  But I always wish I could be on the other side of the glass.

Sometimes I wear a mask to keep me well in toxic situations.  It gives a measure of freedom.  Without that little piece of carbon and fabric, driving our new-smelling car, exhaust fumes pouring in through the vents, would be out of the question. Using a fragranced public restroom would be a nightmare.  Even visiting some of my friends is sometimes made possible by the mask, but that is something I rarely do.  I’ll tell you why.

I hate the mask.  We all wear masks.  But the difference between the mask I wear and mask you wear is that yours is probably socially acceptable.  In his book The Love We Share Without Knowing, Christopher Barzak wrote that “nothing is more real than the masks we make to show each other who we are.”  The way we dress, the way we do our makeup or hair, and the expressions we wear on our face are all masks.  Sometimes they reveal who we are, and sometimes they conceal, if that is our intention.  But when I wear my mask, the only message I project to the world is one of fear.  The mask says, “I’m afraid.  The world is a dangerous place.”  But that is not what I want to say.

“When we know Love, fear has no value in our presence.  There is no pressure to perform and mask our humanity.” – E’yen Gardner

I don’t want to mask my humanity, I want to reveal it.  Oliver Wendell Holmes said that ” without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.”  I want to reveal the special face I have for each of my friends.  I want my friends to understand just how happy I am to see them.  And just like I want to be able to look into the face of a friend and read his or her emotions and intentions, I would like for my friends to be able to see my face and read me as well.

“Masks were used to alienate and silence prisoners in Australian jails in the late 19th century. They were made of white cloth and covered the face, leaving only the eyes visible.” – Wikipedia, Mask

I would fit in here

I would fit in here

Masks tend to frighten us, and for good reason.  Faces reveal intentions.  We cannot read a masked face, and for that reason we associate masks with bad intentions.  Villains wear masks: Phantom of the Opera, Jason, Hannibal Lecter.  I frighten children when I wear my mask.  There is nothing worse than looking into a child’s eyes, seeing fear, and knowing that I am the cause.  That alone is reason enough for me to leave the mask in my purse.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you see someone wearing a mask in public?  The first thing that comes to my husband’s mind is that the person is a thief or a terrorist.  He becomes very uncomfortable if he has to be seen in public with me in my mask, and I don’t blame him.  I’m uncomfortable being seen in public in my mask. Others have told me that their first thought upon seeing a masked person is that the person may have cancer or AIDS and needs protection from germs.  I don’t want people to think that about me.

And as if all that were not enough, carbon filter masks just don’t work very well.  They’re somewhat helpful for nuisance-level pollution, but they’re worse than useless in a truly toxic situation.  I once thought that I could enter a feed store as long as I had my mask on.  I was mistaken.  The mask was no match for the overpowering pesticide fumes.  I was sick for weeks, and it all could have been avoided if the mask had not given me a false sense of security.

When I forgo social opportunities that my mask might afford,  it is not because I like to be alone.  Something that has become more clear to me than ever before is that I love people.  Forced isolation has taught me that.  You tend to appreciate things far more when they are rationed.  If I were I dog, I’d be Dug from the movie Up:

“My name is Dug. I have just met you, and I love you.”

But just like Dug did not like his “cone of shame”, I do not like my mask of shame, and I long for the day when I will never have to wear it again.

I don’t want to be this way.  I’m not trying to make a political statement about chemicals.  My body does that for me.  I am an unwilling “canary in the coal mine” .

In my day-dreams I imagine myself surrounded by people: all my closest friends, my family, and new faces too.  On my face there is nothing but a smile and between me and my friends there is no glass.  I am free.

Helping Those With MCS, Awake! 2000

Good Health For All – Soon!

My Story

Photo by Patrik Jones

Photo of canary by tanakawho

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Healthy Homes: Building the Way Our Ancestors Did It

What if I told you that it was possible to build a beautiful house out of the dirt under your feet?  “There’s no way I’m going to start living in some mud hut,” you say.  I’ll bet you think I’m crazy.  But the truth is that people have been building beautiful dwellings out of earth for thousands of years, and they are still doing it.  Many buildings in the middle East are still constructed using the old mud brick method.  England has it’s thatch roofed cob houses.  The Native Americans of New Mexico have their adobe.

Earth building is a time-honored technique that has much to offer modern people.  Earth homes are easy to build.  People often learn the technique during a weekend intensive and immediately afterwards begin work on their own project.  These homes provide a healthier living environment than almost any other type of building.  Earth walls insulate well, but they also breath.  Air quality inside an earth home is excellent because few if any toxic products are used in its construction.  And the aspect I like most about earth homes is that they are often beautiful.  Because earth is moldable like clay, walls in earth homes are often more than walls, they are works of art.

The following slide show demonstrates just how beautiful and versatile earth dwellings can be:

This next video is almost an hour long, but I found it fascinating.  I had been interested in earth homes for a long time, but did not understand how they were built.  This video shows the construction process and includes commentary from builders who learned from experience.

Use Safer Products

(Continued from Simplicity of Wellness: Love for the Earth and its Creatures , Grow and Cook Your Own Food , and Eat Local)

tub time

As I sit here writing with raised eyebrows, I wonder what I can say about this.  Many of the people who know me well have already gotten an earful about the dangers of toxins.  So much so that I’m sure they would rather not hear any more.  And I get it, I do.  No one, including me, wants to focus on negative, scary things.  Nobody wants to feel overwhelmed.  Nobody wants to find out that their favorite products might not be so good for them.  I’d rather not have to write this, really.  But I just cannot leave it out, it’s too important.

Anytime we start talking about the avoidance of danger, the difficult subject of the nocebo effect comes up.  A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo.  Just as a placebo can cause a person to feel better, a nocebo can cause an adverse reaction.  For example, if you were told that the glass of orange juice you just drank contained arsenic, and it was then explained to you what arsenic does, there’s a good chance you would start to feel sick even if the juice was perfectly safe.  We certainly can think ourselves ill.

So why focus on toxins and pollution if it can have such a negative psychological effect?  I admit that I feel conflicted about that.  I would rather focus on positivity.  But what if the juice in the above illustration really did contain arsenic, but nobody would tell you?  What if the levels of arsenic were low enough not to kill you quickly, but just enough to make you feel vaguely ill?  What if you unknowingly continued drinking the arsenic laced juice for many years, damaging your body little by little, completely unaware of the reasons for your failing health?  Far from being mere nocebos, like the juice, some things really are toxic, and when people avoid them, they feel better.  I’ve seen it time and again.  The other reason is that many commonly used household products pollute the earth, and that right there is reason enough.

So before considering this admittedly difficult subject, it’s well to remember what wellness is all about.  It’s about love for God, self-love, love for others, and love for earth and all its creatures.  It’s about love, not fear.  So while it is necessary to understand some things about toxins so that we can protect ourselves and our families from undue harm, we must keep in mind that anxiety serves no purpose.  But action based on knowledge does.

serenity prayer

 So here’s the skinny: our world is inundated with toxic chemicals. You already know that, right? But something you may not know is this: the chemicals most likely to harm you are not “out there” somewhere. It’s true that industry pollution is a big problem. But for most of us, our biggest and most damaging exposures tend to be much closer to home. They come from places like the Round-Up container in the garage, the box of dryer sheets in the laundry room, and the myriad self-care products lining our bathroom counters and cabinets.

This is difficult for many people to wrap their heads around.  It certainly was for me at one time.  We’d like to believe that the products we use in and around our homes, and especially those we use on our own bodies, are safe, that government agencies have our collective backs.  They wouldn’t allow these things on store shelves if they were dangerous, right?  Wrong.

If you’d like a detailed explanation, it is in this document by the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production:  Presumption of Safety: Limits of Federal Policies on Toxic Substances in Consumer Products

From the document:

Despite the fact that most consumers believe that everyday products are thoroughly tested for dangerous chemicals and determined to be safe by government authorities, the reality is that existing regulatory systems leave significant gaps in their capacity to adequately protect consumers from chemical hazards in these products.

One of the reasons listed in the article for the failure of government agencies to protect us is the fact that many safety standards are actually voluntary, meaning that companies can opt out if they don’t want the bother of adhering to a higher standard.  For example, the fragrance industry is largely self-regulated.  It’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Another reason is that the capacity of certain government agencies is limited due to budget constraints.  Also, current laws do not actually require companies to test most products for safety hazards.  Weak laws and limited governmental capacity ensure that, inevitably, some unsafe products will  end up on store shelves.

You’ve heard the bad news.  Now here’s the good news.  Great news in fact.  There are more companies making safe, non-toxic products now than ever before.  In the past, we may have had to sacrifice quality and performance in the name of health, but not anymore.  Many of these products work, and work well.  Check out EWG’s Skin Deep Database , and Guide to Healthy Cleaning .

Also, an exciting new trend has emerged: DIY everything.  Because so many people are experimenting with making their own cosmetics and cleaning products, the internet is busting at the seams with well-tested recipes.  Non-toxic is now fun!  One of my favorite sources for great recipes is the Wellness Mama website.

The bottom line is this: when it comes to chemicals, we have to watch our own backs. Government and industry is not going to do it for us.  But we are not powerless.  Education and action can make all the difference.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – A Mysterious Malady, Awake! 2000

Hidden Chemicals in Perfume and Cologne

Extreme Chemical Sensitivity Makes Sufferers Allergic to Life, Discover Magazine

Infographic by violet79

Photo by familymwr

Simplicity of Wellness: Love For the Earth and It’s Creatures

Mountains

“These enchantments are medicinal, they sober and heal us. These are plain treasures, kindly and native to us. We come to our own and make friends with matter…the mind loves it’s old home: as water to our thirst, so is the rock, the ground, to our eyes and hands and feet. It is firm water: it is cold flame: what health, what affinity!”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson from his essay, “Nature”

Frankly, this is not something I’ve ever struggled with. I love nature. And I know I’m not alone. What so many of us do struggle with, however, is the fact that our home and our bodies are being polluted. This is where the simplicity of wellness becomes…a little complicated. Because ideally, if everyone loved everyone and everything, the only reason left for the kind of mess that we’re in now would be simple blunders. And blunders that harm the earth and it’s creatures would be remedied quickly by people who care.

But because love is not what makes the economic world go round we have people at the heads of monolithic corporations making potentially harmful, even devastating, decisions based on the principle of unlimited growth, which is another way of saying greed (or cancer). For any action that does not make human sense, all we need do is “follow the money.”

A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.”
― Wendell Berry

It can be depressingly difficult to try to protect ourselves from the pollution spawned by the corruption of our economic system. Even so, love for the natural world can help us to heal because there are choices that we can make, truly doable things, that not only protect our health, but also happen to protect the health of the planet. I’m sure that many readers are already doing some or all of them.

So here are what I consider to be the top five actions we can take that protect both our health and the planet:

1. Spend time enjoying the outdoors.

“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays

One day I was struggling with the pain and tension that so often plagues me, and I decided to drive to the hills. In my special place overlooking the entire valley where I live, I was finally able to exhale. Breathing the clean, sage scented air, feeling the wind on my skin, seeing the way the light played on the clouds and the land, I finally felt free. My tension drained away as if someone had pulled a plug.

We need experiences like that on a regular basis. It’s what keeps us sane, calm, grounded.

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life”

– John Muir

Wonderful experiences in nature engender affection for wild places, wild things. This, in turn impels us to think about our actions. Do they show respect for this perfection, this beauty? When we love a place, we do not want it destroyed or defaced. We feel protective, sometimes fiercely so. It becomes clear that what is so good and so necessary for our own minds and bodies is also necessary for the earth.

(Each action in the list of five will be posted separately.  Coming up next: 2. Grow and Cook Your Own Food)

Photo by Moyan Brenn

 

 

Simplicity of Wellness: Self Love

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Self-love is one of the most difficult things I have ever had to learn.  I am still learning.  It is also one of the most powerfully healing things I have ever experienced.

“I’m so stupid!” How many times have you said that, or something like it?  If you say never, I want to meet you because you are extraordinary.   I don’t know many people personally who haven’t said it or felt it at one time or another.  I used to say it constantly.  I sometimes hated my body for the way it seemed to constantly fail me.

I didn’t know at that time what I was doing to myself, but I do now.  I now understand the full implications behind ancient king Solomon’s words: “death and life are in the power of the tongue;” (Proverbs 18:21)  I had been killing myself slowly.

It was when I came right to edge of my ability to endure suffering that I began to teach myself a new way of thinking.  I had nothing at all to lose and everything to gain.

At first, I did not believe that anything I said to myself could possibly make a dent in my suffering.  Everything I had tried so far had failed: herbs, vitamins, supplements, drugs…hospitalization.   It had all failed.  My body had become so sensitized that I was reacting negatively to everything I put in my mouth or on my skin.  So what could words possibly do?

Even so, I tried.  I began to change the way I spoke to myself. My mind was like a very frightened child in desperate need of love and affection.  It needed a mother, and that mother would have to be me.  I cherished myself as I would one of my precious babies.  I reassured myself every day that I was getting better and better, that I was safe and healing.

At first it felt false.  I went on anyway. Eventually I began to believe myself.  Instead of automatic negative thoughts, I was having automatic positive thoughts.  When I felt sick or frightened, I was able to calm myself quickly.  “It’s okay,” I would say, “because I’m getting better and better.  I am safe now.  I am healing.”

I began to feel better, not just in my mind, but truly.  My energy began to return.  Pain decreased. I started having some days when I felt almost normal.  It was clear to me that my fearful, negative thoughts had helped to keep me sick.

I am still sick.  But the difference now is that I know I can and will feel better.  And I know that if there are some things that never go, it will be okay.  I know how to live well with pain.  And I know how to love and forgive my faithful and patient body.

Photo by Miroslav Vajdić

Simplicity of Wellness: Spirituality

sunset

 “One of my graduate students told me she had gone for a walk on the beach in the late afternoon. As the sun was setting, she climbed onto a boulder at the water’s edge. Gazing out to sea, she felt herself slowly becoming one with nature–with the sun descending toward the horizon, the waves crashing at her feet, the pastel colors that streaked the western sky. She said, “In that moment I felt eternity. I knew these things had gone on for millions of years before I came and that they would go on for millions of years after I’m gone. It felt good to be alive, to be part of all this. I was deeply moved and began to cry.”

Contemplation, meditation, prayer, rituals and other spiritual practices have the power to release the “life force” in the deepest levels of the human psyche, levels that secular interventions cannot reach. Indeed, new evidence shows that religious and spiritual interventions can help when everything else has failed.”

– David N. Elkins, Psychology Today

Spirituality is indeed the most potent healing force in existence. Many people assume that this is due to the fact that most spiritual practices promote deep physical relaxation and a sense of mental peace. But is that all there is to it? Is it just our own life force that is being released when we pray? Many spiritually inclined people would say no. It is true that forms of spirituality that do not involve a belief in a personal God are becoming more and more popular. As The Watchtower of October 2010 stated, “some people look to themselves or to their fellow humans to fill spiritual needs.” Then it posed the question: “Do you not sense, though, that humans are just too limited to help adequately?”

Our longing for a spiritual connection goes beyond a need to feel one with our surroundings or to learn compassion or to empty our minds of clutter. We crave a spiritual connection to the mind who is responsible for our existence. The one who knows us. The one with power to help. Many people feel, rightly I believe, that it is this one who provides them with “power beyond what is normal”. (2 Corinthians 4:7)  There is no more powerful road to well-being than a close, loving relationship with the source of our lives, the creator of everything, the God who is love.

The God of love showed me on many occasions and in many ways that he wanted to help. A person who has never learned to pray might find it difficult to conceive of being able to communicate with a powerful invisible being. It is something that a person must experience to understand. And to experience it takes a humility and open-mindedness that I was not born with. I had to learn. It is something that only suffering could teach me.

 

 

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