Being “homesick” takes on a whole new meaning when seeking answers to health issues.
Sick building or sick house syndrome is a term coined more than three decades ago to describe situations in which more than one person experiences illness connected with a particular building or home, due to gas-emitting building materials and poor ventilation. It is a term that is commonly recognized today by people well outside the building industry, said Drs Carolyn Graham and Alice Bell of the Naturopathic Health Center, LLC, in Southbury.
When a patient presents with chronic symptoms such as headaches, respiratory issues, fatigue, and irritability that cannot be attributed to a physical cause, the naturopaths begin to explore the possibilities of environmental contaminations that can cause those responses. It takes a bit of sleuthing, but a thorough history of the patient and his/her surroundings can unearth the shocking truth: Home Sweet Home may be more like Home Toxic Home.
“We are inundated with chemicals in the environment,” said Dr Graham, ticking off one after another of how the modern world contributes to unwellness. “There are certain things we’re doing that make things worse,” said Dr Bell, and every room in the house is host to substances that put people at risk.
Home additions and living rooms pose threats of off-gassing. Chemicals in materials are released into the air, and if a home is overly insulated or poorly ventilated, those fumes are trapped in the home atmosphere. “If you buy new furniture, drapes, or carpets and the adhesives they use with them, these all give off chemicals,” said Dr Graham. Unless they are low or no VOC (volatile organic compounds), paints off-gas; floor varnishes and stain-resistant fabric and furniture treatments can all be implicated in making people sick, she said. New additions or newly built homes may be filled with materials that can give off toxic fumes, some obvious and some very subtle.
“It can take five years to completely off-gas, with many of these materials,” said Dr Bell, meaning that anyone sensitive to environmental pollutions can be subject to the ill effects for a long time after the “new house” smell to go away. VOCs are not water soluble and do not biodegrade for a long time.
Hygiene Products Contaminate
Toiletries and hygiene products are another source of environmental contamination.
The popular and fun-to-wash-with foaming soaps do no favors, for example. “Foaming soaps open up the pores in your skin, making you more susceptible to toxins in the water,” Dr Graham said. Most public water supplies are treated with disinfectant, and water disinfectants are found in the blood stream, in the highest levels, right after showering, according to studies, she said. Antibacterial soaps have a downside, as well. They kill the good bacteria people naturally have on skin and create a situation in which bad bacteria then have easier access to the body.
The skin is also the portal for chemicals found in cosmetics. “Studies have shown that women absorb 4.4 pounds per year of chemicals from cosmetics,” said Dr Bell.
Be aware of the ingredients in toothpastes and mouthwashes. Blue and red dyes, especially, Dr Bell said, can cause reactions. Fluoride is found in toothpastes in quantities great enough to poison young children, particularly if the public water supply already contains fluoride.
People make other choices that subject them to environmental hazards and ill health, said the doctors. Dry cleaned clothing, chemically based fragrances, household cleaners, and laundry detergents are other items to which people are exposed on a daily basis.
“You should hang your clothes outside for at least 48 hours after they come back from the cleaners,” advised Dr Graham, and added that fragrances and chemicals added to drier sheets and laundry detergents end up in your clothes and then on your skin.
It is nice not to have to iron, but knowing that no-iron clothing stays wrinkle-free due to the addition of formaldehyde to the material should make them less desirable. According to the National Cancer Institute, “Formaldehyde has been classified as a known human carcinogen [cancer-causing substance] by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency.”
Don’t Cover Up
If you have a house (or any dwelling space), chances are cleaning products fill the cupboards. If they are not natural, plant-based products, they could be contributing to lingering symptoms of unwellness.
Cleaning products contain chemicals that have long-term effects and have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system, and affect the liver, Dr Bell said. Artificially scented air fresheners spew more chemicals into the air, and may cover up smells that should be noted, such as mold.
The crawling, furry black mold that creeps across walls and ceilings following a flood or burst pipe is obvious, but mold can also hide out of sight under sinks, in walls, and under floorboards. Coughing, runny nose, wheezing, and asthmalike symptoms are related to indoor mold exposure.
“The garage is the number one stinky place, I think,” said Dr Bell. It is the place where all the nasty stuff people do not want in the house is stored. “Gas-powered tools, antifreeze, fertilizers, pesticides, and paint thinners all end up in the garage,” she said, where they contribute to home pollution.
The bedroom in particular poses an invisible health hazard: electrosmog.
Electronic radiation emitted by televisions, cellphones, electric blankets, radios, and other electronic equipment that so many people now house in the bedroom can lead to conditions that range from the vaguely annoying headaches and memory issues to the more serious tumors and brain cancers.
“House health is a big part of health and wellness in general,” said Dr Shawn Carney of Northeast Natural Medicine in Newtown. “Symptoms are beacons of how the body is out of alignment,” he said. In agreement with Drs Graham and Bell, Dr Carney urged people to reconsider when and where electronic equipment is housed and used in the home.
Wireless capability is accessible nearly anywhere a person goes, he said, adding to the electrosmog burden placed upon individuals. Children in particular are at risk for potential harm from constant exposure to electromagnetic radiation, Dr Carney said.
“Minimize your exposure where you can. Go back to wired versus wireless in the house, for example,” he suggested. Do not keep cellphones on the person all of the time, and do not keep them in bedrooms at night. The decisions, he noted, will be made based on the impact wellness or nonwellness has on one’s quality of life.
The list seems endless as to how that haven of nurturing — home — can be the culprit in sickness. But wise choices and balancing options can lead to a healthier environment, said the doctors.
Make The Right Choice
Choose low VOC materials when decorating or painting, and always work in a well ventilated area when using paint or varnish of any kind.
Choose hand and body washes that do not contain sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium lauryl ether sulfate, both additives in soaps, shampoos, detergents, toothpastes, and cosmetics, and which have been linked to skin irritation.
If a household has children, use a toothpaste that is free of added fluoride.
Opt for hardwood flooring over carpeting, and select from a no or low-VOC varnish when finishing the floors. Throw rugs made from natural, untreated materials are a wise decorating choice, Dr Graham said.
Set out plants in the home to freshen the air, or use naturally derived essential oils.
Upholstered furniture and curtains should be made of fabric not treated with stain-resisting chemicals, and any room into which new furniture is placed should be well-ventilated initially.
Select household cleaners that do the job without polluting the environment inside or out.
Steer clear of Teflon-coated or aluminum cooking pans that leach contaminants into the body and into the air. Instead, use stainless steel, cast iron, or ceramic cookware.
Never run gas-powered hand tools in the garage, and store fertilizers and pesticides in a shed away from the home.
Treat mold problems by washing down walls with white vinegar and rinsing well, rather than using more toxic cleaners to eliminate the mold. Borax is another natural solution to combating mold in the home, and is a known antifungal, Dr Bell said.
Choosing wisely is extremely important in homes with small children or infants, said the doctors. Because their systems are undeveloped, they are less able to handle toxins. A child or infant’s small size means that they are exposed to exponentially larger amounts of environmental hazards in comparison to adults, Dr Bell said. “And think about babies, who spend a great deal of time on the floor, crawling on carpeting,” she said.