Be Smarter, Feel Healthier. Join Today - Go! Log In Log In Profile Profile MyHealthRecord MyHealthRecord
quick search for in

Wake Up and Smell the Chemicals

By Merla Zellerbach

With your new knowledge and awareness, the world around you will begin to look quite different -- even your own home. Familiar products such as perfume and after-shave may suddenly loom threatening and, depending on your degree of sensitivity, should probably be replaced, especially if you develop respiratory problems or asthma.

Unless you're seriously ill, however, don't go to extremes. Ignore fanatics who insist your only hope for survival is to pack up and move to the mountains. Instead, focus your efforts on cleaning up the environment where you spend two-thirds of your time. Start with making your bedroom an oasis. Remove suspected agents one or two at a time and check results.

Here are some general guidelines for the home:

  • Don't smoke in your home and don't allow anyone else to do so. (To clean a room of cigarette odor, soak a towel in hot water and vinegar, equal parts. Wring out the excess and swing the towel around your head. An alternate solution is to sprinkle baking soda on the carpet, leave it for half an hour, then vacuum.)
  • As gradually as you like, replace toxic products with nontoxic or substitute products (see next section). The first items to consider should be:

Aerosol sprays

Air fresheners/deodorizers

Chlorinated water

Dry-cleaned clothes and draperies

Felt-tip pens

Furniture and floor polish

Gas stoves and appliances

Glues, adhesives

Household cleaners, bleaches, detergents, and disinfectants

Kerosene heaters


Nail polish and remover

Newsprint with fresh ink

Paint supplies and varnish (except for the new low-odor paints)

Pesticides and fungicides

Pliable plastics such as mattress covers, shower curtains, tablecloths, and food wrap (hard plastics, such as telephones, emit fewer fumes)

Rubbing alcohol

Scented products such as soaps, shampoos, cosmetics, and deodorants

Stain removers and stain-proofers

Synthetic fabrics and permanent-press clothing

  • Take all your old or unused chemical products, including paints and cleaning supplies, to a hazardous waste disposal center.
  • Don't buy any products with such strongly worded warnings as "poisonous," "toxic," "dangerous when inhaled," or "use in a well-ventilated area."
  • Check labels! Many products contain VOCs -- volatile organic compounds -- meaning that they mix with the air you breathe and can emit potentially harmful gases. But don't count on labels to tell everything. Nothing in your bedroom warns that your new set of cabinets may be releasing low levels of formaldehyde fumes.
  • Consumer Reports lists six solvents to "be used with great caution." Better still, avoid them if you can:

Methylene chloride -- found in degreasers, waxes, paint products, pesticides, lubricants.

Toluene -- found in gasoline, some glues, paint products, nail polishes.

1,1,1 Trichloroethane -- found in drain cleaners, spot removers, shoe polish, insecticides, printing inks, degreasers.

Glycol ethers -- found in antifreeze, some paints, adhesives, sealants.

N-Hexane -- found in glues, paints, varnishes, printing inks.

Petroleum distillates (including benzene) -- found in a wide array of products: pesticides, paints, furniture polish, adhesives, spot removers, caulking compounds, detergents.

Temporary exposure to VOCs can cause drowsiness, dizziness, headache, breathing difficulty, and eye irritation. Long-term exposure can affect the nervous, respiratory, and reproductive systems, liver, heart, and kidneys. Cancer and birth defects have also been reported.

  • If you must use a solvent for any reason, take precautions. Don't use more than one at a time, and don't drink alcoholic beverages that day because they can increase the toxic effects. Ask your doctor about interactions with medication. Wear a respirator (a nose mask sold in paint shops and safety equipment supply stores), gloves, and goggles, and try to work standing up. Chemical fumes tend to sink.
  • Open windows as much as possible and install exhaust fans to increase ventilation. Keep windows closed if you live in a high-pollution area or on a heavily traveled street full of car exhaust fumes. Consider adding a high-quality air filter (see Chapter 8).
  • Don't use unvented gas, oil, or wood heaters, and don't idle your motor when the car is in the garage. Carbon monoxide can cause nausea, dizziness, and disorientation.
  • Test your home for radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that may, with prolonged exposure to high levels, increase the risk of lung cancer. Call the EPA Radon Hotline, 800-SOS-RADON, for an information kit.

Safe Substitutes

Americans have become obsessed with smelling good. No mannerly person would dare to perspire noticeably at a party or exhale garlic fumes at the office. Madison Avenue spends billions programming us to buy sweet-scented preparations to mask body odors when we'd be far healthier smelling like ourselves.

Similarly, our homes are expected to be almost as sterile as our bodies. We dump blue liquids into our toilets, bleach our clothes, spray pine-scented chemicals into the air, and spritz our garbage cans with lemon mist. To what end? The air we take into our lungs becomes further contaminated.

Six nontoxic household products, used correctly, can replace almost all commercial cleaners and deodorizers. One or more are probably already in your kitchen. You'll find them less costly, easier to apply, and far gentler on your hands, your body, and the atmosphere. They are:

Baking Soda

Sodium bicarbonate cleans, removes spots, softens water, deodorizes, and can be used dry as an underarm deodorant. May be sprinkled on rugs before vacuuming.


Sodium borate acts as a general disinfectant, whitens and brightens laundry, cleans bathrooms and garbage cans, freshens carpets, and can replace scouring cleanser. Caution: Keep away from children.


Pure fragrance-free soap is not made with petroleum derivatives and is biodegradable (capable of decomposing).

Washing Soda

Hydrated (combined with water) sodium carbonate cuts grease, removes stains, disinfects, and softens water. Most supermarkets carry sal soda, as it's also called, in the laundry section. Be sure it's not scented.

White Vinegar

A versatile disinfectant. Dilute with equal parts water to clean tile and formica and to remove spots, molds, mineral deposits, and crayon marks. Combine with salt to clean copper and brass.

Lemon Juice

Use as vinegar when a fresh scent is desired. Also cleans copper and brass.

The six agents listed above should meet all your housecleaning needs. Now try a few "recipes":

Air freshener. Set out a bottle of vanilla extract, boil cloves or cinnamon in water, or drop a half lemon into your garbage disposal unit. Open containers of baking soda or white vinegar will absorb odors.

Deer, rabbit, gopher repellent. Human hair (get clippings from a barber or beauty shop) in a mesh bag will repel most garden invaders. Sprinkle red pepper or talcum powder at the base of plants to keep rabbits away.

Disinfectant. Mix * cup borax with a gallon of hot water. A California hospital tested this mix and found it met all germicide requirements.

Drain cleaner. Pour * cup baking soda into the drain, add a cup of water and a cup of white vinegar. Wait about 10 minutes while it foams, then flush with plenty of hot water.

Flea repellent for pets. Add 1 teaspoon vinegar to a quart of water and pour on pet. Keep fur brushed and clean.

Furniture polish. Apply lemon or olive oil. Sprinkle a little cornstarch and rub to a shine.

Glass cleaner. Mix 1-2 cup white vinegar with 2 cups warm water. Use week-old newspapers to polish.

Insecticide. Add 2-3 drops of dishwashing liquid to a quart of water and spray plants with mixture once a month.

Insect repellent. Rub vanilla extract on your skin. Or crush bay leaves in your fingers, then rub fingers over your skin. (Good for mosquitoes, gnats, flies.)

Laundry cleaner. Grate pure bar soap, add water, liquefy in blender. For heavy stains, add borax and washing soda to washing machine.

Moth repellent. Never use mothballs. Seal clothes in zipper bags. Or mix 2 parts mint, 1 part thyme, and 1 part cloves and hang in a cheesecloth bag in your closet.

Oven cleaner. Use aluminum foil to catch juices. Pour salt on soiled area before oven cools, then clean with baking soda and water.

Pesticide. Keep area spotlessly clean, especially hard-to-reach places. Try natural pest control. Repel ants by sealing points of entry with toothpaste, caulk, or tape. Drive them from the kitchen by sprinkling borax, chili pepper, or baking soda on shelves and counters and into crevices. Repeat often.

Keep ants from pet food by putting the dog or cat bowl in another shallow bowl with an inch or so of water around it.

To trap roaches, put a small chunk of banana and some bacon grease into a 4-inch-high glass jar. Spread a 1-inch layer of Vaseline around the jar 1-2 inch from the top. To repel roaches, use bay leaves or cucumber rinds.

Repair all kitchen leaks and cracks, and don't leave any food sitting out or bits of food on unwashed dishes. Cover the soil around the house with diatomaceous earth, a light-colored porous rock sold in garden supply stores. For further information, call the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network sponsored by the EPA: 800-858-PEST.

Silver cleaner. Rub silver gently with toothpaste on a wet cloth or a mixture of baking soda and water. Use olive oil to clean pewter.

Spot remover. Use club soda or a mix of half white vinegar, half water.


So much has been written about formaldehyde and its potential to cause neurological damage and cancer, it warrants a section of its own. Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling (in large concentrations) gas that affects people differently.

Some react to it as an irritant, experiencing burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat. Others develop allergic skin reactions through physical contact with such products as durable-press clothing, or they wheeze and become asthmatic after inhaling fumes. Most people, however, don't react at all to common low-level exposures.

Whether the level in your home is high or low depends mainly on what's releasing the gas, the amount of ventilation, the temperature, and humidity. Higher temperatures and humidity increase emissions, and new products outgas (release gas) more frequently than older ones.

Major sources of formaldehyde in the home are:

  • Burning materials such as wood, kerosene, igarettes, and natural gas.
  • Carpets. They trap formaldehyde emitted from other sources and release it when temperature and humidity rise.
  • Cosmetics, paints, glues, coated paper products.
  • Permanent-press fabrics and draperies and other synthetic textiles.
  • Pressed wood products such as particleboard (sheet material made of wood fragments bonded with resin), plywood, and medium-density fiberboard, which are used to make shelves, kitchen cabinets, and furniture.
  • Urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI).
  • In the save-energy frenzy of the 1970s, many homes installed UFFI and many occupants became ill. The foam outgases heavily when new, but the effect diminishes after about five years.

Some ways to reduce formaldehyde exposure are by washing permanent-press fabrics before wearing them, using air conditioning to keep the temperature cool and to lower humidity, using a dehumidifier in wet climates, removing or replacing known sources, and letting large amounts of fresh air into the home or office.

For further information, call the EPA Toxic Substance Control Act assistance line: 202-554-1404.

Cosmetics and Beauty Products

The FDA does not pass approval on cosmetics, but does require a listing of ingredients. The burden then falls on you to read the labels and look for possible allergens and irritants. Any cosmetic that has a warning label should be discarded.

Here are some ingredients to look for. Use them minimally or avoid:


Found in nail polish remover. Can cause nail-splitting and skin rashes. Inhalation may irritate lungs.

Benzalkonium Chloride (BAK)

Found in after-shave products, hair tonics, eye lotions. Can cause allergic conjunctivitis.


Found in cold creams, moisturizers, hair preparations, after-shave lotions, and medicated cosmetics. Causes photosensitivity (sensitivity to light) and skin rashes.

Blue Dye No. 1

Found in after-shave lotions, toothpastes, blushes, purple lipsticks. Suspected carcinogen.

Butylated Hydroxytoluene (Bht)

Found in baby oils, soaps, eyeliner pencils. Corrosive to skin, can cause allergy.

Coal Tar

Found in cosmetic dyes. Potent allergen, causes cancer in animals.

Dimethyl Sulfate

Found in dyes and perfumes. Vapors hurt the eyes. Sufficient skin absorption can cause serious poisoning.


Found in deodorants, toothpaste, mouthwashes, shampoos, hair-setting lotions, nail polish, perfumes, bath tissues. May cause peeling nails, skin rashes, eye and respiratory tract irritation. A frequent sensitizer.

Green Dye No. 6

Found in pine shampoos, mint toothpastes. Possible carcinogen.

Iron Oxides

Found in eye makeup, lipsticks, rouge. Suspected carcinogen.

Lead Acetate

Found in hair dyes, face creams. A proven carcinogen; may cause lead buildup.


A frequent allergen, found in every type of cosmetic. Can cause headaches, dizziness, skin rashes, coughing, and vomiting.


Found in hair dyes. May produce eczema, bronchial asthma, gastritis, skin rash.

Polyvinylpyrrolidone (PVP)

Found in eyeliners, hair sprays, hair-setting gels, rouge. May cause lung damage.


Found in nail polish. Can cause liver damage, irritation to skin and respiratory tract.

Triethanolomine (TEA)

Found in moisturizing creams, suntan lotions, hair gels. Toxic effect on animals.

Remember, too, that cosmetics, shampoos, and conditioners often contain highly allergenic food proteins such as milk, eggs, and fish and could cause symptoms. The main problem with cosmetics is that if a product seems to work, people tend to stick to it, use it daily or several times a day, and become dependent on it. Overuse, as with almost any substance, can lead to developing a sensitivity.

You can avoid the problem by rotating your usual cosmetics with safe alternatives. Try these suggestions:

After-shave. Use rubbing alcohol, diluted lemon juice, or diluted mint flavoring.

Bath powder. Try cornstarch, if you're not allergic to corn.

Deodorant. Use baking soda or vinegar. (The smell disappears as it dries.)

Eyeliner. Try charcoal from a wood fire on a Q-tip. Avoid ashes and keep eye closed as you apply it.

Eye drops. Place cucumber slices or wet tea bags on closed eyes and leave in place for at least five minutes.

Hair conditioner. Beat an egg, apply to wet, washed hair, rinse thoroughly.

Moisturizer. Try canola, olive, or any light cooking oil.

Mouthwash. Try cooled mint tea or 1-2 teaspoon baking soda in a cup of water.

Shaving cream. Soak skin with hot wash cloth, leave cloth in place while skin softens. Use electric razor.

Toothpaste. Use baking soda or an electric toothbrush with water. (It's the brushing that loosens food debris, not the toothpaste.)

At the Office

You have a right to breathe clean air where you work, even though your co-workers may get irritated at having to walk a few more steps to the copy machine, being asked not to wear cologne, or having to leave the building to smoke.

The same principles apply to the office as to the home, but controlling a work situation isn't always possible. Emissions from supplies and equipment can be significant, leading to such complications as "laser printer rhinitis," hoarseness from carbonless paper, and asthma and breathing difficulties from ozone released by copiers.

The good news is that major companies are aware of the problem, and most are seeking to remedy it. Microsoft's Windows, for example, makes it possible to place a computer in a vented glass case and enter data with a pointing device such as a mouse. This allows physical distance from the machine and its vapors.

Even better news is that "healthy building" is becoming almost as familiar a term as "sick building."

Mary Lamielle, dynamic president of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, suggests that every chemically sensitive person should be entitled to:

  • An office with a window that opens and adequate ventilation
  • An environment free of tobacco smoke, pesticides, air fresheners, disinfectants, fragrance-laden cleaning products, and exhaust fumes from the parking garage
  • Furnishings and supplies that are the least toxic or allergenic
  • Prenotification of painting, remodeling, or pesticide application, with provisions for alternate work arrangements
  • Education of co-workers about MCS to avert stigma, harassment, and discrimination
  • Options to work at peak ventilation periods
  • When feasible, the option to work at home

If you work in a garage, warehouse, factory, or around special chemicals and equipment, here are some basic steps to take:

1. Be alert for unhealthy conditions and report them promptly.

2. Watch for chemical spills, visible dust clouds or fumes, any strong odors.

3. Notice and report any eye irritation, persistent cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms that are worse during work hours.

4. Check the material safety data sheet on all chemical products. Your employer should have this readily available.

5. Check labels and warnings on all chemicals you handle.

6. See your doctor regularly and report exactly which chemicals you're exposed to at work and any you've been exposed to in the past.

Remember that your employer is required by law to ensure that you have safe working conditions, adequate training, and whatever protective gear you may need.

Become familiar with your workplace rights. You may be entitled to "reasonable accommodation" under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Check your state labor or industrial relations department for access to OSHA and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health). They may have vital information about your specific workplace problems.

Travel Tips

Traveling can be hazardous to your health if you're chemically sensitive. Enclosed quarters on buses, trains, planes, and ship cabins leave you little escape from cosmetic, clothing, and grooming scents of fellow passengers. Windows of buses and trains let in potent diesel fumes, and airplanes often reek of pesticides, but the open deck of an ocean liner offers some of the cleanest air to be found.

If you prefer driving, choose a broken-in older car whose "new" smell has long evaporated. A small, lightweight auto uses less gas, and its front seat should be sufficiently distant from exhaust fumes. Look for uncrowded highways and mountain and coast routes. Stay far from freeways, industrial centers, and newly sprayed farmlands.

Try to settle into a country inn or a large, older hotel rather than a new, modern one. Bring your own shampoo and baking soda or Bon Ami cleanser for the bathroom.

Be sure to ask about an EverGreen room. Hotels and motels in 23 states now have set aside rooms that feature smoke-free, odor-free, allergen-free air and a filtered drinking water system. Call EverGreen Room Properties for more details: 800-929-2626, weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.

When booking a room, don't be afraid to phone ahead and ask the housekeeper:

1. Has the hotel recently been sprayed with pesticides, painted, or remodeled? (If yes, stay elsewhere.)

2. Do you have a room with a window that opens and/or a balcony? (Make sure it's away from the chlorinated swimming pool.)

3. Do you have a room on the top floor? (The higher you go, the cleaner the air.)

4. Is it possible to get a room that has not been newly cleaned with disinfectant or strong-smelling cleanser?

5. Could you remove all soaps, shampoos, air fresheners, and similar products and open the window (away from the swimming pool) several hours before I arrive?

With luck and careful planning, the majority of your symptoms may vanish in a vacation hideaway, and shed some light on the culprits you left behind.

Copyright * 1998 RGA Publishing, Inc. From The Allergy Sourcebook, by arrangement with Lowell House. The Allergy Sourcebook

Related documents...
Printer-friendly version...
Email This To A Friend

Physician  |  Nurse  |  Corporate

Contact Us  |  Terms and Conditions  |  Privacy Statement

Copyright © 1996-2000 WebMD, Inc. - All rights reserved.
Truste-E We subscribe to the HONcode principles of the Health On the Net Foundation We subscribe to the HONcode principles
of the Health On the Net Foundation