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Thursday, April 28, 2005 02:14 am

earth talk 4-28-05

Dear “Earth Talk”: Which types of household products are most likely to cause chemical sensitivities?
— John Morgan, Somerville, Mass.

Household products trigger chemical sensitivities in hundreds of thousands of Americans every year, yet few people make the connection between their skin rash or sneezing and the bottles and cans stored beneath their kitchen sinks and in their broom closets.

Common reactions to everyday household cleansers and other substances include migraines, asthma, and sinusitis, but more serious cardiovascular, neurological, and autoimmune diseases may also result from prolonged use or lack of adequate ventilation in areas in which these chemicals are being applied. “Early warning signs are burning and irritation of the sinuses, nose, or throat — usually not with a fever — and itching or sneezing,” says Dr. Grace Ziem, a public-health physician specializing in chemical injuries.

Prevention is the key; removing toxic compounds from your home is the strategy. You can begin under the kitchen sink by replacing traditional choices with “products your grandmother bought,” says Suzanne Olson of the Environmental Health Network. “Borax, vinegar, and baking soda will clean most items around the house.” Olson uses vegetable oil to polish furniture and shuns any item with a fragrance.

“If any ingredient ends in ‘ethylene’ or ‘ethane,’ it’s not a healthy product,” says Cynthia Wilson of the Chemical Injury Information Network. She recommends using scent-free, dye-free laundry products and oxygen-based whitening additives in place of toxic bleach. Two companies that supply nontoxic laundry products, as well as other green-friendly household cleaners, are Seventh Generation and Earth Friendly Products. You can shop both online or in natural-foods markets and some supermarkets.

Synthetic home furnishings can also trigger sensitivities. Foam, particleboard, and veneers may all aggravate a variety of symptoms. And sweet dreams may elude you if you have chemical sensitivities to items in your bedroom. Most mattresses are made from artificial materials, and some beds contain chemical mold inhibitors; almost all have been treated with fire retardant. To stop chemical sensitivities from ruining your sleep, choose a mattress manufactured from organically grown cotton. Two good sources are Lifekind Products and Heart of Vermont; both offer secure online ordering.

If you think household chemicals are bothering you, Ziem suggests keeping a log to help pinpoint the offenders. The best way to find out whether any chronic ailments you may have are caused or aggravated by household products is to take a simple inventory of your home and its contents, then replace synthetic products with natural ones wherever possible. By ridding the home of some of these culprits, you and your family are bound to breathe easier.

For more information: Environmental Health Network, users.lmi.net/wilworks/, 415-541-5075; Chemical Injury Information Network, www.ciin.org, 406-547-2255; Seventh Generation, www.seventhgeneration.com, 800-456-1191; Earth Friendly Products, www.ecos.com, 800-335-3267; Lifekind, www.lifekind.com, 800-284-4983; Heart of Vermont, www.heartofvermont.com, 800-639-4123.

Send questions to “Earth Talk” in care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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