L'Association pour la santé environnementale du Québec / Environmental Health Association of Québec

How to best manage ES – First steps

The most important step towards wellness is avoidance of those factors that made you ill or trigger symptoms. You must drink clean water, eat organic food you can tolerate, and breathe clean air. It is equally important to live and work in a healthy environment, by eliminating toxic chemicals used for cleaning, personal care or renovations and mould. It is also necessary to adopt ecological strategies and solutions for insect and pest control on lawns, gardens, inside homes and buildings. Achieving these goals can be daunting and overwhelming. Some may not be attainable in the short term. Rather than becoming discouraged, begin with those changes that are feasible for you, and tackle steps one at a time. Every improvement you make will contribute to your overall health.

Here is a checklist to help better manage your life with sensitivities.

It can be very devastating to find out suddenly or over time that the life you once knew and you were very comfortable with, is now making you ill! And that too with a variety of symptoms – some of which are quite scary especially when you find it hard to think, speak, read, remember… and the myriad of symptoms that appear out of nowhere can be quite overwhelming, especially if there is no one to diagnose or help you. Your medical test results often come back normal. You find yourself at your wits end in the workplace, at home, with friends and family, at your doctor’s office or worse still, at a hospital.

Even more disconcerting is the realization that the places you frequented are now out of bounds for you. These could be places where you get your food, personal and cleaning products, medicines, clothes, shoes, hair cuts and even the homes of your friends and relatives. Sometimes even your own home is hard to handle!

Worst of all, there is no medical body who can advise you about what has happened to you and how you can navigate this new reality and come up with something that makes sense in your world again. No one to explain your situation to the workplace or to your family and friends.

At a time like this, you can take comfort (if that is the right word to use) that you are not alone. Did you see the statistics?

What do you do in a situation like this?

Take a deep breath. Preferably away from pollution!

OK! Lets get started. You have probably realized that fragrances and other products can trigger symptoms. In order to feel better, you need to clean out your space. The first thing you need to do is get one room in your home ‘safe’ for you.

In order to do this, you need to make sure that that you purchase a mask to lessen your exposures and therefore your symptoms. Click here for resources. Also, do the following:

STEP ONE – Getting ready to act

See step 1
  •  The first thing to do is identify and purchase an appropriate face mask with a filter, and a high quality air purifier without plastic parts, made for people with MCS. These will give you some protection and relief as they keep some of the chemicals from being inhaled. Do not place an air purifier in a heavily scented room – it will pick up the chemicals from the scents and you may never be able to use it again.
  • Examine and remove all scented items and products from your house. This means your perfumes and perfumed products and regular personal, laundry and cleaning products! Even essential oils can be problematic. Don’t store them in your garage in the hope that you can use them someday. Your garage is not completely sealed off from your house and low levels of these pollutants can enter your living space through tiny openings, and affect you. Even if your garage is separate from your house, keep it free of items that could trigger symptoms. You could need a ‘clean’ space to off gas items, and an empty garage could prove very useful to you. Drop off products you can’t use anymore at the disposal centre at the municipality – instead of throwing them in your garbage or emptying them down the drain. Click here to read about the health effects of fragrances and how to choose fragrance-free healthy products.
  • Create a shopping list for the fragrance-free products that you need: personal (soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, etc), cleaning (or you can make these at home with simple ingredients), laundry (there are brands that could suit your needs). For help in this area, visit our Eco Living Guide. Buy the smallest packaging, just to make sure that you can tolerate these items. If you cannot find a suitable product, it is preferable to go without than to substitute with ‘just one’ scented or known toxic product.

    Beware of Greenwashing! It is a term that describes the practice of using words such as “Clean,” “Green,” “Eco,” “Natural,” or using plants, the colour green, etc., in advertising or packaging to give the appearance of being “green” without actually being organic or ecologically sound. Most of the time the advertising does not list the contents of the product. When the product content is listed it often contains chemicals that are known or suspected to cause adverse health effects.

    ‘When reading the label of a product, it is important to be aware that manufacturers frequently write terms such as “natural,” “organic,” “ecological” even though this is not really the case. Even terms such as “perfume-free” or “fragrance-free” can be misleading because they are not regulated. One way to make sure that the content of the product is safe is to search for official logos, but beware! Companies publicize their own in-house “green logos” which are not verified by public authorities and therefore have no real credibility (Boivin et al., 2010). The two main official Eco certification labels to look for on the products you buy in Canada are: Ecologo and Ecocert. Several other official logos exist from many countries, but you’ll see them less frequently. The table shows some of them that you can rely on.’ (Source: ASEQ-EHAQ Newsletter July 2020)

STEP TWO – Create a safe haven, your bedroom

See step 2

Making your Bedroom a Safe Haven

Since our body does most of its regenerative work during sleep, it’s important to give it good working conditions. Luckily there are many ways to ensure a healthy sleep environment.

Your bedroom walls should be painted with VOC (volatile organic compound) -free paints. If you have an older house, the walls and trim may have been painted with lead paint. It is dangerous to remove this paint on your own, as small particles of lead dust can be inhaled or become embedded in carpets in the process. The same goes for asbestos behind walls and ceilings. If your house contains asbestos and you want it removed, you must call a professional.

If you have an ensuite or nearby bathroom, make sure it is free of mould. Mould spores are toxic, and can travel in the air and settle in dust or carpets. Make sure all surfaces are free of clutter, and dust easily and frequently. Make sure to vacuum and dust your bedroom frequently. Dust with a slightly damp cloth, so the dust sticks to the cloth and does not fly around to be subsequently inhaled. Avoid pot-pourri or scented oils in the bedroom, as the former can harbour dust or contain chemical scents, and the latter may contain artificial fragrances. Proper ventilation is also important to keep fresh air circulating in the bedroom. Keep windows open when possible, but make sure to close them when neighbors do laundry with conventional detergent or use other toxic products.

It is also advisable to keep electronics out of the bedroom since electronics and other gadgets which are used for work or entertainment are not conducive to relaxation, so banish the TV from the bedroom, if possible.

Now that you have chosen your bedroom to be your ‘haven’ or ‘safe’ room, lets start with the-

Bedding– This is an important part of your room. Make sure that the sheets, pillow cases, comforter or other coverings, pillows and mattress are scent free and also do not off gas chemicals. It could be useful at this point to consider organic options for all of the above. Try to get an organic cotton or natural latex mattress. You can also purchase special mattress covers or barrier cloth, which is very tightly woven organic cotton. As its name suggests, this material can reduce emanations from the chemicals in a conventional mattress. However an organic mattress is the preferred choice. What you put on the mattress is important as well. Organic natural fibre sheets are best. Make sure to wash them with non-toxic, un-scented, fragrance-free laundry detergent. Same goes for your pyjamas or night wear. However, if the cost of these items is an issue, try the following: air the mattress outside in a pollution-free zone; sprinkle baking soda on it and vacuum it. Try a small area first so no damage is caused. If this does not work, consider the organic option. This is one of the most important decisions and investment that you make. If you keep breathing in low levels of chemicals, which could emanate from the mattress, pillows and bedding, you will find it hard to manage multiple chemical sensitivities.

Window coverings– If they are made of a material that is washable, do wash them. To get rid of scents you may have to do this several times, or off gas them outside, or if they are very scented, you may want to replace them with a scent-free solution that suits you. Remember that all new items off gas chemicals and this could affect you. Choose a window dressing that can be easily cleaned. Cotton curtains can be laundered frequently. Metal blinds are low emission, but may be harder to dust.
Avoid vinyl and any fabric which needs to be dry cleaned. Check your windows regularly for condensation and mould growth. Increasing ventilation will improve your condensation problem, but mould must be carefully removed at the source.

Furniture– Arrange to have the least amount of furniture in your room. Most furniture today is at least partially built from particle board, medium density fiberboard (MDF), or manufactured wood products that contain significant amounts of urea formaldehyde glues. Look for formaldehyde-free formulations. If you have particleboard furniture, seal all sides with a zero-VOC paint or sealer, using at least three coats.
Keep this in mind when purchasing furniture and look for healthier alternatives such as solid wood or metal. People with MCS can also react to the terpenes in wood. Terpenes too can be sealed by using a zero-VOC paint or sealer. The must be done away from your living space, and you can ‘test’ that it is suitable before bringing it into your bedroom.

Closets– Try not to cram your closets so full that it is difficult for air to circulate. An area with “dead air” is an invitation for mould and mildew to grow. This is especially true if your closet is on an outside wall, as the temperature will be colder and condensation more likely. Moth balls, deodorizers and other chemical “protectants” for your clothes have no place in your closet. Clean and well-aired clothing will not need deodorizers and is less attractive to moths. Do not store unwashed clothing in your closet. Preferably, wash your clothes after each use, but if you cannot, then store them in another closet outside your bedroom. Do not store outdoor shoes in your closet. The best place for your outdoor shoes is at the entrance so you don’t track dirt and chemicals into your home.

Bathroom– Charcoal filters are available to remove chlorine from showers and baths. Keep the bathroom well-ventilated and avoid excess humidity. You can leave the bathroom door open when you shower, to avoid humidity in the bathroom and allow the rest of the house to benefit from the extra humidity in winter. Do not dry clothing or towels in the bathroom. Make sure your tub and shower are well-sealed. Replace worn caulking around the edge of the tub or shower with less toxic caulking.

Flooring– Wooden or tiled flooring is best. But if you have wall to wall carpeting, sprinkle baking soda, let it rest for an hour, then vacuum. Do this frequently. If the carpet is scented, use a machine with fragrance-free soap to wash the carpeting as frequently as you can. If the fragrance does not leave and removal of the carpet is the only option, make sure that you are not in the room until after the carpets have been removed, the floor vacuumed and mopped. In addition, the rest of the room has to be cleaned very well and the windows must be opened to air out the room. If the wooden flooring under the carpet is unfinished (unvarnished), it is better to keep it that way. Consider using small, off-gassed area rugs, rather than use a water-based sealer on the unfinished floor. The sealer could take a long time to off-gas and consequently make you ill/increase your sensitivities. However, if the unfinished flooring is plywood, you will have to consider a floor covering. For this, look at the healthiest option for you, which could include pre-varnished wood flooring (could off-gas terpenes for a long time; but hard wood does not have much terpenes), ceramic tiles, Marmoleum, etc. Make sure you test all the products that will be used (e.g., for tiles, test the grout, glue, etc). You could also consider a floating floor without formaldehyde, but be very careful! Be sure to test this well to see if you can tolerate it).

Walls- In the process of cleaning out your room it is important to plan on getting your walls cleaned. Particles of dust containing chemicals can be deposited on the surface of the walls and cause problems for you. In a bucket add a little fragrance-free eco soap and a bit of baking soda, use a dampened microfibre cloth or other soft material to wipe the walls and all surfaces (try a small surface to make sure the walls don’t get damaged). If the water is soiled, repeat the process.

Cleaning: Use only fragrance-free, healthy products to clean with. Dust frequently with a damp cloth. For product selection and home-made solutions, visit the Eco Living Guide or the Fragrance-Free page.

Remember your bedroom is now your Oasis. Evaluate everything that you bring into your bedroom:

  1. Is it fragrance-free?
  2. Do you really need it in the bedroom?
  3. Will it collect dust?
  4. Could it trigger or worsen your sensitivities?
  5. Listen to your body!

Step 3 – the rest of your home

See step 3

Home: Ventilate well and remove garbage often instead of using air fresheners. If you have carpets or animals, vacuum frequently with a central vacuum, or one with a HEPA filter. Clean your carpets with baking soda rather than using carpet cleaners. To avoid mould, clean up leaks carefully and dry materials within 48 hours. Maintain humidity levels below 50 percent in the summer and around 30 percent in winter. Install a bathroom fan and make sure that the tub and shower are sealed properly. If the seal develops any mould it must be changed. Dust frequently with a damp cloth. Never allow smoking inside or around your home. Do not burn incense or candles.

Kitchen: Eat organic food as much as possible. Use only fragrance-free, non-toxic cleaners for all your kitchen requirements and especially on surfaces you use for cutting salad greens or fresh fruit. Make sure not to burn cooking oil, prefer low heat cooking. Take the garbage out regularly to avoid foul odours. Grind lemon or orange peel in the garbage disposal to leave a fresh scent in the kitchen. Keep the kitchen sponge and scrubber clean and dry between uses and make sure your kitchen towels are fresh and clean before you dry dishes.

Avoid non-stick pots and pans, as the coating contains perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is harmful. If you must use the microwave, make sure to use ceramic or glass containers.

Plastic containers can leach chemicals into your food. The same is true of plastic wrap. It is best to reheat food on the stove or in the oven, in stainless steel, ceramic or tempered glass.

Soak range hood filters in warm water and washing soda to get rid of grease. Use washing soda or baking soda and vinegar to clean the inside of the oven. Thoroughly clean every surface in the kitchen at least twice a year. Gradually replace plastic containers and cutting boards with materials such as glass, stainless steel or wood.

Garage: Do not use your garage to park your car or store any items or products that off gas, such as cans of paint. Fumes from these products and related activities can enter your home and make you ill. You can use the garage to store new items, clothes and any other item that you would need in your home but cannot bring in due to the off gassing of chemicals. In this case, you can have an exhaust fan installed in the garage which vents to the outdoors, so that the chemicals are removed instead of entering your home.

Ventilation: Keep your home well-ventilated with doors and windows open in summer (unless you live in a polluted area with traffic fumes, smog and neighbourhood laundry emissions), and use a mechanical ventilation system if you live in a tightly-sealed home. Do not allow smoking in your home. Make use of exhaust fans and range hoods.

Computers: If you are buying a new computer, choose a company which no longer uses flame retardants. PBDEs are highly toxic chemicals which persist in the dust in your home or office. Be aware that toners and ink emit chemical gases and make sure your office is well ventilated.

Install air purifiers: To help filter out airborne dust, allergens, chemicals, odours from emissions, etc, from your indoor air it is very useful to have portable air purifiers and also, if possible, a whole-house system. If the pollution is coming in from outside, it is important to seal off the source and/or close your windows and doors so that the purifier can be effective. While choosing an air purifier make sure that the company knows about multiple chemical sensitivities and will make every effort to make sure that you will not react to the purifier. It is better to test a sample of the carbon before you buy the machine. Make sure you are fully aware of their return policy and also that the machine and all its parts do not contain plastic or any other material that off-gases chemicals.

Install water purifiers: This is important to filter out the chlorine and other substances that can be found in tap water. If you live in an individual home, you can install a pre-filter at the entrance of the water connection to your house. Then add an additional filter on your sink for cooking and drinking. Remember to keep a track of the schedule for replacing these filters. Don’t wait till they get very soiled before replacing them. You could use filters on your shower heads too. If you have a well, ask your municipality to help with resources to test your water both for bacteria and the level of minerals.

Check out your air exchanger: It is possible that you already have an air exchanger in your home, and that’s a good thing as it brings in air from outside. However, check the air intake of the air purifier. Is it exposed to: traffic and therefore car/diesel exhaust? Your neighbours’ laundry exhaust? Wood, tobacco or barbeque smoke? Lawn mower exhaust? How about on days when smog is reported or if you live in a polluted area? If you cannot find filters to filter the air before it comes into your home, you can open the air exchanger only during the least polluted time such as, at night. If your neighbour is kind enough to warn you before starting laundry or if they change to least toxic products, that could be a solution.

Cleaning your air ducts: If you have air ducts in your home, consider cleaning them at least once a year. This can improve air quality. Do not allow any chemicals to be used in your ducts during and after duct cleaning. Companies who carry out duct cleaning generally use chemical products such as disinfectants for mould or bacteria or even pesticides for rodents, etc. Find an ecological company that uses only natural, fragrance-free products. Research the products that they use. It is important to have a family member supervise the work to make sure that nothing else is added. Discuss your requirements with the company and put them down in writing before the work starts and make sure that the technician is well aware of your needs and your health condition.

Renovations / Repairs: Everything has a life and can ultimately need repairs. It can seem daunting, but if you plan it well, it can turn out to be a success. Never renovate unless you can ventilate the area adequately by opening the windows. Choose dry, smog-free days to work. Use only zero to low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints and other materials. There are now many acceptable materials on the market – choose hard materials that do not emanate chemicals. Always personally check out the material before you have it installed in your home.

Ask your contractor or worker for references and call them to make sure the person doing your work is reliable. For all contractors/workers entering your home, explain well in advance that you have significant ‘allergies’ to fragrances (products that contain perfumes that are used for the hair, clothes, deodorant, after shave, etc.) and that the technician must be fragrance-free. People understand ‘allergies’ better than ‘sensitivities’. Irrespective of the term used, the most important thing is that you are protected.

Evaluate for mould: We have a more detailed section on mould, since it can be one of the triggers of sensitivities and so it is very important to check the mould levels in your home.
Check for the following:

  • Have you ever had water infiltration into your living space?
  • Leaks from the roof
  • Leaks through the walls
  • Leaks under the sink
  • Walls buckling
  • A musty odour anywhere in your home
  • Water marks anywhere (ceilings, walls, bathroom, kitchen, inside cupboards, around windows, etc.)
  • Cracks in your basement and an odour
  • Visible mould growth anywhere
  • Other signs of water damage

If you have any of the above, it is important to call in a reputable professional who can inspect and test the air quality of your home.

If you need to have a clean-up of the mould done, you should not be living in your home while the work is being executed. Make sure that the cleaning company has a good reputation, that the area being cleaned is well sealed off and open only to the outside so that the rest of the home does not get contaminated with mould, that all mouldy material has been removed, that the area is dried completely and that toxic chemicals (bleach or fungicides) for clean up or prevention are never used. When closing up the mould-damaged area, use only tolerated, eco renovation products. You can contact ASEQ-EHAQ for help while choosing these products. In case your personal items are contaminated with mould, you can hire a company to decontaminate your items, however it is possible that you could lose soft items such as purses and photographs.