Chapter Four



Making Your Environment Safe


If you are newly aware of having sensitivities, or are living in a home that still needs some cleanup, probably the most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to reduce your chemical and electrical exposures. By making a safe haven for yourself, you will suffer fewer reactions and have a safe place to clear out your body from exposures that occur outside of your home.

This chapter will help you quickly clean up your home environment so that you can function better and avoid the tendency to develop more sensitivities. The chapter does not cover every safe product available, but you can go for quite a while using a few safe cleaning products, personal care items, and clothes. (See Appendix B for product sources.)

 When you feel better and have the time, you can explore a wider variety of options. Keep in mind there are hundreds of products on the market that are designed more to make money than to help you with your health, regardless of what advertisers say. Michael Lax (1998) warns about “entrepreneurial activities without patient welfare in mind” (p. 734). For example, any product rubbed into the skin is absorbed and can be detected in the blood in minutes. (This is how nicotine and estrogen patches work.) Therefore, you need to exercise particular caution with personal care products.

Be sure to investigate all products before purchasing them. The rule “Buyer beware” applies as much to health food stores and alternative mail-order catalogs as it does to mainstream products. In fact, health food stores regularly offer products that are nearly as toxic as those in grocery and other stores. Larger personal care and health food companies are buying out the smaller ones, and consumers are fooled into thinking that they are buying clean products when they are not.

It is very difficult to market truly safe products because most very clean products are made by small companies, have a limited shelf life, and the ingredients must be purchased in small quantities. Because distributors want to earn a high profit, it is virtually impossible for most small companies to market through the usual distributor channels. Note: When new products are introduced in distributors’ catalogs, no ingredients are listed and busy buyers may assume products are “natural.” Products with toxic ingredients commonly are given names with “earth” and “natural” in them and are marketed as though they were chemically or environmentally safe. This practice is called “green-washing.” My friends who own a health food store learn the ingredients in their products the same way we do—by walking around their store and reading labels.


In the Home: The Big Stuff

Some of the accommodations that are needed to make a home chemically safe may be so extensive and may involve such costly structural change that it becomes necessary to move. You will have to assess your location and house structure before you can decide if your home is safe enough not to further jeopardize your health.


Can This House Be Saved?

The following questions may help you to sort out what works from what doesn’t:


Outside Your Home

Ø Is your home located near polluting traffic or industry fumes that will make it impossible to go outside or to open your windows, even if the inside of the house is made safer?


Ø If you are gas-sensitive, are you subject to neighbors’ heating fuel smells, gas from propane cookers or dryers, or fumes from neighbors who do their own auto work?


Ø Do close neighbors use lawn treatments that will expose you to dangerous herbicides and pesticides?


Ø Does the local county do aerial spraying for mosquitoes, gypsy moths, or other insects?


Ø Is your home downwind or downstream from any large polluting agencies most of the time? (Wind directions vary, but they have common patterns.)


Ø Is your house near large sources of EMFs? That is, are there high-tension electrical wires or power stations close by? Where is the closest cell phone tower? You can acquire a meter to measure magnetic fields for both outside and inside sources. (See Appendix B for product sources.) Although there are products such as special paints and other materials that are said to screen or filter EMFs, it is easier not to enter into a situation where you will have to attempt these difficult measures. Even if you do not think that you are personally “sensitive” to EMFs, the health effects from these exposures appear to be harmful to everyone. Problematic can be cell phone towers, radio wave towers, and other sources of EMFs. You may need to find where the closest of these facilities is located and decide whether or not it is a “safe” distance. However, more and more of these facilities are being located in residential areas with minimal input from the community. So, even if your home is presently not affected, it could be in the future. The towers are being disguised as trees and cacti, making it difficult to know their locations. People very knowledgeable about electromagnetic sensitivities believe that you should never live within a mile of a radio or cell phone tower. Farther is better. It may be that four miles is about as safe of a distance as you will be able to find. R. Bruce McCreary believes that all people with MCS or ES should own a meter with which to measure their environment in order to lower their daily exposures and prevent the development of or  worsening of ES. He does not endorse denial as a preventative for ES, as a number of people have ignored this issue and developed severe ES as a result.  He also claims “ES makes MCS seem like a walk in the park.” (See Appendix B for Bruce’s suggested EMF meters.)


Inside Your Home

Ø Is your home heated with gas or oil? If so, is the cost of a changeover to electric heating worth it as the house is otherwise safe?


Ø Is your house so full of formaldehyde-offgassing materials, such as particleboard, that you could never adequately reduce the emissions? Both plywood and particleboard have formaldehyde in their contents. Particleboard is a bigger concern because it contains both a larger percentage of formaldehyde-containing glue, and a more toxic form of formaldehyde (i.e., urea formaldehyde).  The highest levels of offgas occur in the first year after construction; but offgassing may continue for a number of years. If you live in a prefabricated or mobile home, chances are that particleboard makes up much of your flooring, external walls, and roof panels. However, you can seal cabinets, paneling, and other particleboard with sealants made to prevent offgassing from porous surfaces, such as mortar, plywood, concrete and others. If you can tolerate the product, it may be worth sealing some of the surfaces that are offgassing (See Appendix B for product sources.)


Ø Does your house have a stubborn mold problem that cannot be remedied? For example, an old house with a lot of shade or a wet basement will expose you to more molds. Not all molds are toxic, but some molds produce mycotoxins, which are mold metabolites toxic to humans. Penicillium, Aspergillus, and Stachybotrys are the most common fungi that can grow indoors and make toxic metabolites. In addition, Cladosporium, Alternaria, Aureobasidium, and Fusarium are outdoor fungi that can also grow indoors and may trigger hay fever or asthma (Dalton, 2004). Black mold and its metabolites are serious health threats that have caused life-threatening respiratory problems in both children and adults. In infants it can cause lung bleeding. The deaths of nine infants in Cleveland Ohio were traced to the black mold Stachybotrys chartarum/atra that grew in recently flooded homes (Meredith, l997). This particular mold grows in areas that have had standing water and grows readily on wood, cardboard, and clothing. The mold problem is so potentially lethal that there are now mold attorneys in the U.S. Two congressional amendments (HR 5040 and HR 1268) have also been proposed and, if passed, would provide research, education, and guidelines in relation to indoor mold, as well as assistance for victims (“Mold legislation,” 2003). Of course. you can still find Abba Terr and Ronald Gotts stating that molds are not demonstrated to be dangerous. If you have a small area of mold you can clean it with bleach (if tolerable, although chlorine is not good for the environment), vinegar, or grapefruit seed extract (although some now question whether the antimicrobial effect of GSE is actually due to additives). EPA suggests using gloves and goggles even for small clean-ups. Be careful not to disturb spores in the process if possible. For larger problems, you may need a mold remediator, but be careful that chemical cleaners used in the process do not endanger you further. You can search your home for moldy areas, but because mold can grow almost anywhere, such as in drywall or insulation, under floors, or in carpet, it may be difficult to pinpoint problem locations. Some companies have begun to train dogs to sniff out mold in homes. A mold test kit may help you. However, in discussing various ways to measure indoor mold, mold expert J. David Miller says that it is not possible to leave the samplers out long enough to accommodate the large fluctuations in particles. The plates therefore may not provide a true measure of the mold concentration (Miller, 2003). You may be able to prevent further mold build up in particular areas by taking steps such as venting any moisture sources to the outside (cooking, dryers, bathrooms) and other actions. (Sources for mold test kits are in Appendix B.)

If none of the problems is insurmountable, then it may be worth cleaning up your current home. Note: If a problem really is not fixable, it’s better to face it and change location than to continue living in a to which you are attached, but is making you ill. It is imperative to avoid a further decline in your health and denial will not serve you well here. It is much easier to prevent further decline than to recover from more serious injury. Sometimes it can be a judgment call, but we usually know when we are kidding ourselves. On the other hand, relocation, either locally or long-distance, should be well thought out, as it is full of snares.

The following suggestions are some of the more permanent kinds of changes you may need to make to clean up your home:


Petrochemicals: Appliances and Heat

Appliances. If your home has natural gas or propane appliances, such as a stove, dryer, or water heater, you will want to replace them with electric ones if you tolerate electricity better. Some environmentally aware people advocate the use of gas because it is cheaper than electricity, but health effects also must be factored into the cost. Gases are sensitizers and rank high on the list of chemicals to which people with MCS react. As early as the 1950s, Dr. Theron Randolph (Randolph and Moss 1982) discovered that people have allergic-like adverse reactions to petrochemicals, including gases and heating oil.

There is also evidence that women who use gas stoves have more respiratory problems than those who use electric ones (Jarvis, Chinn, Luczynska, et al. 1996). The nitrogen dioxide from cooking gas is a home pollutant. You can consider buying used appliances to save on finances, but washers and dryers in particular may be problematic because of lingering odors from previously used fabric softeners and detergents.

Note that when constructing his inpatient unit for people with chemical sensitivities, Randolph found that some patients were not able to clear their symptoms until the wood floors were replaced, as the floors had absorbed petrochemicals from previous gas heating. 

You may not necessarily be completely safe just because you switch to electric. Electrical cooking does emit EMFs and you many want to measure the electromagnetic field from an appliance before purchasing it. Some EMF sensitive people cook on electric hotplates or toaster ovens because of the electrical fields from the larger appliances. If necessary, these can be used outside or on a porch. Microwave ovens have their own dangers and probably should not be used at all. Microwaved food is questionable and the ovens themselves can trigger immediate symptoms for some.


Heat. A larger obstacle is heat. If you have forced air oil or gas heating, combustion products are entering your house air. Some of the newer heating units are self-contained in a sealed combustion unit, with the heating fuel located in a sealed chamber and vented to the outside. With the sealed combustion unit, the air that heats your house does not mix with the fuel source. If the unit is vented to the outside, then you may be able to keep petrochemicals out of your indoor air altogether. Another way that some people keep petrochemicals out of their indoor air is by putting their heat source in a garage or another separate building. However, in both of these scenarios, you still have petrochemical emissions very close to you, and you will be exposed to them when you go outside. If you use diesel oil, it is 95 percent as heavy as air and will rise very slowly. Propane is actually heavier than air and, therefore, lingers in low areas unless blown away by the wind. Without adequate breezes, propane will remain around your house and you will be exposed when you go outside or open a window. In addition, you will have to worry about potential spills when you receive deliveries. Even one drop of oil can smell for days, and cleanup can be difficult. If a tank leaks, it could contaminate the area around your house and render it unlivable for you. Diesel furnaces also have been known to literally blow up, leaving a house covered with soot.

For these reasons, my own bias is that people with MCS have no business living with petrochemical heat of any kind. Ideal, safe heat sources, of course, are the renewable sources such as wind and solar power. However, the inverter for solar power will emit an electromagnetic field and should not be inside the living space. These cleaner energies have not received the research funding or attention that they deserve because of the petrochemical industry’s political clout.

We all know that there are environmental problems with every other energy source. For example, some of our electricity comes from nuclear- powered plants that pose devastating risks, including potential and actual accidents and the storage of permanently radioactive waste. Transmission lines and distribution lines can also have enormous health impacts.

Even hydroelectric power often destroys habitats when dams are built and flood people’s land (often Native American land). So, if you are resourceful enough to find a truly safe energy source, you not only will improve not only your own health, but help to preserve the health of many others. Sometimes you can receive a lot of benefit by doing something small, such as installing south-facing windows for passive solar heating.

Some people can use wood stoves, although wood burning also generates a considerable number of pollutants likely to irritate sensitive people. Marinelli and Bierman-Lytle (1995) suggest looking for a stove that burns cleanly with a high-efficiency rating. They believe pellet stoves are the cleanest because they use waste wood and burn efficiently. There are some beautiful masonry heaters available; however, they are quite expensive. Before making such a large investment, I suggest finding someone who has such a heater to see how well sealed it is, and to see if you can tolerate it. Small ceramic heaters may be more affordable, but be sure your electrical system can tolerate the load and check their electromagnetic fields prior to buying.

You may decide you need to replace your gas furnace with an electric one. If you do and the heat is forced air, you can take advantage of the opportunity to install a whole-house dust filter or an electrostatic precipitator to reduce the amount of energy you put into dusting. Electrostatic precipitators use static electricity to trap oppositely charged molecules. They generally use synthetic materials, however, that pose some concern for people with sensitivities.

If the ducts are cleaned in the changeover process, be careful, as professionals will often use solvents for this purpose. Be sure that solvents or chemicals of any kind are not used. If your house has no furnace, or if you don’t want to use ducts that previously carried petrochemicals, you can install individually controlled electric baseboard heating units in each room. These will be more expensive to operate than an electric forced air heat pump, or than gas or oil. However, individual units allow you to adjust or turn off heaters in unused portions of the house, thus saving you some expense. If you install electric heating in a house that has not previously had it, you will need to be sure the electrical system can handle the load and has a 200-ampere board in the electrical control box. Also, any additional or replacement wiring must be integrated very carefully in order not to create additional electromagnetic fields.



Conventional carpet may emit dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dyes, formaldehyde and, worst of all, 4-phenyl cyclohexane (4-PC). The 4-PC appears to be directly associated with causing illness and MCS, and often is found in the styrene-butadiene latex backing of carpeting. Formaldehyde, which is commonly used in carpeting, is a respiratory irritant, and is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a probable human carcinogen. It also causes cell mutation and produces metabolites that appear to be toxic to the human nervous system.

There are many documented cases of people, particularly children, becoming ill following the installation of new carpeting. For example, the dangers of toxic carpet were very much brought to public attention in October 1987 when the EPA (of all agencies) began installing carpet in its Waterside Mall headquarters in Washington, D.C. Although the EPA received 1,141 health complaints from employees, it took them two years to remove the toxic carpet (Duehring 1993b). Consequently, some employees became permanently sensitized from the experience: some are unable to work in the building and some are unable to work at all. Terese Svoboda made a video about the incident entitled “EPA Poisons EPA.” (See Appendix C for chapter resources.)

In April 1991, New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams petitioned the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to add warning labels to carpeting. Although twenty-five other state attorneys general signed the petition, warnings have not yet been issued. Despite admitting to union employees that the carpeting caused the illness, the EPA’s public statements denied it, and the carpet industry mounted a public relations campaign to convince consumers of the safety of carpeting (Duehring 1993b).

This occurred despite the fact that when Anderson Laboratories tested carpet samples by exposing mice to the carpet, they found the mice had neurological damage and even died (Duehring 1993b). John Bower (1997a) said that some of the carpet samples that killed mice were as much as twelve years old. Anderson Laboratories created a videotape demonstration of mice reacting to carpeting, perfume, air freshener, and school air. (See Appendix C for chapter resources.)

Hirzy and Morison (1989) report that as little as five parts per billion (ppb) of 4-PC induced illness. They believe that a metabolite of 4-PC found in the carpeting is “capable of attacking DNA and of affecting detoxifying enzyme levels, processes hypothesized to be involved in induction/expression of multiple chemical sensitivity.” (Remember that enzymatic damage/ depletion is one of the hypothesized causes of MCS discussed in chapter two.)

Anderson Laboratories collected health information from 110 families who had lived with toxic carpets, and found their symptoms overlapped with MCS. Symptoms that were reported included fatigue, limb or trunk pain, central nervous system (CNS) problems affecting concentration or memory, skin rash or hair loss, tremors, irregular heartbeat, swollen glands, diarrhea, constipation, blurred vision, paralysis, respiratory dysfunction, headache, weakness, and eye, nose, and throat complications. The average person suffered seventeen symptoms (Anderson 1997).

Some people question whether there is any such thing as truly safe carpeting. An owner of one popular carpet store said that yarn used for New Zealand wool carpets often has been treated with synthetic pyrethrin, as moth proofing is required for some imported wool. Wes Conneley (1998, personal communication), technical manager for a company that promotes imported wool, said that moth-resistant treatment is not an import law, but rather a company-specific requirement. To bear the label “New Zealand Wool,” carpeting must be moth proofed. Most carpets are treated with either pyrethrum or Mitin-FF (sulcofenuron) as a way of making the carpet resistant to moth larvae. Conneley stressed that the treatment is at a very low level (.025 percent) and is delivered during the dyeing process. It is not very effective because the moths have to actually eat the carpet before they die.

Given this information, if you want carpet that is truly pesticide-free, I suggest that you ask a lot of questions. (To date, the only truly pesticide-free carpeting that I am aware of is produced by Nature’s Carpet. See Appendix B for product sources.)  For people with chemical sensitivity, wall-to-wall carpeting may not be an option at all. That is, flooring may have to be tiled using nontoxic grout, and covered with truly nontoxic area rugs. Other options for carpetlike floor coverings include jute, sisal, and coir (all made from plants). (See Appendix B for product sources.) Sisal and coir are naturally anti-static. Sisal is non-absorbent, making it easy to care for. Be aware, however, some sources say that customs regulations require plant materials such as these to be fumigated at the port of entry if they are not in sealed containers to prevent infestation by Mediterranean fruit flies. To test carpeting (or any product that will be in your living space), try sleeping with a sample next to your bed and see if you feel any worse from the exposure.

You may see some carpet labeled with the Green Label. This is an industry assertion developed in 1992 by the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI). The Green Label is a test that representative samples of carpets, adhesives and cushion materials go through which detects low-emitting products and verifies that they meet scientifically established standards. The Green Label Plus program, instituted in June 2004 is supposed to indicate an even higher standard for air quality. However, it is an industry generated label, the carpets still contain the same materials (but supposedly emissions are monitored), and it remains to be seen whether or not the program will reduce carpet-induced illness. 


Wall Covering

It is not recommended that chemically sensitive people use conventional wallpaper. It often is made of or coated with vinyl (which offgasses considerably), coated or treated with fungicides, and requires glue for application. Alternatives are available, including recycled and/or chemical-free paper, cork, and fabrics. Traditionally, adhesives were made from simple wheat paste mixed with water. Although wheat paste has little or no chemical additives, without fungicides there is the possibility of mold buildup behind the covering, particularly in moist areas such as bathrooms and wooded settings. For patterned or textured walls, alternatives to wallpaper are decorative painting techniques and faux finishes with nontoxic paints.


Paints and Finishes

All paints, both oil- and water-based, contain the following four components:

Ø Solvents keep the paint liquid and evaporate while drying (enamels may contain up to 50 percent).


Ø Binders harden the paint into a durable coating. These can be resins in oil-based paints and acrylic latex in water-based paints.


Ø Pigments for color.


Ø Additives such as dryers (can include ether), preservatives, fungicides, and mildew preventatives.

                                        (Marinelli and Bierman-Lytle 1995)


You can test paints to determine which ones you best tolerate. I would suggest using paints with no VOCs and, before occupying a room, allow the paint to offgass for several days. If your walls are painted with old enamel, you may not need to paint, as the paints are washable. Although there are low VOC paints available, many people do not do well with them. Be sure to test first, as many people have destroyed their otherwise safe living space by using a paint to which they react, not having tested the product in advance.

    In my view, there is no good reason to coat an entire living space with a layer of toxins. Alternatives to toxic paint are becoming more plentiful, with natural paints and citrus-based solvents available. (See Appendix B for product sources.) Milk paint is totally solvent and chemical-free, and can be pigmented to your color choice. It is a little harder to work with as it must be mixed aggressively (you can use an electric hand-mixer) and needs two or more coats. It allows people with MCS to safely do their own painting and it dries odorless to a hard surface. The drawback to milk-based paint is that it may collect mold in humid areas like bathrooms because it does not contain fungicide. You can experiment with adding alum, borax, and/or cloves as natural antifungal and antibacterial agents. Remember, though, that milk paint is an animal product.

John Bower (1997b) suggests testing products with samples provided from the manufacturer: Paint a 2 ft. x 4 ft. piece of drywall, let it dry for two weeks, and then sleep with it next to your bed. If you sleep without symptoms (i.e., without restlessness, nightmares, etc.), you probably can tolerate the paint.

There are several very clean paint companies now that offer many products made of natural and safer ingredients (See Appendix B for product sources.) 


The Building Question

Many people will suggest that you build your own safe house. If you can afford it, the potential exists to create a beautiful and environmentally sound home, which may help you to heal. Unfortunately, building a home has many snares and involves considerable expense and stress.

Before making any decision, you need to learn about safe materials and the general building process. You’ll also need to decide whether you can afford to hire an architect and/or a builder who specializes in environmentally safe housing. This is the best route, as you will not have to work as hard to ensure that no toxic products enter the work site.

On the other hand, specialists can be expensive, and you have to decide what you can afford. If you act as your own general contractor, you will have to be on the work site most of the time to ensure that no toxic materials are used. Your presence will also guarantee that the materials being used are the ones you ordered. If you want a big challenge, and are healthy enough to take it on, it might be a worthwhile project. However, to educate yourself about the process, including the challenges, I suggest you speak with several people who have built their own homes, and read available books on the subject. (See Appendix C for further reading.)


In the Home: The Portable Easier Stuff

Unlike outside exposures, the products you use in your home are entirely under your control. It is easy to find and use alternative products for cleaning, pest control, and personal care.



You probably will want to stop using most or all of your commercial cleaning and bleaching products. Commercial cleaning products contain petrochemicals, dyes, fragrances, phosphates, and bleaches, all of which may initiate adverse reactions in people with MCS. They also contribute to environmental degradation (e.g., phosphates pollute water supplies; chlorine is a hormone-disrupter), and are frequently tested on animals. It would be wise to find alternative safe products and discontinue the use of any questionable ones. (See Appendix B for product sources.) If you are unsure whether this step is worth the trouble, a walk down the cleaning aisle of your grocery store (no fair holding your breath) should convince you that it is. So first, dispose of safely or give away any product you suspect is unsafe for you. Keep in mind that many commercial and household cleaning products are considered hazardous waste and should be disposed of accordingly.

Chances are, you already possess two or three safe products you can use while you are obtaining catalogs and exploring a wider variety of options. Baking soda can be used for cleaning sinks, tubs, clothing, and even glass (if you rub off the film with a cotton cloth). Some people are able to tolerate vinegar (although its odor can be a problem for many), which can be used to wash floors, walls, and windows, as well as to kill mold and remove chemical odors from new clothing. You also can clean mold with grapefruit seed extract, which is available both as a nutritional supplement and a household-cleaning product.

Several companies specialize in alternative cleaning products. I suggest you make a list of your needs and priorities and then screen items to see if they meet your requirements. For example, you might decide you need products that are free of petrochemicals, phosphates, dyes, artificial fragrances, and animal products. Although you may determine that you need completely fragrance-free products, there are several very good options that have natural citrus or herbal scents. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even citrus products can be irritants to many people, probably because of the limonene, which is a natural solvent ingredient in citrus. Read labels and sniff products until you find the ones you can tolerate.

There is a lot for you to learn and make adjustments to once you have developed MCS. Finding the perfect product for every household function, however, does not need to take up a lot of your time and resources. There is nothing wrong with using one tolerable product for a number of tasks, e.g., using one safe shampoo for washing hair, clothes, floors, and your dog; or using dish soap for dishes, laundry, floors, and toilets. Just be careful not to use a harsher product for a gentler job.



Pesticides need to be avoided both outside and inside the house. Commonly used roach, flea, and ant poisons are the reported cause of many cases of MCS and many other health complaints as well. A number of studies now connect pesticides with cancer (particularly leukemia and brain tumors), Parkinson’s Disease, hormone disruption, birth defects, and many other terrible conditions.

Pesticide companies will assure you that their formulas are safe for you and your children. I suggest, however, that you speak to people who were told the same thing and still developed MCS after home pesticide applications. There are many safe alternatives for indoor pest problems. Diatomaceous earth (DE) (not the swimming pool type) is very effective in the house or garden for killing, via dehydration, flea larvae and other soft-bodied larvae, insects, and slugs. (DE is like tiny glass shards to bugs. It will also irritate human mucous membranes—so don’t breathe it in.) Boric acid powder will kill and discourage ants, roaches, and other insects (be sure not to put it down where children or pets can get into it). Safer alternatives include traps, fly swatters, and many others. Some people use ground-up natural pyrethrum from chrysanthemums (not the synthetic pyrethrins), but I do not recommend it or rotenone because, although they are both “natural,” they are toxic. They are also mixed with other toxic ingredients in commercial preparations (e.g., rotenone is mixed with piperonol butoxide, a synergist designed to disable liver enzymes).

Some people believe that the sonic pest control devices are safe ways of discouraging insects and rodents. However, they emit electromagnetic fields and it is questionable as to whether they actually work.



Don’t forget your pets (if you have them) when switching to all natural pesticides. Conventional flea shampoos, dips, and sprays contain highly toxic ingredients. For example, until recently, most flea collars contained Dursban.  In a letter from EPA Administrator Lynn Goldman to DowElanco’s chief executive officer, the EPA ruled that Dursban must be removed from flea collars and not be used as an indoor flea spray (Goldman 1997). But it can often take years to phase out a toxic product. I still see Dursban products advertised in animal care catalogs.

Flea combs, vacuuming, and possibly herbal flea collars (if you can tolerate them) are alternatives to poisonous flea collars. It may be harder to control fleas on cats than on dogs if they are outdoors much of the time. Some people advocate feeding your pets garlic and brewer’s yeast to discourage fleas, but it is not clear whether this is effective.

You can purchase natural animal supplies and homeopathic medicines. Inexpensive clay litters are available for cat litterboxes. Also, you can wash your animals with mild scent-free shampoos (with large pets this can be expensive).  (See Appendix B for product sources.)


Personal Care

Personal hygiene and body care products contain a number of controversial ingredients that are both natural and synthetic. Even in health food store products, you usually will find questionable ingredients, including cocamide diethalanomine (DEA), sodium laurel sulfate, and hydrolyzed proteins. Although cocamide DEA is from coconut, topical applications of it may cause cancer in laboratory animals. (DEA has the potential to be contaminated with nitrosamines, some of which are powerful carcinogens.) Sadly, many manufacturers of chemical ingredients have lobbied successfully for legislation that assists them in marketing toxic products. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics reports that a third of 7,500 cosmetic products examined contained chemicals that are linked to cancer. Most cosmetic ingredients have undergone no safety testing. (See and Appendix C for more resources from this group.)

Currently, there are no legal definitions of the words “pure” or “natural,” and most chemical companies use this to their advantage. Additionally, companies are not legally required to disclose anything about their manufacturing processes. If pressed to make information known, many companies will rely upon the phrase “proprietary trade secret” to withhold important information and protect themselves.

Apparently, even grapefruit seed extract may be problematic. Because grapefruit seed extract is the product of a multi-step industrial process that begins with grapefruit pulp (but uses synthetic chemical catalysts), grapefruit seed extract is not organic and cannot be used in organic food products. Studies have found that many samples are contaminated with benzethonium chloride, a synthetic anti-microbial agent. It is possible that the antimicrobial activity being credited to grapefruit seed extract is actually due to the benzethonium chloride, an agent approved only for topical use. (See ).  

Ironically, most cosmetic ingredients are never screened for neurotoxic effects, despite the fact that many Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) specifically cite them. The use of MSDS was instituted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1985. The data sheets provide safety and health data and are required for every chemical used in the workplace. Many MSDS for common perfume and cosmetic ingredients specifically warn: “irritant,” “do not inhale vapors,” and “avoid contact with skin.” These same ingredients are then mixed together and sold as creams, lotions, and perfumes.

Lynn Bower (1995) explains that it is not required that cosmetics be registered with the FDA. Instead, they are overseen by the industry’s Cosmetics Ingredient Review Board.

Be warned: Even if you are reading labels carefully, it still may be impossible for you to determine all of the ingredients in a product. Note that the vast majority of cosmetic and body care manufacturers do not prepare all of the ingredients in their products themselves. Rather, they buy individual ingredients from many different manufacturers and combine them. For example, a company that makes vitamin A may be using butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) to preserve their product. The preservative BHT can cause allergic reactions and toxicity, and may convert some ingested substances, such as oral contraceptives, into toxic or cancer-causing chemicals (Winter 2005). The body care item that has vitamin A in it, however, does not have to list BHT as a product ingredient.

Similarly, plant extracts are carried in propylene glycol (commonly used as a solvent or antifreeze), which also does not have to be listed on a label. Given this state of affairs, it is best to avoid all synthetic scents. You probably will want to clean out all of your chemically formulated cosmetics and start from scratch with truly natural products. Because sensitivities tend to increase, I recommend doing this even if there are perfumed products that you can still tolerate. (Besides, you risk offending others with sensitivities if you wear artificial scents.)

To ensure the personal hygiene products you use are made from the very purest ingredients, you may have to make your own, refer to consumer dictionaries, and/or order from small manufacturing companies. There are companies listed in Appendix B that manufacture or sell safe products, including soap, shampoo and hair conditioners, toothpaste, moisturizers, and makeup.



Surprisingly, it is quite difficult to find fragrance-free soap at many health food stores, although many sell natural fragrances. Detergents and soaps contain many antibacterial agents that technically are classified with the EPA as pesticides.

Two options that are safe for some people are castile and coconut soap. Castile soaps are made from vegetable oils and come in liquids and bars, although a true castile is made from olive oil, water, and wood ash. You may find coconut oil soap in your health food store. However, not everyone can tolerate these soaps. Many people with MCS use baking soda in place of soap.


Hair Products

At the very least you need a safe shampoo and conditioner. Unfortunately, as I’ve previously mentioned, most products, even at health food stores, are full of natural and/or synthetic fragrance. Keep in mind, if you have fragrance residues on your hair or clothing, they may prevent you from identifying other fragrances you are sensitive to, and make it difficult to convince others that you would appreciate them being fragrance-free. You may be able to use an unscented castile soap to wash your hair and make your own rinses from natural ingredients. But here again some people use only baking soda. A few recipes are listed later in this chapter.



Until you find the right toothpaste—or just for simplicity—you can brush your teeth with baking soda. There are, however, numerous alternative toothpastes you can buy. Remember, if you are taking homeopathic medicines, you will have to avoid any tooth product with mint or strong fragrance (natural or otherwise), as strong smells are thought to disturb the subtle action of homeopathic medicines.



For moisturizer, you can use any natural oil that agrees with you, although it may be greasy. An oil that is not greasy and which dissolves nicely into the skin is called African Shea butter. But test it first before buying any quantity.



Natural makeup has progressed to the point where conventional chemical products have virtually no advantages over it. If you use makeup, the safest choices are those products that are free of coal tar dyes (which cause cancer in laboratory animals), heavy metals, such as aluminum (which has some relationship to developing Alzheimer’s disease), and other toxicants.

A walk down your drugstore makeup aisle should convince you that changing to natural products would be worthwhile. Count how many eye makeups list aluminum as an ingredient. All of the dyes listed are made from coal tar. Additionally, many companies test on animals and use countless animal ingredients.



Deodorant that is contaminated with toxics may be associated with breast cancer (Darbre, 2003). For example, one study found parabens (parahydroxybenzoic acids) in 18 of 20 breast tumors. And 60% of breast tumors are found in one fifth of the breast – the upper outer portion near the underarm. (See news service:

Therefore, deodorant may be particularly important because of its proximity to both lymph nodes and breasts.


What About Hair Color?

Because coloring hair requires that you open the hair cuticle in order for the color to have any permanence, any hair color products other than natural henna will have some toxic ingredients. PPD or p-Phenylenediamine (also referred to as phenylenediame, phenylenediame dihydrochloride or benzenediamine dihydrochloride) is the usual ingredient used to open the cuticle. Although some dyes claim not to use PPD, they often substitute other toxic chemicals such as lead in its place. In addition to the PPD, dyes include bleaching agents, other heavy metals, aniline dyes (coal tar derivatives) and ammonia. One company that markets dyes sold in health food stores uses a small amount of PPD, as they believe that it is actually less toxic in small amounts than the toxic metals. If you must color, please do extensive research, use a patch test, and find the least toxic dye available.


Household Items

Most people don’t have the option to spend thousands of dollars to clean up their homes. Because of this, I recommend simplifying rather than replacing. Buying all new furniture, for instance, might be nice, but there probably is a less expensive alternative for most of your concerns. One woman living with MCS explained it this way:


“I got to the point where I wanted nothing except my health. Eventually I learned to simplify my life. I realized I didn’t need gobs of money to buy fancy [environmental illness] products. I took the vacuum cleaner and hung it out the window. I sewed my own crude quilts until I had enough to comfortably sleep on. I took washable cloths and stuck them in pillowcases for cushions. I just let go of wanting things—all I wanted was to get better. . . . The things, products, methods, techniques, etc., just didn’t matter.”



You may want to go through your clothing and decide what to give away based on the materials used, whether they are contaminated with fragrances from fabric softeners and detergents, or they have been dry-cleaned. There may be particular materials that you can tolerate better than others. For some people, polyester, a petrochemical product, may be troublesome, but acrylic (closer to plastic) may not be.

Cotton and hemp may be the soundest choices, but cottons can become contaminated in laundering or through the use of perfume. Also not everyone can tolerate even organic cotton. If some of your clothes have picked up odors, you can try washing them in vinegar or baking soda or simply hanging them out in the elements to remove the smells. Although vinegar should not cause the colors to bleed, baking soda may.

New clothing is often a long way from tolerable for people with MCS, so don’t give away most of your clothing before ensuring that you have something to wear. Although you may find some untreated clothing in stores, it is rare, and you will have to come up with a strategy for acquiring safe clothing. If you can afford it, there are some beautiful natural cottons and hemps available through catalogs and in some alternative stores. They are generally priced similarly to upscale conventional clothing.

Cotton can be unbleached, organically grown, and dyed with vegetable color-grown dyes. Organic color-grown cottons or hemps may be your soundest choices. There are a few new companies that specialize in mail-order hemp clothing. Hemp can be grown with less water than cotton and without pesticides, and is a durable fabric for clothing. Since it is illegal to grow hemp in the United States (even though a hemp parachute saved George Bush Senior’s life in W.W.II), it has to be imported.

Other clothing options exist. You can buy commercial clothing and wash it to remove chemical treatments. First, you can soak and wash a commercially bought garment in vinegar, and then in baking soda. Do not mix them, as they will neutralize one another and become ineffective. The problem with this approach is that it takes a while.

According to Lynn Bower (1995) vinegar may corrode parts of your washing machine if clothing is left to soak. Further, extended soaking still may not make the clothing safe. (Note: You are washing harmful chemicals down the drain into the environment, including dioxins and pesticides.) In addition, some clothing from India and Asia has a turpentine-like smell that never comes out. Apparently there is a petrochemical used in Asian processing that does not break down in washing.

Another option is to buy used clothing. However, you have to be sure previous owners did not use perfumes, mothballs, fabric softeners, and dry-cleaning products. Dry-cleaning odors will not become apparent until you wet the fabric, so it is impossible to tell in the store whether a piece has been dry-cleaned. Dry cleaning is usually done with trichlorethylene or perchlorethylene and residues remain in the clothing. If you avoid clothing likely to have been dry-cleaned (such as suits, skirts, and better fabrics), and if you screen for perfume odors, resale shops may be an option for affordable clothing. This way you are reusing resources and supporting some of the charities that operate these shops. I believe that one good way to detox used or new clothing is to simply hang it on the clothesline outside (if in a clean area) for several days. Allowing the sun, rain, and wind to have their way with the fabric is an easy way to clear it of chemical smells.



Making a safe bedroom can be a challenge. There are various degrees of safety you can create. If you awaken with symptoms, your bed or something in your bedroom may be unsafe. Ideally, to create a safe oasis in your bedroom, you would have only the necessities in there, such as a bed and a dresser. The room would be free of carpet, which can collect dust or odors; would have a high quality, low EMF air purifier to minimize dust, pollen, mold, and chemicals from the air; clothing would be stored in a closed space, such as closet, to minimize dust; and no books would be stored in the room. If your bedroom is safely heated, not recently painted with a toxic paint, and not carpeted, the major item left to clean up is your bed. You are exposed to your mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets for one-third of your life and are breathing in their emissions. Therefore, they should be as clean as possible.

It is fairly easy to acquire sheets, blankets, pillows, and even mattresses made from organically grown materials, although it is not always easy to afford them. Older bedding may have aired out considerably, although bleached cottons can continue to emit dioxins for years. I suggest deciding how much you can afford and then making the most of your resources. Safe sheets and pillowcases are a priority. If you cannot afford a new mattress one lower-cost option would be to cover your own mattress (assuming it is not too contaminated) with a barrier cloth cover. Barrier cloth is woven so densely that it is thought to stop dust and synthetics from offgassing; however, some people dispute this. You can make your own barrier cloth cover, or purchase one from a store or catalog. (See Appendix B for product sources.)

When choosing bedding materials, you should know cotton that is labeled as “green” is not necessarily organic, but is processed without bleaches, dyes, and other chemicals, such as formaldehyde. The growing process, however, may include pesticides. Bear in mind that even organic fibers can trigger symptoms; test any materials thoroughly before purchase. 



A lot of furniture is made of polyester, foam that contains formaldehyde, and other synthetics. Because of the buildup of dust mites in the fabric and cushions, even cotton furniture can be a problem. Most furniture fabrics are treated with stain repellents and other finishes. Furthermore, new furniture (even all-wood furniture) may offgas stains and glues (and even formaldehyde if particleboard is used). Therefore, safe furniture for one person with MCS may differ completely from what is safe for someone else.

Wooden furniture that has aged and has not been refinished is probably fairly safe. There are many sources of all-wood furniture. Many varieties can be purchased at secondhand stores or garage sales. Metal furniture also is well tolerated by some and readily available (such as at second hand stores). Some options for soft furniture include futons for sofas and pullout beds. Many shops sell futons made from untreated cotton, although with some futons, there is still an odor, and like any other bedding, it should be tested before purchase. If you want to keep cotton furniture that may have become dusty, you can put smaller items like pillows in the electric dryer for thirty-five minutes on high heat to kill the mites. You can also cover the larger pillows with barrier cloth. Pillows of unsafe materials, such as foam, can be replaced or restuffed with organic cotton (although they will not have their previous shape or resilience).

If you can afford to invest in some clean furniture, some companies have totally organic furniture pieces, including chairs, love seats, sofas, bedding, futons, and crib mattresses. For a nominal fee, you may be able to acquire and test samples of all items used in the furniture you are considering. You can put each sample item in a glass jar, set it in the sun to heat for several hours, then open the jar and breathe the fumes to test your reaction. If it seems okay, you can then sleep with it by your bed to test it further.

Furniture delivery should be considered as well. One store’s delivery process deserves special mention: The company, furnature, has a very MCS-conscious delivery process. All items delivered from the company are wrapped in zippered bags of organic canvas, then wrapped in paper, and then shrink-wrapped as a third layer to protect from pesticides in trucks or any other toxins used in shipping. When the delivery arrives at your house, the wrapping is removed outside, the driver then puts on white gloves that have already been sent to the purchaser for this purpose, and the item is carried inside. (See Appendix B for product sources.)



You may decide that you need air filters in certain parts of your home, or even a whole-house air filter. (See Appendix B for product sources.) Filters are not a substitute for cleaning up your indoor air, but depending on what type you purchase, they can offer extra help against certain pollutants. A filter can reduce dust, pollen, dander, smoke, gases, formaldehyde, and biological elements depending on its specific purpose. All filters have drawbacks, but some can clean an airspace reasonably well and reduce contaminant loads. One caution: Many filters are not very effective, and some (particularly those with HEPA filters) are made of the same contaminants (polyester, polypropylene, etc.) that you are trying to take out of your house. So, carefully research any filter before you purchase it, and talk to the manufacturer to find out exactly what materials are used to make it. I suggest you make a list of those contaminants you need help with, and purchase the appropriate filters for those substances. For example, you may need a filter that specifically removes dust and pollen. The following sections describe various air filters:


Activated Carbon and Activated Alumina

Activated carbon, made from coconut shell, wood, or coal, has a pitted surface that adsorbs many pollutants, including gases, benzene, perfumes, pet odors, phenol, solvents, paints, and many others. This medium reacts with so many pollutants that many people with MCS use it successfully both in home and auto air purifiers, and find they can tolerate the coconut shell charcoal. One problem with carbon, however, is that it reemits trapped pollutants when air concentrations of the pollutants entering the filter decline (when air is cleaner). The EPA sites a study that found that carbon media emitted the same amount of toluene that it adsorbed in a 45-hour experiment (

Activated carbon does not clean formaldehyde very well, and therefore is often combined with activated alumina, which is aluminum oxide impregnated with potassium permanganate.

Activated alumina (sold as Purafil, Purapel, and other brand names) reacts with many chemicals, including alcohols; aldehydes; aromatics, such as paint solvents; ethers; oxides, such as carbon monoxide; nitrogen and sulfur dioxides; phenols; and others. By combining charcoal and alumina, you can filter a large number of pollutants. Media must be changed periodically. You can tell if your alumina needs replacement, as it will change its color from purple when it is new to a darker brown when it has adsorbed to its capacity. If you purchase a filter that can be refilled, you can save money by ordering it in bulk. (See Appendix B for product sources.)


HEPA Filters

High efficiency particulate-arresting/accumulator (HEPA) describes a type of filter that can either stand alone or be combined with charcoal and alumina. HEPA filters remove particulates, such as dust, pollen, mold, and viruses, but do not affect gases. The problem with HEPA filters is that many are made of polyesters and glues that have no business being in the home of a person with chemical sensitivities. To me, this is an example of prescribing more chemicals to cope with chemical sensitivity. How can using a chemical purifier be good for anyone, especially people with MCS? I suggest that if you use a HEPA filter, you find out exactly what is in it, and get the purest one available. 


Extended Surface Filters

Extended surface filters have a large pleated/folded surface made of polyester or fiberglass for maximum air contact. They filter particulates, not gases, and need replacing periodically. There are the same concerns about synthetic materials as with HEPA filters, but Lynn Bower (1995) says that to reduce odors some people bake filters in their ovens at low temperatures for about two hours. (She cautions that you should ask the manufacturer if the filter could tolerate this. Also, be sure to close off your kitchen from the rest of your house, open the windows, and use your hood fan to reduce the chance of smells spreading through your house.)


Electrostatic Filters

Electrostatic filters use static electricity to trap pollutants that have opposite charges of the (generally) plastic filters. They trap molds and pollens, but not gases. The filter can be vinyl, polyester, or polystyrene, all substances of concern for those with sensitivities, and to those concerned with environmental sustainability. These units may also produce ozone.


Electrostatic Precipitators

Electrostatic precipitators use live electrical current—much as electrostatic filters use static electricity—first to charge, and then to collect the molecules of pollutants. Metal wires charge the molecules, and then electrical plates collect them. The plates need washing when debris collects on them. Sometimes, the molecules end up being re-released into your air and the units may produce ozone.


Ozone Generators

Ozone has been promoted as having the ability to alter toxic molecules in the air and hence "clean" air. An ozone molecule actually consists of three atoms of oxygen. (A basic oxygen molecule has two atoms). It is true that the third atom can detach from the molecule and re-attach to other molecules in the air hence altering their chemical composition (See Whether this is a good or safe thing in indoor air is highly questionable. The EPA describes ozone as "good up high - bad nearby" and reports that it can decrease lung function, aggravate asthma, irritate the throat, cause chest pain or shortness of breath, inflame lungs, and render people more susceptible to respiratory infections. Ozone is more problematic at higher levels, when exposure is long, when the person's physical activity is high, and when people are already vulnerable. The EPA report "Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners: An Assessment of Effectiveness and Health Consequences" (available at the above-cited website) cites studies that support the fact that although ozone does react with some chemicals (e.g., a number of carpet chemicals and acrolein from cigarette smoke), for some chemicals the process can take months or even years, and other toxic compounds may be formed in the process (such as aldehydes). Ozone does not react with formaldehyde or remove particles such as dust. Viruses, mold and bacteria are only affected if ozone levels are used above public health standards.  

The EPA standard for maximum ozone exposure over an eight hour period outdoors is .08 parts per million. Studies have found that even when used according to directions, many machines produce ozone above these levels. The level produced can depend upon the size of the space, whether indoor doors are open or shut, how densely furnished the space is, and each individual machine.

There is also some question of danger when operating ozone in a place that has previously been treated with pesticides. One person with MCS reported becoming extremely ill after doing this and said that her physicians finally came to the conclusion that the ozone had actually fused the pesticide residues into her tissues. Johnson (1996) published a statement from John Banta, an environmental consultant, who said the following:


“The only way I ever will use or recommend ozone is as a fumigation technique with no people, pets, or plants present while the ozone is being used. A window should be left open slightly to allow some fresh circulation into the area being treated. The area should be allowed to air out for a while after treatment before reoccupying the area . . . there is always the possibility that the ozone treatment will ruin the area for occupancy for some people.”


Johnson also points out that ozone breaks down natural rubber through destroying double carbon bonds. This means that if you use ozone generators, you could destroy the electrical wiring in your house (if it’s older and the wiring is made of real rubber), or damage important car parts, such as hoses.

With all of these concerns my own feeling is that you probably have enough stressors in your life already without adding the potential problems that come from the use of an ozone generator.


Negative Ion Generators

Negative ion generators create negatively charged ions that attach themselves to particles, giving them a negative charge. Negative ions are thought to be healthier than positive ones and are said to be the reason that the air near mountains and larger bodies of water has a positive effect on people. Studies at Columbia University have suggested that negative ion therapy has some usefulness in treating depression. The units emit negatively charge particles, which then tend to cling to surfaces that have positive charges, such as walls and ceilings. Although the air will be cleaner, particles may build up on surfaces and eventually reenter the environment once they lose their negative charge. However, if the ionizer has a built-in filter that is able to trap the particles, then this problem is not as much of a concern. In order for all air in the room to be affected it must come in contact with the ionizer and fans are sometimes used for this purpose. Some people with MCS have used ionizers in automobiles or as personal portable devices to create a small, clean airspace in polluted settings. But the units can produce ozone. Also, like other electronic devices, they emit electromagnetic fields.


Do Indoor Air Filters Really Work?

There are many questions about how well air cleaners really work. The EPA says that their performance depends upon a number of factors including: the size and mass of the particles to be filtered, how quickly the capture mechanism is degraded by adsorbing the particles, whether or not some of the treated air can simply bypass the capture mechanism, and whether the filtered air is then forced to mix with room air rather than be filtered repeatedly while the remainder of the room air remains untreated. (See Some studies refer to a “clean air delivery rate” (CADR) which is the product of the efficiency of the unit and its rate of airflow. The CADR gives you a cubic feet per minute (cfm) rating for the unit, for example a cfm of 100 would be the equivalent of adding 100 cubic feet of clean air to the room per minute.  The EPA emphasizes that source control and ventilation are priority methods for insuring clean air. Air cleaners do not  compensate for poor air.

For best results, test any air filter before purchase, including EMFs and motor noise.             



Unfortunately, drinking water, regardless of its source, may contain a number of dangerous contaminants. Municipal water contains pharmaceutical drug residues, chlorine, fluoride, household chemical residues, and possibly biological elements. Well water is at risk for containing bacteria, nitrates, pesticides, and VOCs. You may want to test your water for the following pollutants:


Biological Elements

Biological pollution can result from agricultural runoff, a septic system field that is less than 100 feet from a well, and other sources. Harmful biological elements include fecal and total coliforms; bacteria, such as salmonella, molds, viruses; and other living organisms. Labs often test for coliforms because their presence in water indicates other dangerous biological elements may be present.



Nitrates can often be traced to chemical fertilizers that have run off into water supplies. However, they may also occur as the natural product of organic matter breakdown. In well water, nitrates indicate that pesticides and herbicides may be present. In the adult body, a small portion (about 5 percent) of nitrates is converted into nitrites, which can interfere with oxygen transport and cause a condition called methemoglobinemia. The hemoglobin in the blood, which normally carries oxygen, becomes methemoglobin and can no longer function properly. Infants are most susceptible to methemoglobinemia, as they are able to convert almost all ingested nitrates into nitrites. It is especially dangerous, therefore, to have an infant in a house that has nitrate pollution (Harte, Holdren, Schneider, and Shirley 1991).



The presence of pesticides in water is cause for serious concern. They easily are absorbed by the skin and, in fact, are often more dangerous through this dermal route than when otherwise ingested. Pesticides are contaminating wells throughout the United States due to the continued use of aerial and ground spraying in agriculture. If you live in an agricultural area, you should definitely test for pesticides. Further pesticide hazards are discussed in the gardening section.



Suspended particulates in water can be dirt, sand, mold, or other matter. They make water cloudy and the water is said to have high turbidity. Turbidity can be tested by passing a beam of light through a water sample to see how much light is deflected by particles.



VOCs are chemicals that easily can evaporate and include some pesticides and chlorine, gasoline, PCB, and solvents such as trichloroethane and trichloroethylene. Most have serious health effects and thus are dangerous contaminants of groundwater.



Radon is a radioactive, colorless, odorless gas that is a carcinogen. It is present in particular areas of the country that have certain geological characteristics (e.g., rock and shale formations) that promote its formation and release from the ground.

 Radon enters inhabited spaces through cracks in basements, and can be found in high concentrations in water as well. If radon is in your water, it will enter your airspace whenever the faucet (particularly hot water) is turned on. You can test for radon yourself with a separate kit, or have it included as part of a more comprehensive test.



Lead and copper can leach into drinking water from local or municipal pipes. Lead was used in the past to make water pipes, which often still exist in older homes. Additionally, lead was used as solder for copper pipes until 1986 (Bower 1995).

Because of lead’s widespread use, you should always test your water for lead content. Lead can poison every system in the body, especially the central nervous system, and its effects on children include reduced intelligence (Wasserman et al. 2003), particularly verbal ability (Coscia, Ris, Succop, & Dietrich 2003), learning disabilities (Chang 1999), and delinquent behavior (Needleman, McFarland, Ness, Fienberg, & Tobin 2002). The intelligence effects appear even at very low levels of exposure. In adults, lead is linked to fatigue, irritability, insomnia, nervousness, headache, weakness, and depression (Schottenfeld and Cullen 1984).

Copper and mercury are metals that should be tested for, as well. Too much copper can damage the myelin sheath of nerve tissue (Bryce-Smith 1986). Excess mercury has been found to cause respiratory, gastrointestinal, and skin problems, as well as anxiety and personality disorders (Perez-Comas 1991).


Water Filters

There are a variety of filters—both whole-house and individual units— that treat home water. A water test will help you to determine which type is best for you, as no one type of filter removes every pollutant. Because of this, many filters combine two or more types of filtration. Additionally, the level and type of pollutants also determine whether you need a whole-house purifier, or if simply filtering your drinking and cooking water will suffice. If a well is contaminated with gasoline or pesticides, simple filtering is not enough because your skin will absorb these pollutants when you shower, and vapors will be released into the air. As mentioned earlier, radon is also released into the air when water is heated. So, at the very least, a shower filter is needed. If you use municipal water, the local county agency tests it periodically for some contaminants. If you have a well, testing for coliform bacteria may be free.

You may be able to purchase a simple test kit locally to test your water. However, to get a detailed look at your water, you might have to pursue professional testing.

The following section describes some of the filters that are available and the types of pollutants that they address. It is particularly important for you to do personal research and reading regarding water filters as Ingram (1991) warns that there is a lot of false and exaggerated advertising. (See Appendix C for further reading, and Appendix B for product sources including water testing kits.)


Activated Charcoal Filters. This is the same material that is used in air purifiers, and comes in granular and block form. Because block form is denser, it is more efficient. Some block filters are made with plastic that may cause problems for people with MCS (L. Bower 1995).

Granular activated charcoal will remove chlorine, gases, VOCs, radon (but not all of its radioactive particle emissions), tastes and odors, and some sediment. Solid block activated charcoal will remove chlorine, gases, VOCs, sediment, pesticides, radon, and some fluoride. Charcoal filters do not remove biological elements, and may even build up bacteria. Combining them with reverse osmosis or ultraviolet devices is often suggested.

Carbon block will last longer and remove more pollutants than granular because water may channel through the granular without enough contact with the medium. However, the carbon block needs a sediment prefilter to prevent it from becoming blocked. Ingram (1991) warns that pollutants can break away from the carbon due to water pressure changes and then be ingested. To prevent this, he suggests using a slow flow rate and allowing the water to flow for thirty seconds before drinking it whenever the filter has not been used for several hours. Carbon block, but not granular, will remove some asbestos. Lynn Bower (1995) says it removes heavy metals, while Ingram says that it does not, unless it is combined with reduction oxidation filtering. Because carbon does not remove biologicals, Ingram further recommends that it not be used in private water sources (e.g., wells) without adding a method of disinfection.


Reverse Osmosis. In these units, water is forced through a synthetic membrane that will not allow pollutants to pass through. The size of the pores in the membrane determines the size and type of contaminants that will be removed. These units may be slow, and they are expensive to operate because they use several gallons of water to make one gallon of purified water. They will remove minerals, nitrates, fluoride, sediment, heavy metals, and asbestos, and   lessen salt and some harmful biological elements. Unfortunately, reverse osmosis does not remove gases such as radon. Although it does remove bacteria and viruses, the membrane can become contaminated with bacteria, and for this reason, it is recommended that ultraviolet light be added. Also, be aware that these filters may remove too many of the minerals, leaving you with drinking water that is demineralized, and capable of leaching minerals from your body. Reverse osmosis does not accumulate pollutants as carbon does. Membranes are made of cellulose acetate (CA) or thin film composite (TFC). Ingram (1991) says that TFC performs better and lasts longer than CA, but cannot be used with chlorinated water without a chlorine pre-filter. Reverse osmosis systems are cost effective, but waste water and should be used with sediment and carbon pre-filtration to protect the membrane from damage.


Distillers. Water distillers boil water, turning it into steam, and then recollect it as the steam condenses. Contaminants are separated out in the process and harmful biological elements are killed in the boiling. The units will remove sediment, minerals, nitrates, metals, asbestos, fluoride, and dangerous biological elements. Distillers do not remove VOCs or gases such as chlorine and radon. They tend to be slow, eliminate too many minerals, create heat, and are expensive. On the positive side, they are very reliable and have no parts that need replacing.                                 


Kinetic-Degradation-Fluxion (KDF) Devices. KDF devices use an alloy of zinc and copper to cause oxidation (the loss of electrons) and reduction (the addition of electrons) to the molecules of contaminants in water. As contaminants come into contact with the zinc and copper filter, they are transformed into safer substances. In addition, heavy metals are removed by becoming attached to the device; and oppositely charged zinc and copper disrupt bacteria with a small electrical current. KDF devices will remove chlorine, sulfur dioxide, methane, some heavy metals, and VOCs. They do not remove bacteria and viruses. They may be combined with a carbon filter to remove chlorine and help with heavy metals.


Ultraviolet (UV) Water Purification. UV purification uses UV lighting (from 100 to 380 nonometers wavelength) to kill bacteria, viruses, algae, molds, and yeasts. Although UV is thought to remove E-coli, Salmonella, Cholera, Tuberculosis, and Legionella, it does not kill giardia or cryptosporidium cysts because the UV light is not in contact with them for a long enough period (  UV purification needs a sediment pre-filter to prevent the creation of a “shadow” that may screen the organisms from the light.


In the Car

Driving can be one of the most problematic ventures for people with environmental sensitivities. To travel by car, you have to expose yourself to the interior and exhaust of your own car, the exhaust of other vehicles, any other industrial/chemical smells en route, and electromagnetic fields from not only your own car but also any facilities in the vicinity of your route. However, there are some strategies you can use to minimize exposures and thus retain your ability to drive.


Seal It from the Outside

Before attempting to clean up your car, you might want to see if it is even safe for you to sit in. If you feel sick before you even turn the car on, you may want to replace it with a more tolerable car. If sitting in your car causes only mild health problems, you can close all the doors, bake it in the sun, and then open and air it out repeatedly, each time cleaning off the film from the windows that accumulates from the vinyl and other materials that are offgassing. You can also wash the interior with baking soda, or seal it with a safe sealer. In addition, scouring powder or solvents, such as citrus, will remove vinyl treatments that emit troublesome odors. Once the vehicle is tolerable, parking it in the shade will prevent further unwanted offgassing.

If your car is safe to sit in, then the interior is tolerable for you. In this case, it may be worth attempting to seal the car to minimize your exposure to outside fuel emissions. Most cars with air-conditioning have a recirculate option. This means that the air is not drawn from outside, but rather from the interior of the car. Using the recirculate option will minimize outside odors from other vehicles and other exposures you may encounter while traveling. It would be beneficial to use the recirculate option for the heating unit as well. Ask your mechanic if the outside control vent is manual or automatic when you turn on the car. (For example, some cars have a manual vent that can be closed for air or heat.) If the vent is automatic, ask your mechanic how to bypass and fix the switch so it will stay closed while you are driving. With the vent closed all of the time, however, mold may build up. To air out the heater coils and air conditioner, you can open the vent while your car is not operating. If the vent is pneumatic, however, it will close automatically when starting the car, and open when the engine is turned off. The windows fogging up in the winter may also be a problem. (You may be the only person on the road using the air-conditioning to clear your windows in 20-degree weather.) It is difficult to generalize from one car to another, and mechanics will not be familiar with this request. You will have to explain exactly what you are trying to do. For example, you may have to say; “I am trying to avoid breathing outside pollution when I drive.” If you don’t have air-conditioning, you will have to open the windows in the summer. This can be a problem even in sparsely traveled areas because cars take in their own exhaust aerodynamically.

Other openings to the outside environment also will have to be sealed. Try to find all vents by looking at the doors (especially the bottoms of doors), near the rear window, above the rear windshield, and any other place that seems likely. Sometimes a vent is identified by a rubber flap. You can seal vents with foam, silicone, or any other tolerable material that will block air. One person with MCS used sheets of aluminum, caulk, and tape to make cutouts that fit all of her air intakes on her vehicles. She rated sealing these intakes as the second most important strategy in avoiding further deterioration (living in the country was first). Be aware that sealing your car will not protect you from exhaust leaks. If you seal off outside “fresh” air, yet have an exhaust leak, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.


Introduce No New Contaminants

Of course you will not want to use any chemical upholstery treatments, cleaners, or preservatives in your car. Do not allow anyone to smoke or wear perfume in your car. Perfume can linger and become absorbed into the upholstery. Air fresheners should be avoided. If you have your car professionally cleaned, be sure they know that no air fresheners are to be used, and that no one is to get in the car wearing fragrance. It is probably safer to wash your own car.

Another caution is that you should never transport anything in the passenger compartment that could contaminate your interior. If you must transport something, place it in the trunk and put it into a second sealed container in case of a leak.



You probably will need help from others to maintain your car. It is very important to have the exhaust checked regularly. A muffler leak the size of a pinhole may negatively affect you, even if you have sealed your car to the best of your ability. The mechanic who checks the exhaust or performs other functions must know not to use any chemicals or air fresheners inside the car. Also, mechanics should be sure not to bring any oils or gasoline into the car on their hands or shoes. One participant was made sensitive when workers at a body shop spilled a whole gallon of air freshener in her car. (They did not even have her consent to apply the freshener in the first place.) You or a friend can explain that you are extremely sensitive to chemicals, and that even a little oil from shoes can make the car intolerable to you. As a precaution, put down newspaper on the floor and cover the seat with a towel. If any oils get on the steering wheel they can be washed off.

You may need someone to pump your gas. If this is not an option, you can try parking upwind from the pump. Tying a small flag or piece of yarn on your antenna can help you to determine wind direction. Simply stop the car and observe in which direction the flag or yarn is blowing. Try not to step in any gas. Pick up the nozzle with a disposable paper towel or plastic bag in case it has gas on it from previous use. Be careful not to overfill the tank, as gas will spill on your car and on the ground. If someone else pumps your gas, or if you go to a full-service station, be sure and stress that it is important not to overfill the tank.



While driving, some strategic moves may minimize your exposures. Avoid driving closely behind diesel or very smelly vehicles. I do not advocate kamikaze tactics such as passing at any risk. Rather, pull off the road and let the polluter get far enough ahead so that you can safely drive again.

It is possible that you may have a limit to how long you can be in the car before you get sick, e.g., twenty minutes or so. You may be able to extend this amount of time by taking a break in a clean area or simply by pulling off the road, turning off the car, and breathing from your air purifier for a few minutes. If your reaction is triggered by a threshold effect, try stopping a few minutes before you will feel ill, turning off the engine, and breathing the cleanest air you can for five to ten minutes. If this works for you, you may be able to then drive for another period of time before stopping again.

If you have passengers riding with you, ask them to wait a minute or so after you shut down the engine before opening the doors. This will allow the exhaust to dissipate and will reduce your exposures. Also, explain to people that you cannot pull up next to them, open the window while the car is running, and chat.

If you have a newer vehicle, there are probably a myriad of computerized controls and gauges in the dashboard that can present a high EMF exposure. Pay attention also to automatic seatbelts that electrically adjust when you get in the car. Also there are high EMFs from the air handling systems. Be aware that if you are trying to avoid overhead EMF exposure as you drive, an open sunroof, a fiberglass vehicle, or a convertible (or motorcycle) will leave you vulnerable. Another issue to bear in mind is that some people with seizure disorders are triggered by night driving because of oncoming headlights or the flashing lights from emergency vehicles or snowplows.



At home, you may want to arrange for a place to keep your car that minimizes your exposure to it. If you have an attached garage, for example, I suggest not using it, as cars emit odors when cooling and starting up. Likewise, parking your car right next to your window or your porch may not be a good choice, as you will be breathing whatever it offgasses. If cars have leaks, they may emit odors all of the time. Of course, if you have a car with a leak, it needs to be fixed or sold.



Even if you seal your car as much as possible, you still will get some outside air along with its accompanying exposures. An auto air purifier may help to further reduce these exposures if you can find one that is of good quality. Many companies that produce room air purifiers also produce auto air units that can be plugged into your cigarette lighter. (You won’t be using it for anything else, after all.) You may want to check purifiers for EMFs before purchasing. (See Appendix B for product sources.)


Other Issues with Autos

To cut glare, some people darken their windows with a film made for that purpose. However, it is a plastic product and does introduce some contaminants.


Lawns and Gardens

With limited energy, you may not be anxious to grow your own food, but gardening can provide you with exercise, organic food, increased contact with the earth, free sauna treatment in a hot climate, and a healthy hobby. If you have little time, you could begin by growing something easy that requires little space, such as lettuce. It is possible to grow all of your own organic salad greens in a very small space, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing what went into your food when it was grown.


The Problem with Pesticides

Conventional garden techniques often include the use of pesticides (including herbicides or weed killers). Although your own gardening practices may be no different, once you have developed sensitivities, the use of garden chemicals is one of the most important practices to discontinue.

Pesticides are ubiquitous in our air and water; they are poorly tested and understood, highly toxic, and, when combined together, even more toxic. They are named by a large number of people with MCS as the initial cause of their illness, and are implicated in a myriad of other diseases including cancer (especially breast cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphomas), reproductive disorders, and Parkinson’s disease.

The active ingredients in pesticides often comprise only one to five percent of a preparation. The rest of the product is often labeled as “inert ingredients.” The implication is that inert ingredients are inactive. However, a lawsuit by the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) against the EPA forced the EPA to reveal a long list of hazardous substances that may legally be added to pesticides as inert ingredients. The list includes industrial sludge, other pesticides, and even radioactive waste (Toxic Secrets 1998).

All pesticides are toxic by some mechanism as they are designed to eliminate living organisms. Organophosphates deplete acetylcholinesterase, increasing acetylcholine in the nervous system and killing bugs with convulsions. In humans, they can cause reactions that include ringing in the ears, nervousness, nausea, vomiting, cramps, weakness, seizures, and more. Lieberman, Craven, Lewis, et al. (1998) found that home use of organophosphate pesticides can cause chromosome damage.

Children and pets are particularly vulnerable to poisoning and long-term health effects from pesticides. Davis, Brownson, Garcia, et al. (1993) found an association between childhood brain cancer and the use of pesticides, including termite treatment, diazinon in the garden, lawn herbicides, Kwell shampoo (used to eliminate lice and nits), indoor pesticide treatment, pest strips, and even flea collars.

Likewise, Gold, Gordis, Tonascia, et al. (1979) found that family insecticide use was one of five variables associated with the development of childhood brain tumors. For some reason, indoor pesticides are likely to migrate to children’s plastic toys and thus end up in children’s mouths (Guranathan, Robson, Freeman, et al. 1998).

Adult women also may be harmed by long-term pesticide exposure. Women with breast cancer have higher levels of pesticides in their breast tissue than do women with benign breast disease (Moses, Johnson, Anger, et al. 1993; Thornton 1993).

Neither are men exempt. Farmers have a higher incidence of cancer than do nonagricultural workers, and Parkinson’s disease is associated with rural living and pesticide exposure. Moderate exposure to pesticides is cumulative and is associated with increased neurological symptoms in farmers who apply pesticides, with organophosphates and organochlorines being the most problematic (Kamel, Engel, Gladen, Hoppin, Alavanja, & Sandler, 2005). Some of the most commonly experienced of these neurological symptoms in the Kamel et al. Study were headache, fatigue, tension, insomnia, irritability, dizziness, depression, and numbness in hands and feet.

If you poison yourself with pesticides you are unlikely to get proper medical treatment, as most providers are uneducated regarding proper testing and intervention. Sherman (1995) found that forty-one patients with organophosphate poisoning were misdiagnosed, endured costly and ineffective treatments and, because of this, did not improve.

Pesticides poison the environment in myriad ways. They degrade soil and groundwater, build up in human adipose tissue, kill beneficial organisms, poison wildlife, create long-term dioxin residues, and leave poisonous breakdown products in your soil. Given all this, there is no sane reason to continue using these chemicals. You may have to sacrifice the perfect green lawn (which is nowhere near natural anyway), and some seemingly quick solutions to bug problems, but many safer alternatives and strategies are available. Be aware, however, some organically derived pest poisons also have inert ingredients that include petrochemicals and other toxins. There is evidence that with healthy care and feeding of the soil, pest populations decrease each year. There are books available that cover low-maintenance, organic, edible gardening, including design, planting, and pest management. (See Appendix C for further reading and Appendix B for product sources.)



“Pressure-Treated” Lumber

Pressure treated lumber is created by forcing chromated copper arsenate (CCA) into the outer centimeter of the wood in a pressure cylinder. Pressurized lumber is a source of arsenic to those who touch it, to the soil around it, and to children and pets who play and walk on it. Arsenic is a human carcinogenic nerve poison, and can cause harmful cardiovascular changes. Chromated copper arsenate comes with warnings to avoid inhaling the dust, to wash thoroughly before eating, and to launder clothes separately after working with it. The wood is associated with lung, liver, and bladder cancer and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has estimated that children who play on CCA treated wood will increase their chances of developing bladder or lung cancer in their lifetimes as a result of the arsenic exposure alone. (See

Pressurized lumber may be present around your flower beds, in your food garden, or on your deck. Most decks are constructed of pressure-treated lumber because insects will not eat it (which says something about the common sense of insects). Although there are alternative woods that are insect-resistant, pressure-treated lumber has been the industry standard. People are generally uninformed about its toxicity as evidenced by its widespread use on decks, in gardens, and even on playgrounds.

 As of December 31, 2003, CCA is being phased out of use as a result of an agreement between the EPA and manufacturers. However, many loopholes remain. It will still be available for industrial and agricultural use and present supplies may still be sold for some time. CCA will be replaced by two apparently safer waterborne compounds: alkaline copper quat (ACQ types B and D) and copper azole (CBA-A, CA-B). They have been used in other countries for a number of years and are sold as Preserve, NatureWood, and Natural Select. Wood treated with these newer generation preservatives will be able to be disposed of at dumps (unlike the CCA wood), but still should not be burned, and gloves and masks are still recommended when working with them. How safe they will be for people in general and for people with MCS in particular, is unknown.

If you are interested in details of working with them, Daniel Morrison of Fine Home Building makes instructions available at He also  suggests that the borate treated lumbers may be even safer. Disodium octoborate tetrahydrate (DOT) has generally been used only for protected areas in order to keep the wood dry. But Morrison reports that the borate does not leach as much as previously thought and may be able to be used more widely. 

I suggest removing all CCA pressure-treated lumber from your yard and garden. Do not burn it, but take it to the landfill for hazardous waste disposal. At the very least, it should never be where rain could cause arsenic to leach into your food plants or into the soil that you will work with your hands. If your deck is made from treated lumber (it has a greenish cast and is unfinished), you may want to seal it with a low-toxicity, outside-use sealant to contain the arsenic. 


Your Mailbox

It is amazing how many fragrances can invade your home through the mailbox. If you are sensitive to fragrances, your mail can become contaminated and therefore unreadable from magazine inserts, special mailers, and samples. However, now there is a postal code on your side. United States 39 Code 3001g was listed in the April 9, 1998 Postal Bulletin (Bulletin no. 21969, p. 26) and reads:


“A fragrance advertising sample, i.e., any matter normally acceptable in the mail, but containing a fragrance advertising sample, is permitted in the mail only if it is sealed, wrapped, treated, or otherwise prepared in a manner reasonably designed to prevent individuals from becoming unknowingly or involuntarily exposed to the sample. A sample meets this requirement if it uses paper stock with a maximum porosity of twenty Sheffield units or 172 Gurley Hill units treated exclusively with micro encapsulated oils, and if the sample is produced so that it cannot be activated except by opening a glued flap or binder or removing an overlying ply of paper.”


You may be able to use this code to stop unsealed samples from reaching you in your mailbox. One person got her post office to send a letter to the offending company ordering them to cease and desist from any further violations. When another person tried to get her post office to do the same, they attempted to pass the buck. They asked her to bring in the sample, suggesting that it was the problem of the company, and offered to send the sample to the specific arm of the post office that deals with meeting code. It is not unreasonable, however, to expect the post office to comply with its own code, and this ruling eventually will help.


At Work

If you work outside of the home it also is crucial to clean up your work environment as much as possible. Workplace cleanup and accommodation is discussed in chapter thirteen on workplace accommodation and disability issues.