Chemical Avoidance

Chemical Avoidance: Overview

Avoiding the chemicals which trigger symptoms or increase disease risk reduces the burden on the body's detoxification pathways and tissues.  The best place to start is in the home, where most people spend a lot of their time.  Many people find that if they severely limit the amount of exposure to offending chemicals at home, they are able to tolerate more exposure without serious adverse effects when they go out.

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It should be noted that the indoor environment is much more polluted than the outdoors due to extensive use of chemical cleaning agents, cosmetics, perfumes and tobacco to name but a few.  Reducing intake of chemicals in foods and water and in the form of drugs is also important.


Chemical exposure can be divided into 4 main categories:

  1. Toxic buildings
  2. Household cleaning products
  3. Toiletries and cosmetics
  4. Water, drugs, food additives and packaging

Consider each of these when making the lifestyle choices that will help avoid chemicals.

Probably the first thing that someone looking for a safe place to live should do is avoid newly-built or refurbished houses or apartments.  Modern building materials contain many volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that will "off gas" for a considerable time – sometimes years – after the building is constructed.  This means that gases will be expelled from the materials and pollute the indoor environment, especially if ventilation is poor.  The World Health Organization classifies chemicals according to their volatility from highest to lowest as follows:

Very Volatile Organic Compounds (VVOCs)
The main example of a VVOC is formaldehyde.  This chemical is present in a wide range of materials used in building construction and furnishings.  Materials with the highest output of formaldehyde include pressed particle board products such as medium density fiberboard, urea formaldehyde foams and wood sealants and lacquers.  Particle board is used extensively in interior walls, fitted kitchens and self-assemble furniture, while urea formaldehyde foam is used in wall and roof insulation.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
The main examples of VOCs are solvents.  The worst offenders used in buildings include soft plastics, mastics, rubber, paints, varnishes and waxes.  In the average house many or all of these substances are used liberally throughout the building.

Semi-volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs)
A major example of SVOCs is pesticides.  In the home, the worst offenders are typically timber treatments used on the timber of roof frames and interior paneling, carpets and carpet tiles, and wallpaper and wallpaper pastes.  It's worth noting here that fashionable wooden floorings at first glance may seem better than carpeting, but are in fact a lot worse with regards to off gassing if they are made from particle board.

Particulate Organic Matter (POM)
Particulate organic matter refers to solid particles of material suspended in the air such as dust and the various particles in smoke.  The worst offenders in the home include carpets, soft furnishings, ventilation ducts and tobacco smoke.  Dust is a problem for the MCS sufferer as it is very good at absorbing VOCs.

What is safe to use?
The general rule is that one should look for and choose the simplest and most natural materials to use in the home.  These are generally materials that not so long ago were the norm but have now been replaced with the ubiquitous particle board derived materials.  For example, solid untreated wood, stone, metal, ceramics, glass.

Flooring – Hardwood floorboards treated only with natural beeswax or wood stain designed especially for MCS sufferers, ceramic tiles, stone, secondhand carpet or carpet which has been thoroughly aired out for at least 6 months (there are companies that do this then sell you the safe carpet).  There are now also a number of companies making pure wool carpets backed with hessian or jute and containing no chemicals, especially for the chemically sensitive.

Furniture – Hardwood furniture treated only with beeswax, stainless steel and glass tables and chairs.

Wall Coverings – Water-based paints are best.  A number of the big paint manufacturers are now making "fume-free" paints which are significantly better than regular paints.  The best paints though are those made by specialized eco-friendly companies, so look for "solvent-free" on the can.  Wallpaper is best avoided because the paste may cause symptoms and a lot of papers themselves, especially vinyl types, may off-gas significant VOCs.

Furnishings – Organic cotton curtains and bedding; furnishings with the least amount of foam padding/cushioning.  Furnishings with the least flame-retardant material (obviously other fire-safety measures should be implemented).

There is generally no need to replace furniture made from particle board, for example, if it is more than a few years old as all VOCs will have off gassed by that time.  These guidelines are mainly useful when looking for new furniture, flooring, and so on.

Organic cotton is mentioned because mass-produced fabrics used in home furnishings have often been treated with pesticides and other chemicals.  This also goes for clothing, although most people have no trouble: washing new items of clothing before first wearing them is a reasonable measure.  All the main allergy supply companies offer organic cotton bedding and clothing.

A quick look through kitchen and laundry room cupboards in most modern homes reveals an extensive array of chemical products for every application, from laundry detergent and softeners, to kitchen and bathroom cleaning products and a wide range of "air freshening" products.  Air fresheners are mentioned in quotes because they do not freshen the air in any way, rather they simply disguise odors by supplying a stronger synthetic chemical-based odor.  All of these products contain synthetic chemicals, mainly petroleum-based hydrocarbons, that can be troublesome for the chemically sensitive.

One of the biggest problems for MCS sufferers with regards to modern domestic chemical products is that fragrances are added to the vast majority.  Fragrances aren't essential to the action of any cleaning products but it has become a popular way to market products by adding different fragrances to almost anything.  This, along with the widespread use of air fresheners, means that the air in most houses is heavily polluted with petroleum-based chemicals.

The following chemicals, and any other scented or synthetic products should be removed from the home or at least have their use reduced:

  • Biological washing powders
  • Air fresheners
  • Fabric conditioners
  • Window cleaning fluids
  • All sprays and aerosols
  • Perfumed vacuum cleaner bags and Shake n' Vac-type products
  • Detergents
  • Disinfectants

Not long ago, there were few alternatives for those wishing to avoid chemicals other than to use old-fashioned cleaning products such as plain soaps or sodium bicarbonate to wash clothes and for general cleaning, borax for washing floors, vinegar for cleaning windows, and washing soda for cleaning toilets.  Although these may still be the best things to use for the severely affected or when initially identifying the things that cause adverse effects, there are now a growing number of companies producing more attractive products that are safe for the chemically-sensitive individual to use.  These products are either fragrance-free or are scented with natural plant extracts, and are generally found in health food stores.

Many manufacturers are now producing lines with fewer unnecessary additives.  Products labeled with the following are the ones to look out for:

  • Fragrance free
  • No added color
  • Non-biological
  • For sensitive skin

Just as with cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetic products are a ubiquitous part of modern life.  Unfortunately, nearly all of those in common use are again based on petrochemicals.  The most troublesome are perfumes, aftershaves and deodorants/antiperspirants which by their very nature contain potent VOCs.  Along with these being the most powerful chemicals, another factor that makes them particularly bothersome is that by using them you are constantly exposed to them throughout the day, every day.

Chemical fragrances are also found in almost all other common toiletries from soaps and shampoos down to toilet paper.  Along with perfumed products there are also a number of other powerful chemicals, such as solvents and alcohols, present in products that most people commonly use such as hair sprays and nail polish/nail polish remover.  A basic indicator of the volatility of particular chemicals is how strong they smell so you'll recognize that these products are particularly volatile.

The following is a list of the most common problem products:

  • Fragrances – perfumes, aftershaves
  • Deodorants – sprays, roll-ons, antiperspirants
  • Hair products – Hair spray, gel, mousse, dyes
  • Cosmetics – nail polish and remover, make-up
  • Other toiletries – all fragranced soaps, shampoos and bath products, shaving foam, moisturizers

As with cleaning products, the situation is much better now than it was a few years ago.  Commonly available at the local store (especially health food stores) are pure soaps and shampoos that are fragrance- and additive-free, and which are generally the same price or cheaper than the chemical alternatives.  As with cleaning products, look for products designed for sensitive skin, that are 'fragrance free' and so on.

As an alternative to bath products you can use pure essential oils.  As well as adding fragrance to your bath you will also get the benefits of aromatherapy which depending on the particular oil can relieve a number of symptoms.

Drinking water, prescription drugs, food additives and food containers/packaging are all sources of potentially dangerous chemicals.  Many MCS sufferers find that they can no longer tolerate any prescription drugs due to the severity of the side-effects, or need to use much lower doses than the average person.  The same can be said of foods which contain colors, flavorings and other additives.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a common additive used to enhance flavor that is particularly troublesome.  MSG is an excitory neurotransmitter which is why it commonly causes hyperactivity in children.  Hypersensitivity of the brain is implicated as a cause of MCS, so MSG may cause any number of mood or cognitive problems in sufferers.

Some MCS sufferers even experience symptoms after drinking water from the tap.  Tap water obviously contains chlorine in most countries and also may contain low levels of other chemicals such as pesticides that filter down into the water table.  The levels of these chemicals may be within government guidelines but this is no guarantee that they will not trigger symptoms in those that are sensitive.  It's not commonly known but a substantial amount of chemicals can be absorbed through the skin from the water when you take a bath or a shower.  In fact you'll absorb substantially more chlorine by taking a bath than by drinking a glass of chlorinated water.  Of course hot water in showers and baths may also cause chemicals to evaporate.

Many of the plastics in common use as food packaging materials today, including plasticizers and others, pose serious health hazards as they leech from the container, wrapping or packaging into the food or drink being consumed.  Whenever possible, use hard plastics instead of soft, and better still glass, porcelain or stainless steel.

Water – Drinking water should be either filtered or bottled.  Some of the best filters use a process known as "reverse osmosis", but they waste roughly 70% of the water.  Ceramic/carbon filters may be equally as effective for most people.  You can buy table top filters that filter the water from one tap in your home, usually the kitchen, or you can purchase a whole house filter that is plumbed in at the main supply to the house and provides filtered water to every tap in the house.  Filters are also available that attach to the shower head so you shower in filtered water.  There are also water distillers to be considered.

Bear in mind that bottled water can be more contaminated than tap water.  Some sources have been found to contain high levels of benzene, and chemicals leech into the water from their plastic bottle containers, especially if stored for a long time or at higher temperatures.  Paying 1,000 times as much for bottled water as tap water does not necessarily mean it will be better for you!

Drugs – The prudent thing is to avoid all drugs unless absolutely necessary, particularly those which require substantial metabolism by the liver.  We recommend trying dietary, lifestyle and holistic/naturopathic solutions first wherever possible.

Food Additives – Best to avoid all food additives.

Although the above may not cause overt symptoms relating to your chemical sensitivities, any chemical entering the body requires detoxification and these things will only add to the burden on already overworked detoxification pathways.  As a result they may contribute to worsening of reactions to airborne chemicals.

Chemical Avoidance can help with the following:


Environmental Illness / MCS

Avoidance of chemicals, especially those you are sensitive to, is the first step in treatment.  Face masks and air filters can minimize exposures when total removal is not possible.  Circulating clean air into confined spaces will help, but total removal of oneself from the source should be accomplished whenever possible.


Lupus, SLE (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)

Hair dyes contain high levels of hydrazines and other similar chemicals that are absorbed through the scalp, thus increasing the risk of contracting Lupus. [Am J Med 1983;75: pp.365-70]  Hydrazines are also present in mushrooms, some food dyes, tobacco smoke and some cooked foods, especially meats.


Vulvodynia / Vestibulitis

Carefully avoid all potential irritants in your underwear, such as laundry soaps and bleaches.  You may use a mild non-perfumed soap such as Castile soap and run twice through the rinse cycle.  Perfumed or even plain soaps may aggravate the irritation.  Natural glycerin soap may be helpful as it has no residual drying effects.  A hand-held shower massager is preferable to an overhead nozzle as it makes it much easier to wash away any soap residue that remains after washing.  Washing the vulvar area with distilled water instead of tap water may help avoid irritation from chlorine.  Another way to help painful urination is to pour a cup of water on the area while urinating: this dilutes the urine and helps to wash away any irritating residue.



Avoid exposure to chemical irritants and any other agent that might cause skin irritation.

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Chemical Avoidance can help prevent the following:


Parkinson's Disease

Occupational exposure to pesticides and herbicides has also been linked to a significantly higher risk of developing Parkinson's disease.

Tumors, Malignant

Ovarian Cancer

There is research indicating a potential link between the use of genital talcum powder and ovarian cancer.  Thus, the use of talcum powder between the legs is not recommended.

Breast Cancer

A 1999 study showed the risk of breast cancer was approximately doubled through use of termite or louse control products, a professional lawn service, or playing golf (possible herbicide exposure).

Many sunscreens contain chemicals which are estrogenic and regular use may contribute to breast cancer risk and growth.

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Moderately useful: often helps with; often prevents
Moderately useful:
often helps with; often prevents
Very useful: is highly recommended for; usually prevents
Very useful:
is highly recommended for; usually prevents
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