Skyrocketing chemical sensitivities have created a “hidden allergy” epidemic,
as even the most commonplace household items can trigger scratching and sneezing fits.
Organic products can help conquer this chemical quandary—and permanently banish
those aggravating allergies from house and home.
You spray them on countertops, wash your face and hair with them, swallow them in foods and swathe yourself in them when you sleep. Chemicals are so much a part of your daily regimen that you probably don’t think twice about why they’re found in nearly every product seen on store shelves, from tee shirts and mattresses to grapefruits and shampoos. If you harbor lingering suspicions that wallowing in these synthetic chemicals can’t be good for your well-being, you’re correct—and adopting an organic lifestyle might be the key to restoring your natural health.
Over time, exposure to the intensive chemicals used in foods and textiles can cause allergies, asthma and other diseases, which arise from the loss of the body’s natural resistance to fight off these invaders. Since World War II, industry has saturated our indoor and outdoor environments with more than 80,000 chemicals; many government-approved pesticides still in use were registered long before extensive research linked them to a myriad of illnesses. Today, the rampant use of chemicals—and the numbers of individuals suffering their ill effects—have prompted some health professionals to coin the phrase “20th Century Syndrome.”
Defined by the National Institutes of Health as a “chronic, recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals,” the ailment also goes by the name multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Like a barrel filling up until it overflows, mounting exposure to chemicals can suddenly cause an allergic reaction. Although much of the conventional medical establishment still has its doubts, a growing legion of practitioners now believe that the body often decides that it’s had enough and plots a coup d’état against a chemical-ridden product.
The immune system malfunctions in this revolt, leading to classic allergy symptoms.
Sometimes, allergy signs aren’t as simple as sneezing; they may also include migraines, breathing difficulties, anxiety, skin irritation, digestive problems, joint and muscle pains, and insomnia. Many individuals have not been officially diagnosed with allergies, but react negatively to the chemicals that are so ubiquitous in our modern world. All told, each year more than 50 million Americans suffer allergic reactions, making it the sixth leading cause of chronic disease in the US.
Just look at the word “pesticide” and you’ll notice the Latin root icide—“to kill.” Pesticides and substances of similar ilk were developed to kill insects, rodents, weeds, bacteria and mold. The Environmental Protection Agency—while claiming to regulate pesticides—acknowledges that 60% of herbicides, 90% of fungicides and 30% of insecticides are known to cause cancer, nerve damage, birth defects and other ailments, and that pesticides can block the absorption of important food nutrients necessary for optimal health. Given these facts, it’s only natural that many individuals suffer allergic reactions when exposed to these toxins.
Besides the 1.5 to 2 billion pounds of chemicals sprayed on fruits and vegetables each year, factory-farmed animals consume feed that is loaded with the same chemicals, which are then passed on to human consumers. Pesticides are doused on sheep and used to pre-treat wool, while cotton uses approximately 25% of the world’s insecticides and more than 10% of the word’s pesticides—requiring roughly one-third of a pound of chemicals to grow enough cotton for just one tee shirt, reports the Organic Trade Association. Meanwhile, homeowners apply an additional 90 million pounds of pesticides to lawns and gardens yearly, and the practice is growing.
It’s no surprise, then, that the average person carries at least 13 pesticides in their body, according to the Pesticide Action Network and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with women and children among the groups disproportionately affected. Long-term, low-dose pesticide exposure increases the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease by 70% (Annals of Neurology 2006), while both Emory University and Britain’s Soil Association determined that foods grown with pesticides contain fewer nutrients and minerals than they did 60 years ago.
Even if you don’t suffer from MCS—can you think of any better reasons to go organic?
Visitors are hard-pressed to find food that isn’t organic at the White household in Corning, New York. That’s because Therese White, who grew up on an organic farm, is allergic to food treated with insecticides and pesticides. “If I don’t eat organic, I have trouble breathing, my asthma kicks in, my sinuses get all clogged up and I’m exhausted,” says White. “I toss and turn and I don’t sleep well, if I sleep at all. My body hurts and I find that, because I’m not sleeping, I get short-tempered and cranky.”
Like Therese, many of us experience so-called “hidden” allergies—environmental sensitivities to the chemicals that surround us. “If you begin to take note of how certain foods, substances and environments affect you on a day-to-day basis, chances are you’ll notice a pattern—and increasingly so as you age,” notes Dr. Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, who treats patients in Portland, Maine. Pick, who suggests maintaining a “wellness diary to connect the dots” between allergens and their symptoms, contends that—despite conventional medicine’s skepticism—hidden allergies and sensitivities are very real ailments which can, over time, deplete the immune system.
“Conventional medicine says that unless we react to something with stereotypical allergy symptoms, we’re not allergic. This is patently untrue; whether the allergic response is an ‘allergy’ or a ‘sensitivity’ is just a matter of degrees,” says Pick. “If your body is giving you signals in the form of symptoms you probably have some kind of sensitivity.” Keep in mind, suggests Pick, that symptoms can occur as much as 72 hours after exposure to the allergen, making it difficult to identify the culprit.
Outwitting Toxins Organically
The growth in allergic reactions helps explain why consumer attraction to organic products is growing steadily. Organic fiber is used in everything from home items such as towels and bedding to personal care products like sanitary products and ear swabs. Other areas where organic fibers are hot include clothing of all kinds, stationery and children’s products, including toys and diapers. Industry pundits are betting that the market for organic textiles has nowhere to go but up, with the Organic Trade Association reporting a 44% surge in sales during 2005. During the same period, sales of organic foods reached an all-time high of $13.8 billion.
So where do you start? “The rule I’ve followed my whole life is one of avoidance or substitution,” suggests Walt Bader, author of The Toxic Bedroom (Freedom Press) and president of Lifekind, a California-based manufacturer of organic mattresses and bedding. “Any product that has chemicals should be avoided. If you can’t avoid the product, then substitute one with fewer chemicals.”
Bader’s rule extends to nearly every aspect of his life, particularly after witnessing the respiratory irritations, itchy eyes and stuffy noses that many customers experience after sleeping on conventional mattresses draped in non-organic linens. “The advantage of organic mattresses or sheets is that it’s an easy fix because they’re so readily available,” he says. “However, people should be aware that it’s more than just their mattresses: It’s the paint they use on their walls, the detergent they wash their clothing in, the chemicals used in their dry cleaning and the deodorizers in their homes.”
Larry Plesent, co-founder of The Green Products Alliance and founder of Vermont Soapworks, which produces a line of organic cleaning products for home and personal use, couldn’t agree more; he got into organics after his own run-in with allergies. “I knew it happened to me, but I knew that people across the country were also experiencing these sensitivities,” says Plesent. “People have reactions because their bodies are overwhelmed by having to constantly battle these chemicals.”
In fact, the road to an allergy-free lifestyle begins with two words: organic overhaul. In addition to sorting through cabinets and throwing out cleansers, cosmetics, soaps and shampoos with chemical ingredients, replace them with homemade and organic products. Cover your bed in organic sheets, blankets and pillowcases, and consider purchasing an organic mattress. Add organic clothing to your wardrobe and start shopping for organic foods. Keeping house—and keeping allergies and sensitivities at bay—means living in a healthier home and eating foods produced with little or no chemicals.
Until all farmers eschew pesticides and insecticides, and manufacturers turn out products made from all-organic materials, the most complete way to avoid allergic reactions is to stay away from the substances that cause them. That day, according to Plesent, may not be too far into the future. “It’s theoretically possible that business can be a channel for social change,” he says. “Our role is to add value to organic products, increasing the demand so more land is put back into organic agriculture.”