By Claudia S. Miller, MD, MS, professor emeritus in the department of family and community medicine
Is it possible that one or more common household chemicals are making you ill? If so, how and why would they cause such a reaction?
There is a two-stage process called toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, or TILT, which may explain this cause-and-effect relationship.
First, there is a major or chronic exposure to environmental agents such as pesticides, solvents or indoor air contaminants. Then, multi-system symptoms are triggered by a series of lower-level exposures to substances you may have previously tolerated like cleaning products, fragrances, foods, drugs or food and drug combinations.
In our 2021 study, including researchers from UT Health San Antonio, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the AIM Center for Personalized Medicine, we discuss a phenomenon called mast cell activation syndrome and mediator release as a catalyst for chemical intolerance.
Mast cells are considered the immune system’s initial responders. They originate in the bone marrow and travel to the interface between tissues and the external environment where they then reside. These warriors spring into action if they perceive a major threat from foreign substances like viruses or chemicals, and can release more than a thousand inflammatory molecules called mediators to thwart the perceived threat. This results in allergic reactions, inflammation and illness.
To determine if you may have a chemical intolerance, take the three-question Brief Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory, or BREESI, developed by researchers at UT Health San Antonio.
- Do you feel sick when you’re exposed to tobacco smoke, certain fragrances, nail polish/remover, engine exhaust, gasoline, air fresheners, pesticides, paint/thinner, fresh tar/asphalt, cleaning supplies, new carpet or furnishings? By sick we mean: headache, difficulty thinking, difficulty breathing, weakness, dizziness, upset stomach, etc. Yes /No
- Are you unable to tolerate or do you have adverse or allergic reactions to any drugs or medications (such as antibiotics, anesthetics, pain relievers, X-ray contrast dye, vaccines or birth control pills), or to an implant, prosthesis, contraceptive chemical or device, or other medical/surgical/dental material or procedure? Yes /No
- Are you unable to tolerate or do you have adverse reactions to any foods such as dairy products, wheat, corn, eggs, caffeine, alcoholic beverages, or food additives (e.g., MSG, food dye)? Yes /No
If the answer is yes to any item, next take the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory, or QEESI, to determine whether you may be more chemically intolerant/susceptible.
Thirty percent of U.S. adults fit the criteria for chemical intolerance. If you or anyone in your household fits the QEESI criteria for chemical intolerance or if you or anyone you know is chemically intolerant and plans to have a baby, it’s especially important to avoid exposure to substances that may be causing the intolerance. This is also the case for kids in early childhood, when their neurons are growing rapidly and wiring together.
Here are five household items you may wish to avoid if you or a loved one has a chemical intolerance.
Scented personal care products.
Choose unscented personal care products, including soaps, cosmetics, deodorants. Remove all products that have strong odors including cleaning products, pesticides, perfumes/colognes, scented lotions, deodorants, cosmetics, candles, air fresheners (including plug-ins and diffusers).
Scented laundry products.
Since clothing and bedding are near your breathing zone, choose unscented laundry products. Remove all laundry products that have strong odors because fragrances are complex mixtures of synthetic chemicals.
Avoid spraying anything into the air, whether disinfectants, air fresheners, hair spray, bug sprays or anything else. No one should have to inhale those. Avoid any aerosol sprays (such as hair spray) because the tiny droplets are easily inhaled.
Burning anything indoors.
Smoke and combustion gases irritate the lungs. Do not permit smoking, vaping or the burning of candles or incense. Do not use fireplaces, open-flame gas heaters or unvented water heaters. Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Never heat your home using a gas stove, gas oven or a hibachi. If you move or purchase new appliances, electric stoves and other electric appliances are the better health option.
Use only unscented, nontoxic cleaners at home. Here are some recipes below:
You will need these supplies:
- Plastic bucket
- Empty spray bottle
- Plastic storage container
- One-gallon jug for storage
- Microfiber cloths
- Two-sided cleaning sponge
- Small funnel
- Baking soda
- Washing soda
- Fragrance-free dish soap
- White vinegar
- Lemon juice
Glass or window cleaner
- ½ cup vinegar
- 1½ cups water
Mix vinegar and water together in spray bottle. Spray on glass and use a soft cloth or paper towels to wipe clean. This doubles as an everyday shower spray to prevent mold buildup.
Toilet bowl cleaner
- ½ cup baking soda
- ¼ cup dish soap
- ½ cup vinegar
- 1 gallon hot water
- Lemon juice (if desired)
Pour baking soda, dish soap and hot water into the toilet bowl and scrub to clean and disinfect. Pour vinegar on stubborn rings and calcium buildup, then scrub to remove. Use lemon juice to deodorize.
All-purpose cleanser for scrubbing
- 1½ cups baking soda
- ½ cup fragrance-free dish soap
Place dish soap in a storage container and gradually add baking soda until completely combined. Use this mixture to scrub sinks, faucets and tile with a sponge. Rinse and dry.
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp baking soda
Mix baking soda and lemon juice. Apply this mixture to grease that is stuck on stove or oven. Let it set for one minute. Scrub with sponge.
- 3 Tbsp borax
- 2 Tbsp washing soda
- 2 Tbsp dish soap
- 4 cups hot water
Place ingredients in a one-gallon jug and swirl until dissolved. Let liquid cool, then fill almost to the top with cold water. Use 1 cup per load.
- ¼ to ½ cup vinegar (depending on load size)
Add vinegar to the rinse cycle. Or, pour into the fabric softener compartment of your washer. Run washer on any cycle as usual.
- 1 cup vinegar
- ½ cup baking soda
- 1 Tbsp dish soap
- 1 gallon hot water
Slowly mix 1 cup vinegar and ½ cup baking soda together in a bucket (this mixture will bubble, but it is not hazardous). Add dish soap and hot water. Use a mop or sponge to wipe the floor down. Let it air dry or dry with a towel.