Are You a Modern Canary?

Canary blue

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is cross-posted from Dr. Claudia Miller’s excellent blog, here, where she writes about her fascinating work on intolerance to chemicals and their impact on health. Thanks so much to Dr. Miller and her team!

When I recently filled out a helpful questionnaire on chemical intolerance, the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory (QEESI), or “Queasy” as I like to call it among friends, a screw-shaped light bulb went off. (Compact fluorescent, of course.)

According to the results of this scientifically validated tool for measuring sensitivities to toxins in our environment, I am on the “high” end for both exposures and symptoms, meaning that I don’t tolerate smells like gasoline and off-gassing furniture well.

The survey powerfully showed why I obsess about such things, while other people may shrug them off. Seeing how I scored was important to me because it identified some common sources for the headaches and other discomfort I often experience following exposure to an unpleasant chemical-laden odor.

Most of the things listed on the QEESI, which is a quick inventory, as the name implies, including bleach-based cleaning supplies or a “new car” smell, can make me feel a bit off, even in small doses. I still remember being newly pregnant in a Washington, D.C., wintertime and driving with the windows way down, the cold wind in my face, because freezing was far preferable to the vinyl smell emanating from my brand-new Nissan, especially given my bionic nose from the pregnancy!

But that sensitivity hasn’t gone away since I had my daughter, either. And I’m not the only one who’s bothered by the fragrances crowding our environment. A recent article in a UK newspaper notes that: “One leading expert suggests nearly a third of people suffer adverse health effects from being exposed to scents.”

The article explains:

“Allergies are on the increase, and the amount of perfumed products is also on the rise,” says Dr. Susannah Baron, consultant dermatologist at Kent & Canterbury hospital, and BMI Chaucer Hospital. “Fragrance allergy can show up as contact dermatitis in the site a perfumed product is applied, or as a flare-up of existing eczema. It can be a real problem.” …

Often it may not be immediately obvious that you’ve developed a fragrance allergy, says Dr. Baron. “You don’t react immediately; the body notes that it does not like the chemical and develops ‘memory cells,’ which cause inflammation when the body is next exposed to this chemical. Gradually, as you are exposed more and more, the body ramps up its reaction, until it becomes more noticeable to you.”

As the designer of the QEESI tool, Dr. Claudia Miller, an immunologist and allergist, explains based on her many years of research, that biological response is to the chemicals being used to produce the fragrances. Her pioneering work shows that exposures to chemicals of all kinds – not just the smelly ones – can and do trigger a loss of tolerance in some people, causing ill health.

And the simplest things can lead to new exposures, such as our recent utterly ridiculous adventures with installing a generator for our home. We often lose power, and so the prospect of Hurricane Sandy barreling down on us caused a run to the store and triggered a panicky purchase of a generator to help see us through.

Turned out we didn’t need to use it, and instead bought ourselves a world of trouble. In fact, what I didn’t know about it can be counted on all my fingers and toes in the dark, including the substantial extra costs of having an electrician hook it up properly, and the excruciating task of filling tanks up with gasoline, poised over the wafting fumes to ensure that I didn’t overfill the tanks and spill it all over my shoes.

To complete the misadventure, a small amount of gasoline did get inside my car, rendering it nastily smelly once more. To get the odor out, I tried everything – wiping it down with baby oil, auto cleaners, and baking soda. Repeatedly.

Then I finally took it to a detail shop, and paid them a small fortune to use completely toxic cleaning supplies on the floor and seats. The smell has diminished, but it’s not gone, and it’s mingling with all the cleaners for a soupier feel. I still drive with the windows open and leave them all cracked while parked, at least when there’s no rain coming.

Contrary to what most folks think when they imagine what we are doing to “the environment,” indoor air is far more polluted than that outdoors. Given the number of people whose symptoms have been identified by the QEESI, I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that something is very wrong when the places we build – to live in, no less – are not particularly safe or comfortable for at least some living things.

So if you are like me, and these kinds of odors bother you as you go about your day-to-day, you may want to take the QEESI (which is free) and see how and why they may be impacting you. And to learn what may be “masking” their effects, so that you don’t know where the headaches are coming from.

Even more pointedly, suppose you go on vacation and get a break from these exposures and feel suddenly better, which happened to a friend of mine, then you may want to start clearing your house of odoriferous chemicals and plastics to see if it makes a difference. It certainly did for her.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the lucky ones who feels just fine in this man-made world of olfactory offenders, well, then, you can snicker at us anti-chemical folk if you’d like to. But you may also want to think about whether those of us with the higher QEESI scores – and the concomitant fascination with “greening” our homes – are actually canaries in a mineshaft.

Tweet, tweet, I say, a bit sadly.

And because I’m a modern bird: Retweet? Are you a canary too?

Playdough Showdown: Fake vs. Natural but Unimpressive

Mr. Belligerently Artificial vs. Mr. Give-Me-Four-More

Sigh. Sometimes the right candidate doesn’t make such a strong showing. On occasion, the better politician is all downwards-looking, weak and vague, and even seems slightly embarrassed about his own record.

Sometimes such a candidate disappointingly lets every single opportunity for a zinger go by, and spends almost an entire debate talking about the flaws in his opponents’ phantasmagorical policy proposals rather than focusing on stonewalling he’s faced from his opponents’ partisans, or on, say, math.

And sometimes the artificial — even the utterly invented and commercially suspect — triumphs, in a brilliant show of plumage, like a peacock made only of lights and sound.

Such was the depressing outcome of my playdough showdown yesterday, pitting food dyes against natural colors for home-made playdough in a twisted mom’s homage to both the Presidential match-up and the playdough-like consistency of our national political debates.

When tasked several weeks ago by Maya’s preschool to make up a batch of brilliantly colored blue playdough for a color study, my research showed that blue in natural coloring is typically achieved by boiling red cabbage. Furthermore, it seems, sometimes this particular playdough retains a strong cabbage-y odor, or, in Thrifty Mama’s words, “really stinks” and is “tacky” in texture.

I will note that there is no odor on the blue dough from my wonderful Eco-Dough, which I gather also uses red cabbage, but they likely have fancy ways of extracting dyes that I do not.

Having no desire to stanky up the preschool, I violated my principles and ordered the most assertively blue food-dye I could find, which worked like a charm. If you’re gonna’ go fake, go big. It was blue, all right, and not at all smelly.

Since the kids are unlikely to eat the dough, I really didn’t feel that it posed much of a risk. (There is a lot of evidence generally that food dyes are terrible to actually consume, though they are fed to kids like, well, candy.)

Still, when a follow-up was given to me to tackle orange playdough, I couldn’t help but wonder about the natural alternatives to the small bottle of “peach” dye that came as part of the set. So I set up a head-to-head — an oh-so-titillating contest (I don’t get out much) between the dye and the power of paprika, which was recommended on several blogs for producing orange.

It looked good at first, with the bright orange paprika promising to school the buttoned-up bottle.

I used this basic recipe both times, which works really well. There are no-cook options, but the preschool teacher mentioned that the cooked ones have much more staying power.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
  • 1/3 cup salt
  • 1 tablespoon oil (I used olive, but suspect any oil would do)
  • natural or (gasp) artificial food coloring

Directions:

Add all the ingredients to a large pot (bigger the better) and stir over medium heat until it starts to clump around the spoon.

Add dye or coloring and stir a little more. You can — and even perhaps should by all rights — take it off the stove for a minute to let your assistant take a turn.

After a minute or two, remove from heat and scrape onto a cutting board. When cool enough, knead firmly until the color and consistency are uniform. Shoo kids away until you are done playing.

###As you can see, the paprika on the left, which was the good stuff from Bulgaria courtesy of my folks, produced a very disappointing light orange-ish hue, like pumpkin flavored pasta. On the other hand, the food dye, corrected with a squirt of the yellow that came in the same box, morphed into a convincing, if not bright, orange.

Ah well. We can’t win them all. And my little contest was, well, slightly less important than that other one.

It’s possible that I should have considered a third party for the platform — perhaps carrot juice works better? I suppose if you are using this at home, slightly orange-y might be fine next to other colors dyed with more assertive beets, berries and the like. (There are great ideas on this from one of my favorite crafty green bloggers here.)

In the end, I mushed it all together and bagged it up as orange enough. Punching the dough into a pliable mass was satisfying in between muttering at the television.

Still, it’s frustrating when the one you know to be best for the country stumbles a bit, and lets the insubstantial, chemical-laden candidate win the day.

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