Rob Brown, MD

A Physician's Unique Perspective on Wellness

Category: Toxin Inhalation and Contact absorption

Careful! Don’t Mistakenly Poison Yourself at Home

The American Medical Association (AMA) disseminated several media reports, including this AP news report describing a disturbing national increase in the number of accidental poisonings of adults and children in the US. The authors believe these incidents are related to the use of disinfection products in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Most of you are keenly aware of how to avoid inhalation and contact injuries from toxic household cleansers. But, many others have no idea how damaging these chemicals can be to human health. The pervasive fear of catching COVID-19 is certainly understandable, but it is very important to take simple precautions when cleaning your home so you don’t do unnecessary harm to yourself or your family.

First, I rarely recommend harsh chemicals such as bleach as a household cleaning solution. Hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol can both be used to clean surfaces in the home and will both destroy coronavirus. Hydrogen peroxide requires a long contact time ( 6 to 8 minutes) to be effective and is therefore impractical for many surfaces. However, a concentration of >70% isopropyl alcohol will inactivate the virus in 30 seconds. If you choose to use a strong disinfectant like bleach, it is imperative to wear proper gloves made out of a material such as latex or nitrile. This will protect the skin on your hands and prevent chemical absorption through the skin. It is also important to turn fans on and open up windows to provide cross ventilation whenever you use any disinfectant. Fumes from bleach and other harsh cleaning products can damage the airways leading to the lungs, become absorbed into the bloodstream, and make you and your family sick.

Some people are disinfecting their produce with dilute bleach. Please don’t do this. If you have fruits and vegetables you want to wash, use a non-toxic fruit and vegetable spray designed to clean produce. Or, you can simply use a dilute solution of vinegar in water.

Hand sanitizers should be thoroughly washed from your hands before eating. Be aware that videos are circulating on the internet, showing that hand sanitizers are highly flammable. If you are going to cook on an open range or grill, be sure to first wash the sanitizer from your hands, wrists and forearms before engaging an exposed flame.

If you are attempting to disinfect a makeshift face mask by spraying it with bleach or another disinfectant, please don’t! Breathing in these toxic, concentrated vapors may poison you. Clean your mask with soap and water if it is washable. If your mask material is not washable, you’ll need to replace it often. Hospital masks also need to be replaced frequently. Please don’t attempt to spray your mask with alcohol to sanitize it, for the alcohol will damage the mask’s coating, and render it more penetrable to water droplets.

As always, remember to keep all cleaning and sanitizing products away from children. I suggest you place hand sanitizer gel on your children’s hands when appropriate. But otherwise, keep these bottles and dispensers out of their reach.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful. 

Take care and stay well this spring!
 

The Radon Test Ruse

Barry was an experienced home inspector recommended by my real estate agent.

“He’s the best in the business. Extremely thorough!”

Never a good idea, I know, but once the purchase agreement was signed, the home inspections needed to be done quickly. For me, finding references for an inspector in the allotted time frame seemed like a burden. So, I took a chance and listened to the advice of my realtor. Barry was the owner of his company and had been in business for over 35 years!

The inspector was a nice guy with a few gadgets my kids found entertaining. One device could locate hidden sources of moisture and then there was the drone that flew like a giant insect, over the house to visually inspect the roof. I was on board with his demonstration until we went into the basement.

As we walked down the narrow staircase, I noticed an open elongated, rectangular window at the bottom of the stairs. We turned the corner where two other windows were open. The inspector casually closed these two windows and proceeded to the furnace, continuing his inspection. From the furnace, he moved to the sewer line and then to the fuse box. Nob and tube wiring, the old fashioned kind that didn’t have a ground. Great, I thought… more to be updated. I looked beneath the stairs and asked, “Do you think that’s mold?”

“No. That’s paint.”

Then, he changed the subject and asked, “Do you know anything about radon?”

“Actually, yes!” I said.

“So what do you know about radon?” He asked, looking at the wiring with his flashlight.

“I know it’s the most common cause of lung cancer in people who don’t smoke.”

He seemed satisfied. I turned to the realtor and mentioned that we needed to get someone to do the radon inspection.

“It’s taken care of!” He said proudly.

“Who’s doing it?” I asked.

“Barry here is!”

The inspector smiled smugly.

“Yep, got the canisters over there” He pointed over to a workbench where I indeed saw two canisters.

The real estate agent chimed in, “We should have the results of the radon inspection by tomorrow!”

The inspector then went back to the fusebox.

“Wait a second!” I said, “Why were the windows open down here? How can you do a radon test with open windows?”

The inspector seemed a little irritated and said that the windows were now closed.

“There is a window at the bottom of the stairs that is still open!” Now angry, I asked, “Who opened the windows?”

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe the seller. He must have forgotten that we were doing the radon test. I’ll run the test for 4 days, instead of the usual 48 hours to compensate for the windows being opened.”

I wasn’t satisfied. Neither the realtor nor the inspector seemed concerned, but radon isn’t something to play around with. I fired Barry and found a new home inspection company, one that I properly vetted.

The new team reinspected the entire home and ironically, discovered that my future home is filled with toxins. Not only is there lead paint, asbestos, and mold, but the radon levels were measured at 4.9 picoCuries per liter (pCi/l).

Radon levels over 4 pCi/l need to be remediated.

Radon

Radon is found in many areas of the country. It is a byproduct from the natural decay of uranium, thorium and radium, radio-active elements found in the earth’s crust. Studies have suggested that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, “fracking”, has caused an increase in radon concentration within homes in some parts of the country. 

Low concentrations of radon gas are ubiquitous outdoors and are of no concern. But, when radon infiltrates through cracks and seams in a building’s foundation and walls, it can accumulate in stagnant indoor air, particularly in the basement. Remediation is not typically a difficult process and is not costly.

If you haven’t had a radon test done in your home, schedule one. There are several different tests to choose from, ranging from a basic 48 hour test, commonly used for real estate transactions, to more comprehensive long term studies that measure fluctuations in radon over months and during different seasons of the year.

As basic as it sounds, ensure that all of the windows in the home are closed at least 12 hours before the radon test begins and that they remain closed during the entire testing period so the test results are accurate and usable.

Yes, our future 108 year old home contains a myriad of environmental toxins. But, I will be able to remediate them, as needed, now that I am aware to ensure my safety and the well-being of my family.

 

Tide Pods, Magnetic Laundry Tablets or the EcoWasher?

Doing the laundry isn’t a task I particularly enjoy.  It is one of those time consuming chores I continually struggle with to fit into my schedule. And now that my kids are teenagers, the laundry needs to be done 4 or 5 times a week. My interest in the technology behind washing textiles however picked up recently after I was introduced to two methods of laundering clothes without detergent, the magnetic laundry system and the EcoWasher.

Laundry Magnets?

Was it laziness or complacency? I had been given the magnetic laundry system over the holidays, but I was hesitant to try it out. Although I had been using Nikken’s magnetic technology as a tool to heal physical injuries for decades, I was unsure about the ability for magnetics to wash clothing. I played with the idea that maybe the water molecules, in being mini magnets themselves, would somehow align with the magnetic field created by the laundry magnets and that this could somehow make the water more potent at cleaning. But, I was skeptical. The blue magnets remained in their box on the kitchen counter for several weeks.

Then, jokes about the Tide Pod challenge became a more frequent, disturbing conversation in my home at dinnertime. Although we were using a less toxic detergent recommended on the EWG website, it was then that I began to think that if these magnetic discs worked, it would be great way to remove another set of toxins from the household.

You have no doubt heard that some foolish kids on the internet are videotaping themselves biting into and swallowing Tide Pods, a cute name for a pre-measured packet of Tide laundry detergent wrapped up in a shiny coating. The product is soft, colorful and swirled, and looks like a piece of candy. A similar appearing packet of dishwasher detergent is sold by Cascade, another Proctor and Gamble product. I haven’t heard of any YouTube videos of kids eating cascade, and I hope that doesn’t become the next dare!

Yes the packaging is labeled, “harmful if swallowed”, but to a teen, isn’t that so boring? I mean EVERYTHING says that?! And to a younger kid who can’t read, the packets look like flavorful, fruity treats! Tide pods are poisonous. A sampling of 5 ingredients in the Tide Pod formula includes: linear alkylbenzene sulfonate, ethanolamine, alcoholethoxy sulfate, polyethyleneimine ethoxylate, disodium diaminostilbene disulfonate etc. The idea of a child swallowing this batch of chemicals is truly frightening.

My Experience

So, I took my chances, opened up the magnetic laundry system and ran my first load of laundry. I was pleasantly surprised. The clothes did come out clean and without any odor. And trust me, my 15 year old son can make clothing unbelievably rank after a day of exercising or doing track. I did notice on a few articles of clothing that there were faint stains, so the next time I washed them, I pre-treated those items with a stain remover. I have no problem with that for I often use a stain remover with my regular detergent anyway.

I’ve been doing the laundry this way for five weeks now and I have decided that it works! Although it wasn’t something I was conscious of beforehand, I have also come to realize that our clothes no longer have the feel of, what I now recognize as being, dried detergent residue. I now realize that detergent ingredients have permeated my clothing for as long as I can remember.

EcoWasher 

Some people claim that detergent is needed to kill viruses, molds and bacteria. I don’t have any experience with this. I suppose if I have clothing or towels that have mildew in the future and the magnetic system doesn’t clean them adequately, I’ll rewash them with detergent. But, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

If you are looking for a method to wash and sanitize your clothing without chemicals, there is another product on the market called the EcoWasher. This adaptor attaches to the cold water intake valve of your washing machine and infuses ozone into the water, sanitizing your clothing in a similar method to that used in hospitals.. The basic system, The EcoWasher Pro costs around $350 and is available here.

Although I have no personal experience with this system, my good friend, who also happens to be my physician, told me he swears by the EcoWasher and calls the technology “The real deal!”

What to do?

It’s tough to break habits, and laundry is definitely an ingrained routine for many of us. In addition, advertisements and reviews often misrepresent and misinform, no doubt designed to make false claims of a product’s efficacy and to smear the reputation of competing interests. An old friend of mine expressed concern that he read on the Snopes website that the laundry magnets were proven to be a fraud. Over the years, I have noticed that this website, in particular, discredits pretty much anything and everything that isn’t status quo and pro-industry, including many products I love and have used for decades. I don’t make decisions based on the information from these types of sources. If a product sounds interesting to me, I try it out and make my own assessment. Sometimes I am disappointed, but other times I am very pleased. I have found that my joy in life often comes from my own exploration and discovery.

So, I recommend you take a moment to think about your options for laundry. Yes, there are dozens of detergents to choose from, and there are also detergent-free alternatives. It’s not a trivial decision. The chemicals in these cleansers are clearly poisonous if ingested orally, but some of these toxins come in contact with your skin 24/7 from clothing, towels and bed linens. Some of these can be absorbed directly through your skin and insidiously affect your health. Consider this, especially, if you or someone in your home suffers from allergies or other types of inflammatory disease.

3 Toxins the EPA Should Ban but Hasn’t… Yet

I am very concerned about 3 chemicals many of us have in our homes that have been proven to be extremely toxic. Since Scott Pruitt and the EPA recently placed a “hold” on banning these chemicals, we must be cautious and extra vigilant to protect ourselves and our loved ones from these poisons.

A Little Background

The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was created in 1976 in an attempt to clean up our environment and improve the health of the US population. The Act gave the EPA the authority to monitor and restrict the use of chemicals deemed to be environmental hazards. The most notorious toxins removed included asbestos, lead-based paint, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of new chemicals have been developed by industry, placed in everything from paint formulas and food additives to personal care products. The original TSCA excluded chemicals used in food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides! As a result, the health effects associated with long term use of these chemicals has not been determined. Meanwhile, the US population, as a whole, has been getting sicker each year.

In 2016, the TSCA was amended by congress. The updated law calls for the health risk assessment of 10 new chemicals a year. Many of these compounds are found in common products we all use in our homes.  One would think that this kind of scrutiny would have been performed prior to their initial approval, but it wasn’t.

A year ago, on November 29, 2016, the EPA named the 1st 10 chemicals up for review. From the first test group, 3 chemicals discovered to be particularly toxic were named. But, they are not going to be phased out any time soon. Yes, these chemicals are known to be toxic and some cause cancer, but because the current administration doesn’t want to put any more regulations on business, Scott Pruitt and the EPA have delayed the ban of these 3 nasty chemicals…indefinitely!

What are these 3 toxins?

Methylene Chloride 

(dichloromethane)

This organic solvent is added to paint strippers, paint thinners and other paint removal products. metal cleaning and degreasing products. It is volatile organic compound (VOC) and has a sweetish odor. Be cautious of inhalation and skin exposure.

Acute reactions from methylene chloride exposure include confusion, dizziness, headaches, optic neuropathy and inflammation of the liver. There have even been several deaths attributed to inhalation. Long term, exposure to this chemical has been associated with cancer of the lungs, liver and pancreas in laboratory animals. This chemical has also been shown to cross the placenta!

N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP) 

This organic compound is rapidly absorbed by skin, but unlike the other two chemicals in this list, this fluid is nonvolatile at room temperature. Paint and coating removal products and many other household products may contain this chemical, including cosmetics. Even oral and transdermal medications are sometimes prepared using this chemical to assist in drug absorption.

This chemical easily crosses the placenta and exposure to this drug during pregnancy can cause terrible birth defects .

Trichloroethylene (TCE) 

This VOC is a colorless liquid used in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids and spot removers, among other products. This chemical is commonly used by the dry cleaning industry and has even been used as an inhalation anesthetic for short surgical procedures.

TCE has been determined to be carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. It causes kidney cancer and there is evidence that it may also cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma and liver cancer. This chemical is also known to cause birth defects and developmental disorders.

So what can you do?

Follow these general precautions at home when using products such as a paint remover, adhesives, or any other products that emit VOCs.

1.Protect your skin and wear appropriate gloves. 

Latex rubber gloves used for dishwashing, medical gloves and food handling gloves are not adequate to protect yourself from these chemicals. Potent solvents can quickly dissolve through the material most gloves are made of and will subsequently absorb into your skin. A twinge in the nose, a strange sensation in the back of the throat, and/or irritation of the eyes will alert you that you have absorbed chemicals through your skin. Invest in a pair of laminated polyethylene/EVOH, butyl rubber or better yet, butyl/viton gloves to protect yourself from the most dangerous of these chemicals and always use them during potential exposure. Buy your gloves in advance and store them in the garage.

2. Maintain adequate cross ventilation or better yet, work outside when applying products containing VOCs. 

Many people don’t have a trustworthy sense of smell. Understand that you can still get sick from these products, even if you can’t smell them! Also realize that opening a few windows is not enough to keep the inside air from becoming toxic. If you use products containing these chemicals indoors for any prolonged period of time, run large fans in the room in addition to opening several windows. If this is not achievable, invest in a respirator with an assigned protection factor of 10 to reduce your toxin exposure. A NIOSH-certified air purifying elastomeric half mask respirator equipped with N100, R100 or P100 filters will minimize your inhalation exposure.

Check out my blog: A Breath of Fresh Air  and read a frightening personal account of the health effects I experienced from inhaling household paint fumes.

3. Keep all product containers containing VOCs in your garage or in an outdoor shed!

4. Don’t take home dry cleaned clothes that have an odor or are still damp as they may still be off-gassing TCE.

5. Pregnant women should stay away from all paint products! In addition, be critical of any cosmetics you apply to larger surface areas of your body. Investigate your chosen cremes and moisturizers and make sure they don’t contain NMP. 

Although it is certainly disappointing that the EPA has decided not to protect US citizens and the environment as a whole from these 3 industrial toxins, we must all realize that these chemicals represent the tip of an enormous iceberg. We are surrounded by thousands of hazardous chemicals in our daily lives. As a consumer and homeowner, it is important to do your homework and protect yourself as best you can from exposure.

Be Cautious of Toxic Air Fresheners – At Home and on the Road

Are air fresheners toxic? This is an important question — and the short answer is, they can be. Clean indoor air is important. With non-fragrant cleaning materials, indoor plants and an air purifier, my home air is clean, even in the wintertime. I began to take this for granted, until a recent road trip.

I usually try to stay in a mid-range motel or a bed and breakfast. On this past trip though, I had a two-day drive and planned to spend the evening at a motel on the fly after hitting my driving limit. Upon exiting the highway, I pulled up to a roadside motel with a vacancy.

As I walked into the room, it was as if I had been placed into a sealed box filled with a sickly sweet, synthetic chemical odor of potpourri. The scent was overpowering and made me dizzy. I left the room door ajar to air out the room. Why the heck did they dispense so much air freshener in the room? What odor are they trying to conceal?

After washing up, I closed the door and prepared myself for sleep. Despite my dread at spending a night in that chemical laden room, I fell asleep instantly. In the early am, I awoke with a headache. I had planned to “sleep in”, but the odor was back in full force. I needed to get out of that room as quickly as possible.

Many new air fresheners either chemically inhibit receptors in your nose or actually coat the inside of the nose with a thin film of chemicals that work by initially stimulating and then deactivating your sense of smell. Isn’t this a form of poisoning? If one went to a public building that had a technology that temporarily blinded you, would this be acceptable? Why is it that we have allowed products in the marketplace that disrupt one of our important senses?

The ability to smell is important for many reasons. Aromas can attract or repel. Odors can alert us to danger such as fire, spoiled food or the presence of toxins. Pleasant smells can create a sense of calm and peace. Nerves travel directly from the nose and into the brain, stimulating memory centers, bringing to consciousness associations we have had with that scent in the past. We have all had recollections of loved ones and past experiences brought on by a particular scent, describable and indescribable.

Our sense of smell works in concert with our sense of taste.

Although the headache cleared after my escape from the motel room, after arriving to the beach, I was still marred by the air freshener. I hope anyone asking themselves, “Are air fresheners toxic?” will consider the lingering effects of this experience. 

I treated myself to a lobster dinner, but the food was tasteless. Because my sense of smell had been deactivated, I couldn’t smell or properly taste my food.

It took several days before my sense of smell returned and all was good. If I had continued exposure to that toxin, I would have lost my sense of smell for the whole week.

Many people purchase these carpet sanitizing and deodorizing products for use in their homes. Through daily exposure, these materials have inflicted a chemically induced anosmia on themselves and on their housemates/family.

If there is an offensive smell in your home, remove the source, don’t masque the odor with chemicals that take away your ability to smell. In addition to being able to “smell the roses,” you will enjoy an enhanced sense of taste.

See also: Making Drinking Water Safe at Home.

A Breath of Fresh Air

As I sat on the gurney, with my nose packed with petroleum jelly gauze, VOCs in paint were far from the top of my list of immediate concerns. 

I recapped the events of the past few hours. We had been eating dinner out with neighbors when the bleeding started again, but this time it wouldn’t stop. I had leaned against the bathroom wall with wads of toilet tissue clamped on my nose for what had been at least 30 minutes. Based on experience, this should have been long enough. But when I let up on the tissues, drip, drip, drip. Annoyance at this inconvenience turned into anger. My dinner must have been cold and the others at the table were probably wondering what had happened to me. Then, my anger began to turn into fear. What the heck was going on? Why was I hemorrhaging out of both nostrils? I had had nosebleeds on occasion, but this was unlike anything I had ever experienced.

In my mind, I ran through the disease categories: trauma, infection, tumor, metabolic, congenital… These nose bleeds had started 4 days ago, and were unusual for this time of year. The first few were mild and easily stopped by applying pressure. I had painted the living room earlier in the week with a textured faux plaster that looked really great. I had opened the windows and doors during the daytime to make sure there was good cross ventilation, but then I wondered: Could these nosebleeds be related to the paint?

When the bleeding finally stopped, the ER doc came back into the room and with a “scope”, peered up into my nose. He remarked that he didn’t see anything but severe irritation. I asked him if he thought the bleeding could be related to the house paint, but he said flatly, “No.” He wrote a referral for me to follow up with an ENT, just to make sure I didn’t have an underlying tumor which he thought could possibly be causing the bleeding.

When I got home, I walked into the house and promptly smelled the faint odor of paint fumes that still lingered. My suspicion was that the paint was, indeed, the cause of this expensive, inconvenient hospital visit. I opened up the windows, turned on the ceiling fans and started to search out all I could about paint. Now, many of you are probably well aware of the group of chemicals called volatile organic compounds and the concerns around VOCs in paint. I had heard about them at some point, but I must have filed this information in some corner of my mind. In any case, like my friendly ER physician, this knowledge was inaccessible and certainly incomplete.

VOCs in paint and other products are organic compounds, technically meaning they are molecules which contain a carbon atom and are in a gaseous state at room temperature. There are thousands of different naturally occurring and synthetic VOCs used in industry, each with their own chemical characteristics. VOCs can irritate the eyes and the lining of the nose, which certainly explained my nose bleeds. But, the body’s exposure and reaction to VOCs doesn’t end in the nose. During each breath, these gases travel along in the air, up into your nasal cavity, and circulate through your sinuses. From there, these gases travel down into the lungs. Along the way, they pass through the voice box, known as the larynx, the bronchi and subsequently into smaller and smaller branching airways called bronchioles. VOCs can cause irritation and resulting inflammation of any of these passageways. These “conditions” are called sinusitis, laryngitis, bronchitis and bronchiolitis, respectively. Asthma, a condition of hyper-reactive airways, can certainly be exacerbated by VOCs. Although still controversial in the medical literature, it certainly seems possible that asthma may even be caused by chronic exposure to VOCs. Once the VOCs enter the terminal air passageways in the lung, called the alveoli, they are then able to enter the blood stream. This river of fluid, cells and proteins then carries VOCs to every part of your body. The health consequences attributed to having VOCs disseminate throughout your body are varied and ultimately depend on the specific VOC, the concentration and the duration of exposure. VOCs in paint and other materials present a variety of problems: Some VOCs are well known as carcinogens. The effects of others are unknown. Common sense would dictate though that one should to try to reduce their exposure to anything that causes irritation and inflammation.

VOCs in paint are the beginning, not the conclusion of concerns: They’re added to almost everything, including those materials used to make your home as well as those items you place in your home. Construction materials, lacquers, glues, cleaning products, deodorants, candles, paper towels and even grocery bags may contain VOCs. Even though it would be next to impossible to eliminate all VOCs from your home, it is possible to reduce their concentration. During the summer, it’s really simple: Open the windows. When several windows are left open, a cross ventilation occurs, and VOCs will get flushed out as the interior air becomes replaced with outside air. In the winter though, when windows are opened less frequently, VOCs can build up to dangerously high levels. Newer homes are particularly prone to this “sick building” phenomenon because they are built air tight to eliminate drafts and improve the efficiency of heating systems.

In the winter, another mode of extraction is necessary. Although air purifiers are important for removing particulates, another component of air pollution, air purifiers do not remove VOCs. The simplest way to reduce your home’s interior’s VOC concentration is to house potted plants. It was recently discovered that plants metabolize VOCs and turn them into nutrients. Some plants have been shown to be more adept at absorbing VOCs than others. But, pretty much any house plant will help. The more toxic you suspect your indoor air is, the more plants you should invite to live in your home. Not only will plants purify the air, they will fortify the air with oxygen.

Interesting but true, a few months after my ordeal, one of my work colleagues came into my office to discuss a case. She was holding a wad a tissues up to her nose. I looked at her questioningly. She acknowledged embarrassingly that she was having nosebleeds for some reason and then proceeded to tell me about how she just loved the new color she chose for her bedroom.

When the label says “use in a well ventilated area,” they really do mean it!

See also: Making Safe Drinking Water at Home

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