Millions of new chemicals have been created during the past 50 years, at least 10,000 of which are in regular daily use. Exposure to these chemicals does not cause problems for most people unless the level if high enough to cause poisoning.
Doctors who specialize in environmental medicine believe that, in certain people, long term exposure to low doses of synthetic chemicals causes a form of sensitivity or intolerance. This exposure to chemicals can make the person feel unwell when later on, they come into contact with the same chemical or chemicals, and often when they are exposed to other chemicals and allergens as well.
A similar reaction can occur when a person is exposed to a single dose of a chemical, when the dose is high enough to cause poisoning. Symptoms will show when the person has not completely recovered from the exposure, and they can vary from day to day. They include fatigue, disturbed sleep, nausea, mood changes, headaches, painful joints and muscles, disturbances of memory, inability to concentrate, palpitations and breathing too fast or too deeply.
Unfortunately, obtaining help if you think you are sensitive to chemicals can be difficult. Many doctors dismiss the idea of chemical sensitivity, not least because the symptoms vary greatly and are difficult to confirm.
It is not possible, for example, to prove to someone that you have a headache or can’t think. However, because the severity of your symptoms seems to depend on the total load of chemicals entering the body, you may feel better and have more energy if you avoid chemicals as much as possible and improve your diet. Such changes can strengthen the immune system and help the body deal with the chemicals you cannot avoid.
Allergies and chemical
Research suggests that inhaling certain chemicals affects the immune system, increasing the likehood of its producing an allergic reaction. Other chemicals appear to act as allergens or to have a direct toxic effect. There is increasing recognition that indoor pollution can often be more severe that that found outside.
Problem chemicals include:
- Nitrogen dioxide, from car exhausts and from burning gas for cooking or heating
- Formaldehyde, from cigarette smoke and a wide range of new furnishing and fixtures
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the term used to describe the cocktail of chemicals released from cleaning agents, paints, photocopying machines, furniture glues and varnishes.
What You Can Do – Chemical Sensitivity
- If you think you have chemical sensitivity, try to confirm the diagnosis by finding a doctor who has an interest in environmental problems. Even if this is not possible, you should discuss your symptoms with your doctor to exclude the possibility that your symptoms have another cause.
- Eat a healthful diet. If you are not able to obtain personal professional advice about taking food supplements, consider starting a sugar free, yeast free multi mineral and vitamin preparation.
- Try to identify the causes of your symptoms by starting a food, mood, and symptom diary. For example, your symptoms may occur only at home.
- Reduce your overall exposure to chemicals and other allergens in your home and workplace. It may be best to start in your bedroom, as you spend a third of your life there. Try the mini elimination diet, stage 1, as it excludes many food additives.
Symptoms of a workplace allergy
By definition a workplace allergy is one that is caused by exposure to a chemical or other allergen at work, but allergies can also be caused by exposure to similar substances when they are used in a hobby.
Every year thousands of people have to change their job or hobby because of allergy. The symptoms can include rhinitis, conjunctivitis, urticaria, contact allergic dermatitis, asthma and rarely, anaphylaxis.
Suspect a workplace allergy if your symptoms started soon after you took up new employment or your conditions of employment changes, or when the pattern of your symptoms changes, being present at work or when following your hobby but not at other times. It is important to identify the cause of your symptoms, as avoidance is often the best way to control them. Your primary care occupational physician or dermatologist will be able to help you and to suggest treatment where this is appropriate.