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Hidden risks of lurking chemicals

Friday 2 December 2011


From The Sydney Morning Herald:


Katherine McIntosh
Katherine McIntosh lives in a tent because she has
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and is unable to live
in a normal house.
(Photo: Angela Wylie)

Hidden risks of lurking chemicals

Julia Medew, Health Editor
November 30, 2011

AUSTRALIANS are exposed to chemicals linked to cancer, diabetes and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder every day, a population health expert says.

Dr David Carpenter, the director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at the University of Albany in New York, said governments needed to provide more information to people about the risks from common chemicals including lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

He said that although some of the chemicals had been banned in Australia, they persisted in the environment, including in people's homes and in food. ''Most homes built before 1980 still have leaded paint. When young children in these homes put things in their mouths, or people renovate, they can still be exposed.''

Dr Carpenter said research had found strong links between exposure to lead, PCBs and solvents with developmental problems including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Solvents are found in many common products, including household cleaners, carpets and nail polish remover.

He said a study had found that people with high levels of PCBs in their blood had 30 times the risk of diabetes compared with others. Dr Carpenter's comments came as the federal government yesterday said it would continue to investigate ways of lowering acrylamide in foods after the World Health Organization last year said it could cause cancer in animals.

Acrylamide is a chemical that can form in starchy foods during cooking. It has been found in fried or roasted potato products, coffee, and cereal-based products.

However, Catherine King, the Parliamentary secretary for Health and Ageing, said the latest study of Australian food confirmed its overall safety.

Dr Carpenter said it was also time for doctors and governments to recognise that a controversial condition known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity was real.

People with the condition present with a complex array of symptoms including fatigue and shortness of breath when they are exposed to low levels of chemicals. However, some believe it is psychological.

A review of the condition by the Australian Government, published last year, said only limited surveys of the prevalence of chemical sensitivities and MCS in the community had been conducted. South Australian health surveys found 0.9 per cent of people had been diagnosed with the condition.

Germany is the only country in the world to have listed MCS in their natural disease classifications and there are no standardised treatments available.  Most people are told to avoid the agents that trigger their symptoms and to make dietary changes and have behavioural therapy.

Victorian music teacher Katherine McIntosh said the condition had forced her to live in a tent for about two years because she felt sick whenever she was exposed to a range of common household chemicals, including rubber, cosmetics, soaps, solvents and cleaning products.

Symptoms include extreme fatigue, migraines, fever, a swollen throat and severe dizziness and she says she is operating at about 30 per cent of the energy levels she had before she was diagnosed with the condition about four years ago.

Since diagnosis, she has struggled to live in normal houses and about two years ago, a friend allowed her to camp on their property.

‘‘After just a few weeks I noticed such a positive difference in my health that I asked the owners of the property if I could stay for longer. I have now been there for more than 18 months, but at any time they could decide that this arrangement isn’t suiting them and then I will have to find somewhere else to go,’’ she said.

But Ms McIntosh said camping had taken its toll on her because it required a huge amount of effort to do everyday tasks. She sleeps in a tent with the door open to allow out any toxins and when it’s too cold she sleeps in a caravan with the windows open. She has a special organic cotton mattress and uses a toilet dug in the ground.

She showers using buckets and, when it is too cold, drives to a friend’s place to shower a couple of times a week.

Ms McIntosh said friends and family had raised $74,000 to help her buy a non-toxic mudbrick home, but another $320,000 was needed. A committee has been set up to take donations.

She said she hoped more researchers would look into the condition to find treatments because it was difficult to be dismissed as having a psychological illness when the physical symptoms were so real.

‘‘Having MCS makes it extremely difficult to live a ‘normal’ life in our society where toxic chemicals are ubiquitous and I have had to make many adjustments to the way I go about my everyday life,’’ she said.

‘‘It’s very difficult to live like this. I really hope people start taking the condition more seriously.’’

To help Katherine buy a non-toxic home, email:


The above originally appeared here.


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