Headaches, wheezing, skin flushing, and blurred vision—these are just some of the symptoms people with an environmental sensitivity may experience.

Triggered by something as common as vehicle exhaust fumes wafting through the car window in rush hour traffic, these symptoms may take hours or even days to subside.

For the approximately 1 million Canadians diagnosed with environmental sensitivities, symptoms range from mild to disabling.

What are environmental sensitivities?

Although there is no standard definition of environmental sensitivities, it typically describes the variety of adverse symptoms and reactions some people have to perfumes, fabric softeners, dust, vehicle exhaust, molds, and fluorescent lighting, among others.

Environmental sensitivities may develop suddenly after exposure to an isolated environmental incident, or they may develop slowly over time and by more than one cause.

The condition is often misunderstood and commonly believed to be psychosomatic. However, a study from Japan debunked this myth, showing that patients with a condition called multiple chemical sensitivity—an aspect of environmental sensitivities—did not have somatic and psychological symptoms in chemical-free conditions, and symptoms were only experienced when exposed to chemicals.

Common physical symptoms

People with environmental sensitivities may experience any number of the following symptoms:

  • heightened sense of smell
  • headaches
  • difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • lack of coordination or balance
  • stuffy nose, blocked ears
  • coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath
  • blurred vision
  • heartburn, nausea, bloating
  • fatigue, lethargy
  • joint and muscle pain
  • rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • flushing, hives, eczema

What triggers them?

Chemical levels that are considered too low to cause harmful effects to most people may trigger adverse symptoms in someone with environmental sensitivities. Sources that trigger symptoms can be challenging to pinpoint and may vary from person to person.

Common triggers

  • paints, varnishes, glues
  • perfumes, personal care products, air fresheners
  • household cleaning products and detergents
  • furniture, carpets
  • vehicle exhaust, tobacco smoke, wood smoke
  • molds or bacteria in structures or ventilation systems
  • fluorescent light bulbs
  • video display screens
  • noise

A recognized disability

Disabilities are often thought of as conditions with a physical impairment that we can see. In general, someone with environmental sensitivities may look fine because we can’t see the symptoms. It is, therefore, considered an invisible disability.

The Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that the Canadian Human Rights Commission issued a policy recognizing environmental sensitivities as disability—a victory for those suffering with the condition.

The policy encourages employers to accommodate people with environmental sensitivities with strategies to minimize symptom triggers. Such strategies include passing fragrance-free policies, reducing chemical use, and notifying workers in advance of upcoming remodelling and construction.

Prevent and cope

Individuals, too, can take steps toward a chemical-free living and work space and avoid exposure to triggers (see below).

Once the trigger has been removed, it’s important to cleanse the body of toxins that have accumulated. Several natural approaches may help to eliminate toxins from your system.

  • Drink plenty of purified water to lower your exposure to water-based contaminants.
  • Engage in regular physical exercise, which may speed up the elimination of toxins.
  • Try a regular or infrared sauna to relax and detoxify the body.
  • Consult your health care practitioner about natural cleansing options with diets, herbs, and supplements.

Additionally, mind-body exercises such as prayer and meditation may ease symptoms and improve quality of life. Adequate sleep, diet, and support from family and friends may also help to cope with uncomfortable symptoms.

If you think you may have environmental sensitivities, it is important to consult your health care practitioner to get the treatment and support you need.


Environmental sensitivities vs. allergies

Although symptoms of environmental sensitivities may appear similar to those of allergies, they are different because only true allergies trigger the immune system to produce antibodies targeted to a specific allergen. For example, when someone with environmental sensitivities is exposed to low levels of the chemical formaldehyde the symptoms may be similar to allergies—hives, red eyes, and runny nose—however, the antibodies are not present in the body.


Where to learn more?

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation offers useful and reader-friendly information and tips for fixing household issues such as humidity, mold, and ventilation. cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/co_001.cfm

The Invisible Disabilities Association of Canada is a nonprofit group that provides support and information to people with environmental sensitivities and other invisible disabilities. nsnet.org/idacan

The Environmental Health Association of Quebec is a nonprofit organization that provides services and support for people with environmental sensitivities. aeha-quebec.ca

The Green Vacation Hub provides tips and accommodation listings for travellers with allergies and environmental sensitivities. greenvacationhub.com


Clean living and working

Here are some helpful tips for reducing environmental irritants at home, at work, and while travelling.

Home

  • Use scent-free and biodegradable cleaning products.
  • Use organic gardening methods instead of pesticides.
  • Avoid plug-in air fresheners or deodorizers; instead try an aromatherapy room mist of lavender, eucalyptus, or peppermint.
  • Take your shoes off before entering your home to avoid bringing in dirt and possible contaminants.

Work

  • Use natural, nonflickering light in your workspace.
  • Situate your workspace away from photocopiers, fax machines, and printers to keep noise and electromagnetic radiation at bay.
  • Hang up your jacket in a closet that is designated for nonsmokers.
  • Take short breaks throughout the day to access fresh air.

Travel

  • Check with your hotel to make sure your accommodation is smoke free and to see if there is an option for fragrance-free cleaning or laundry products in your room.
  • Ensure the room is not near or above busy urban streets with traffic congestion to avoid vehicle exhaust fumes entering the room.
  • Bring a supply of immune-boosting supplements such as vitamin C, probiotics, and astragalus to take while you are away, as travelling can be stressful on the body and being rundown may exacerbate symptoms.

About the Author

Nicole Gottselig is a freelance writer in Vancouver.