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The best thing you can do to manage your environmental sensitivities is to minimize your exposure to known triggers and to substances that could potentially be harmful. Do this work slowly, in stages, and, if possible, ask family or friends to help.

At home | At work | Remove yourself from the problem | Public policy

At Home

Thoroughly inspect your home, one room at a time. Start with the things you know trigger symptoms and are the easiest and least expensive to change. Here are some suggestions for making your home more environmentally safe:

Keep dust to a minimum.

  • Consider wearing a mask when cleaning, to filter out dust particles.
  • Dust with a damp cloth.
  • Decrease the number of “dust collectors” in your home by removing knick-knacks, decorative pillows and stuffed animals.
  • Reduce clutter, particularly paper and books, which collect dust. Keep papers in a desk and books in a cabinet with glass doors, if possible.
  • If you do not have a central vacuum cleaner that vents outside, use a high efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) vacuum cleaner, if possible.

Prevent mould growth.

  • Repair any water leaks promptly (it takes less than 48 hours for mould to grow on wet materials).
  • Reduce the humidity in your house to 30 to 50 percent to prevent mould growth. You can measure the humidity in various rooms in your home with a hygrometer from the hardware store. Use a fan or a dehumidifier if needed.
  • Get rid of any mouldy items.
  • Do not store items in cardboard boxes – use moisture-proof storage containers.
  • Decrease the number of plants in your home as mould spores are released into your indoor air from the soil.

Reduce your exposure to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in cleaning, laundry and personal care products.

  • Make your own non-toxic cleaning products from items such as baking soda, vinegar and pure soap or buy cleaning products labelled “non-toxic” that do not have warning logos and contain no perfumes or dyes.
  • Avoid using “air fresheners” or “air care” products, which do not remove odours, but merely mask them by adding potentially harmful VOCs to your indoor air.
  • Air out new items and clothing before using them.
  • Avoid dry cleaning, or at least air out dry-cleaned clothes before returning them to closets.
  • Avoid using perfumes, laundry detergents, fabric softeners and chlorine bleach.
  • Use unscented deodorant, lotion, shampoo, aftershave and other personal care products.
  • Avoid wearing perfume or cologne, and ask family and friends to avoid wearing perfumed products around you.

Avoid pesticides and herbicides.

  • Avoid pesticides and herbicides, both indoors and outdoors. Use baits and traps instead, and seal points where pests could potentially enter your home.
  • If possible, eat organic foods.

Choose flooring, furnishings and renovation materials carefully.

  • Consider replacing wall-to-wall carpets with hard surface flooring. If you want some kind of rug or carpet on top, use washable area rugs.
  • Choose new furnishings that don’t have a strong odour. Be aware that pressed wood and particle or chipboard in furniture emits formaldehyde over a prolonged period. Formaldehyde is a known irritant, allergen and carcinogen.
  • Use low-VOC, water-based paints.
  • Contain renovation areas, and ventilate them well after completing the renovations and before returning to the space.
  • Consider purchasing an air purifier with a HEPA filter and activated carbon to filter out both particulates and some VOCs.

Create an oasis.
Ideally, you will want to eliminate pollutants from your entire home. But if this is not possible, create an "oasis" – one room in your home that is free from as many problem items as possible. Many people choose to make their bedroom an oasis, as this is the room where they spend the most time.  

To turn your bedroom into an oasis, follow these steps:

  • Empty the room completely.
  • Clean the walls, floors and windows using non-toxic products.
  • Wash the drapes, pillows, sheets, bed covers and throw rugs in hot water to kill dust mites. If these items are made from synthetic materials that bother you, replace them with products made from natural, untreated fibres (like cotton, linen, silk or wool).
  • Wash your sheets and pillowcases in hot water regularly (at least once a week).
  • Replace old pillows that cannot be washed in hot water, and cover new pillows with mite-proof cotton protectors. If you are sensitive to synthetic foam or feather pillows, try pillows filled with organic cotton, buckwheat, kapok or even cotton towels.
  • Cover your mattress and box spring with cotton covers that dust mites cannot penetrate, and wash the covers in hot water as often as possible.
  • Return to the room only the items that you can tolerate. Ask yourself: Does the item smell? Has it been painted recently? Has it been treated with chemicals, such as synthetic fragrances, waterproofing or mothballs? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may want to get rid of the item.
  • Solid wood or metal furnishings are generally better tolerated than those made from fibreboard or chipboard, which off-gas formaldehyde.
  • As new carpets can off-gas VOCs, and old carpets can retain dirt, dander, bacteria, mould and mites, consider not having carpet in the room. If desired, scatter rugs made from natural fibres that can be washed frequently, could be used.
  • Keep toys, knick-knacks, books and magazines out of the room, as they collect dust.
  • Keep the bedroom door closed during the day, and free from dry-cleaned goods, frequently worn shoes, sports equipment and dirty laundry.
  • Clean the room regularly and thoroughly. Wear a mask while cleaning, to avoid inhaling dust.
  • Keep pets out of the room.
  • Keep the bedroom door open when sleeping, to prevent the build-up of carbon dioxide.

For more information on common indoor exposures, or for tips on making other rooms in your home "environmentally healthy," see the section on Indoor Air.

At Work

It may be more difficult to make changes within your workplace than at home. The types of exposures you encounter at work will depend upon the industry you work in and the type of work you do. The risk of being exposed to chemicals and other toxins is higher in some industries than others. These include:

  • Agriculture
  • Construction
  • Dry cleaning
  • Firefighting
  • Manufacturing (plastic products, textiles, fabricated metals, transport equipment, clothing, furniture and others)
  • Mining
  • Printing and publishing
  • Hotel industry
  • Pest control

Other occupations that may not appear to put people at risk can also expose workers to environmental contaminants. For example, some teachers are exposed to mould in older, poorly maintained schools and portable classrooms, and many are also regularly exposed to chalk dust, markers and art supplies. Hairdressers are exposed to a number of VOCs and heavy metals in hair dyes, perm solutions and other treatments. Many office workers spend the day in poorly ventilated buildings. Several items commonly found in offices can contribute to poor indoor air quality, including:

  • Photocopiers, which emit VOCs, particulates and ozone
  • Liquid paper, glues, carbonless paper, toners for photocopy and fax machines
  • Computers, which emit electromagnetic radiation, and may release ozone and VOCs
  • Carpets, which can collect dust, mould, bacteria, pesticides and dirt
  • Desks, partitions and other furniture made from particle-board, which off-gas formaldehyde and other VOCs
  • Cleaning products that have warning logos or contain fragrances
  • Perfumes and other scented personal care products on employees

If you are experiencing symptoms you think are related to environmental exposures at work, talk with your supervisor. In Canada, employers have a legal duty to accommodate people with disabilities, including people with ES. Employers have a duty to take every step available to them, to the point of “undue hardship,” to remove any discriminatory barriers and ensure that all their programs and activities are inclusive of the needs of a diverse workforce. Accommodations are your legal right. Accommodations for people with ES may make the work environment healthier for everyone who works in it. (To read more about relevant laws, click here.)

Here are some examples of accommodations:

  • purchasing a portable HEPA and charcoal-containing air filter
  • providing a workstation that is near a window that opens and away from off-gassing equipment, such as the photocopier
  • developing and enforcing a scent-free policy  
  • allowing employees to work from home when possible
  • avoiding the spraying of chemicals or, if necessary, informing workers beforehand so that they can stay away during the spraying and for a period afterwards

Remove Yourself from the Problem

Sometimes it is not so easy to change your immediate environment, for example, at the mall where you shop or in your workplace. In these cases, it is best to get out of the building or room in which your symptoms are being triggered, as quickly as possible, leave the area and "get some air."

If problems persist in an environment that you need to enter regularly (for example, your workplace, school or place of worship), you may need to work with others to improve the environment or make special accommodations.

As you “clean up” your environment and adopt healthier habits, your symptoms may be triggered less frequently. Your tolerance for problematic substances may gradually improve, although you may go through a period of a few weeks or months where symptoms, whenever they are triggered, are more noticeable. Although your tolerance may gradually improve, unfortunately, it probably won’t return to what it was, and you will likely remain more sensitive than others to these substances.

Public Policy

Canadian law prohibits discrimination against people with ES and other disabilities and requires that they be accommodated. As environmental illnesses become more widely recognized, there are more and more laws and policies that protect people from environmental contaminants, such as no-smoking laws, pesticide bans, policies that prohibit perfumes and reduced use of toxic chemicals.

To read about Canadian policy on ES, click here to visit the Canadian Human Rights Commission website.

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