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Environmental Health

Our guest experts in August 2010 were members of the Environmental Health Team from Women’s College Hospital’s Environmental Health Clinic.

Women’s College Hospital’s Environmental Health Clinic is the only one of its kind in Ontario. The clinic not only provides comprehensive assessments and health recommendations for people with environmental sensitivities, but also educates its own clients, the public and health-care professionals about environmental health issues.

The environmental health team promotes environmental health and works to improve care for people with environmentally linked conditions such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivities. The multidisciplinary team includes:

  • Dr. Riina Bray, medical director
  • Dr. Kathleen Kerr, staff physician and research liaison
  • Dr. Alison Bested, staff physician and medical specialist liaison
  • Dr. Lynn Marshall, staff physician and medical education liaison
  • Dr. John Molot, staff physician and medical/legal liaison
  • Gloria Fraser, nurse education co-ordinator
  • Nancy Bradshaw, community outreach co-ordinator

Here are the responses to your questions about Environmental Health, from the Environmental Health Clinic physicians.

Please note that links to sites external to the Women’s Health Matters website are provided as a convenience and their inclusion does not imply that Women’s College Hospital endorses or accepts any responsibility for their content.

Q: Do fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome always occur together as a result of and/or following an injury?

A: Sudden onset of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) typically occurs after an infection, most often a viral infection. In contrast, some patients have a gradual onset and cannot identify any associated prior factors. Fibromyalgia (FM) most commonly occurs after a physical trauma. People can have ME/CFS or FM separately or may have both illnesses.


Q: I believe health is affected primarily by two things: what we consume in our bodies (food, air, water, environmental toxins/contaminants such as hairspray, perfume odours, etc.) and environmental toxins which may ‘seep’ into our skin (for example, through cosmetics, hair products, etc.). I have noticed, as has my hairdresser at times, that my scalp is a tinge red (top of scalp). If caused by environmental toxins, which toxins could cause this? I don't seem to have dandruff or hair loss, or a thyroid condition. I have stopped using a hair mousse that I was using, although I had this happen a few years ago before I was using the mousse. I'm allergic to dust and dust mites.

A: Yes, the routes of exposure to environmental toxins are primarily inhalation (breathing them in), ingestion (eating or drinking them), and absorption through the skin after contact. The sources of exposure to hazardous substances include air, dust, food, water and consumer products. There are many ingredients in personal care products we use on our skin and hair and some are known to be toxic at high doses. Some can have direct irritant effects that can lead to redness. Some can sensitize the skin so that even encountering tiny amounts in future could provoke inflammation and redness. You may be able to tolerate hair products better that are unscented and do not contain sodium lauryl sulfate or sodium laureth sulfate, both of which are known skin irritants. However, given that there can be a multitude of reasons for you to have a ‘tinge red’ scalp, we think it would be wise to ask your family doctor’s opinion, including if further assessment by a dermatologist is advisable.


Q: Is pollution worse on high humidity days?

A: Any time the air is more humid, the water droplets will attract and hold airborne particles and the level of pollution exposure is increased, especially in a valley. If it is a hot summer day, the heat and sunlight interact with pollutants (oxides of nitrogen and sulphur and volatile organic compounds) from industry and car exhaust to produce ozone. Together all these substances form smog, which can have significant negative health effects.


Q: I think the radiators in my house might be painted with lead paint (it is an old house). I've heard that lead is bad, but how would I know if I need to have the paint removed? Are there any side-effects or symptoms I should watch out for?

A: Adding lead to interior paint was limited in 1976 and companies voluntarily stopped adding lead in 1991. Paint used prior to 1960 has high levels. Stripping or sanding old paint releases lead particles into the air that can be breathed in. Lead affects health in many serious ways and differently in adults and children, with children being the most vulnerable. Therefore, to avoid any chance of exposure and thus health effects, paint over the lead paint (many coats) with a no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint to lock in the lead. While wearing gloves and a dust face mask, dispose of any peeling chips (in the hazardous waste) prior to painting. Use a disposable damp cloth to gather the dust or vacuum using only a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter so the very fine dust particles containing lead do not get dispersed into the household and be inhaled. More information is available from Health Canada. http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hl-vs/iyh-vsv/environ/lead-plomb-eng.php or the Canadian Partnership for Children’s Health and the Environment, www.healthyenvironmentforkids.ca, ‘Play it Safe: Lead in Paint’ fact sheet.


Q: I've experienced occasional bouts of vertigo throughout my adult life. Can you tell me what causes vertigo and how it can be treated or managed? Sometimes I find that when the sensation first begins, sleeping for a couple of days can help get rid of it.

A: Vertigo can have a variety of causes. We recommend that you see your doctor to be properly assessed and treated. An overview of vertigo may be found online at eMedicine Health: http://www.emedicinehealth.com/vertigo/article_em.htm.


Q: Are there health risks associated with having a wireless computer set-up and mobile phones in my house?

A: It is possible that there may be risks for some individuals. A report into the research in this area is available online at http://www.bioinitiative.org/. The international BioInitiative Working Group noted, ‘In today’s world, everyone is exposed to two types of EMFs [electromagnetic fields]: (1) extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields (ELF) from electrical and electronic appliances and power lines and (2) radiofrequency radiation (RF) from wireless devices such as cell phones and cordless phones, cellular antennas and towers, and broadcast transmission towers.’ Based on accumulated evidence, the working group concluded, ‘The clear consensus of the BioInitiative Working Group members is that the existing public safety limits are inadequate for both ELF and RF. People who have used a cell phone for 10 years or more have higher rates of malignant brain tumour and acoustic neuromas. It is worse if the cell phone has been used primarily on one side of the head.’

We at the Environmental Health Clinic are of the opinion that the true safety limits for wireless computers (WiFi) and cellphones are not yet known, and so it would be wise to exercise precaution. Toronto Public Health has information on this topic and a fact sheet - Cellphone Use by Children and Youth.


Q: What water-related illnesses could I be susceptible to by living in the city? Should I always use a tap water filter, or am I then filtering out all the good stuff?

A: Water-related illnesses can be acute or chronic, due to biological agents (bacteria, protozoa, viruses) or contaminants such as heavy metals, pesticides and numerous other chemicals. In Toronto, as in most cities, the water is well monitored, cleaned and filtered for any serious contaminants that pose acute health risks. However, long-term exposure to some contaminants such as lead from old pipes or solder can pose problems, especially in the unborn fetus and in children. Water intake pipes before 1950 were made of lead, and then lead solder was used on copper pipe fittings until it was banned in 1980. You can ask municipal officials if your water supply pipes are made of lead. If there is a possibility of contamination of your water with lead, you can run the water until it runs cold after it has been standing for a few hours. Although a tap water filter may not be necessary for municipally treated water, some people do not like the taste or the thought of being exposed to various substances over a prolonged period, albeit at low levels. Tap water filters come in various forms, remove various contaminants, and are labelled for what they will remove. You may obtain more information on water filters from Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation at http://www.cmhc-schl.gc.ca/en/co/maho/wawa/wawa_004.cfm and on water quality from Health Canada at http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ewh-semt/water-eau/index-eng.php.


Q: Am I putting my health at risk by not having a range hood above my stove?

A: A range hood can reduce the particulate matter produced from cooking and help to control humidity. Therefore it can have a positive effect on indoor air quality, which helps to protect health.


Q: I use scented body lotion, but sometimes worry about substances that might be finding their way into my skin. Should I only be concerned if I experience redness or a rash?

A: Using scented body lotion can pose health concerns both for you and people in close proximity, such as colleagues and family members. A recent survey in the U.S. revealed that 30 per cent of respondents found scented products worn by others to be irritating. Fragranced products can have adverse health effects in susceptible individuals including those with asthma, migraine headaches and upper respiratory irritation. Chemical formulations of fragranced products are largely undisclosed to consumers due to trade secrets and other regulatory protections. Few studies have actually analyzed the chemicals emitted, but many volatile organic compounds have been identified. Redness or a rash from the use of scented body lotion implies a local irritation or allergy, but one should be concerned about potential adverse effects of applying a soup of unknown and untested chemicals to one’s skin on a regular basis, especially given the total number of chemical pollutants we are all exposed to in our air, food, water and other consumer products.


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