When they decided to replace the carpet in our office a few years ago, we had no idea how much of an effect it would have. I am not normally affected by chemicals, but the solvents in the adhesives (I think) gave me headaches and a heavy head for days, and stank to high heaven for weeks and weeks. One of my colleagues was pregnant, and we all wondered what the chemicals might be doing to the baby, but he was OK.
We who live in so-called advanced western societies seem to be increasingly affected by chemicals - not just the well known asthma or allergies to pollens, but all sorts of odd and debilitating sensitivities to chemicals like volatile organic compounds, solvents, adhesives, petrol, perfumes and deodorisers, and food additives. Some say as many as 15% of the population have adverse health impacts from these chemicals.
Those affected can have their lives seriously curtailed, and sometimes made a real misery. Here are some effects I have observed in others:
- re-carpeting an office (not the one mentioned above) left a worker so sensitised that several years later they were still unable to visit that office for very long;
- application of a sealant to a concrete driveway left a neighbour with a bedroom window close to the drive unable to sleep in the bedroom for four months;
- chemicals used in modern car interiors make it impossible for some people to travel in them without being adversely affected;
- use of chemical air fresheners in motels and hotels make them hazardous for some visitors;
- some washing powders and fabric softeners are perfumed, causing significant irritation and inability to sleep, for some;
- perfumes and after-shaves can cause some people to react, and have to move out of the room.
Medical science so far understands little about these sensitivities, and "cures" are a long way off. Those of us who are not affected need to become more aware of these problems and more sensitive to the distress of others. And it is easy to help:
- Do you really have to wear after-shave and perfume? Could you at least wear less, and choose a less perfumed brand?
- It is easy to find "green" and non-allergenic washing powders.
- If smokers don't smoke in confined spaces such as motel rooms, managers have less need to use chemical air fresheners.
- It would be wonderful if the manufacturing and building industries could develop and use less intrusive and unhealthy solvents, adhesives and chemicals generally.