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‘Sensitization’ = Environmental Illness?

An introduction to environmental sensitivities.

As a homebuilder dedicated to building healthy homes, I tend to read construction product labels. Adhesives, sealants, paints, you name it.

And one thing jumps out at me, over and over and over.

This week, I was using this product (above), and noticed these familiar words on the label:

Once sensitized, a severe allergic reaction may occur when subsequently exposed to very low levels.
SIKA Pro Select Construction Sealant (on label)

I looked online and found the sealant’s technical sheet. The warning is there, too (in green):

This isn’t unusual. So many products have this warning. A severe allergic reaction may occur, even when exposed later to very low levels.

Of course, the body may have no reaction at first.

But over time, the body can start react more and more intensely — even to less and less exposure.

And of course, anyone who has suffered from environmental illness — otherwise known as MCS (Multiple Chemical Sensitivities) — will recognize that pattern.

If you don’t know, you might ask: “What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

MCS symptoms are reported to occur following exposure to concentrations of chemicals that are below the levels that are typically considered harmful for the general population.”
If you’ve ever known someone who couldn’t tolerate being around fragrances — or cleaning chemicals, or mold — they probably had some level of MCS.

Sensitization… is MCS?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Let’s see what research has to say.

Obviously those construction products are toxic. Clearly, they can cause sensitization.

There’s no debate about that, after all, they’re known to cause cancer by contact and even by inhalation.

“Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans” and “known to be human carcinogen” are ubiquitous on construction labels. The product label I used yesterday: “Carcinogenic via inhalation.”

But what about these environmental sensitivities — to things like fragrance, or mold? Just how toxic is something like mold? Here’s what we know: Mold can be decidedly toxic.

Mold’s noxious VOC’s are known, scientifically, as “mycotoxins.”

“Mycotoxins are secondary metabolites produced by microfungi that are capable of causing disease and death in humans and other animals. [Some] have been implicated as chemical warfare agents.” (National Institutes of Health)
But there’s a huge difference in the way people are exposed to
toxic construction products and mold mycotoxins:
  • Construction products are acutely toxic. They are applied once, they offgas, and then are safe. (For the most part).
  • Mold mycotoxins are chronically toxic. They’re continuously released into homes and workplaces. Inhabitants may be exposed daily (and nightly), ongoing, for months and years. Indefinitely.

Mold is perhaps more sneaky: it’s released slowly, and continually each day. It may take more time to cause sensitization.

It may take 1-6 months, or even years to become sensitized.

Keep in mind, here, that mold growth is not static. It grows and spreads. Each humid summer, each new leak, each new poorly installed remodel… can lead to more mold growth. It’s not only that people get more sensitive. Sometimes our exposure gets worse, too, creating a perfect storm.

In other words: You might be “fine” for years, before a mold problem suddenly develops into sensitivity.

And sensitization is where it begins. First, to one toxic compound — perhaps mold, or even cleaning chemicals, or after antibiotic use. Then the body reacts more aggressively to smaller and smaller exposure levels.

In my experience — both working with hundreds of people and my own journey — I see mold as a common “gateway drug” that starts sensitization.

In other words, mold seems to be the toxin that begins or expedites the sensitizing process.

Many people are battling sensitivities to fragrances and chemicals, not realizing mold’s toxic mycotoxins — always in the background — are sensitizing their body.

The Science of ‘Sensitization’

Sensitization — as a concept — wasn’t invented by construction companies. It’s been studied for decades in the scientific literature.

Notice what happened to Kate McKnelly, researcher at UC-Irvine. Her story has shed light on how some chemical compounds can become “sensitizers” — sensitizing the body to other compounds in the environment.

“If you look at a chemical label and it says ‘Flammable,’ then you know to be really careful. Or if it’s a carcinogen, then you know it can cause cancer. You have a good grasp on what those words mean,” McKnelly says. “Sensitizer is a more nebulous term.”
Kate McKnelly, PhD

What’s showing up in the scientific literature is that homes are loaded with cleaning chemicals can sensitize the body’s immune response.

Exposure to specific household cleaning products may be one factor that is able to affect susceptibility to allergic sensitization.

The real-world implications for thousands and thousands of people with “multiple chemical sensitivities” around the globe? Potentially life-altering.

“The implications for chemical sensitivities can be devastating to a person’s livelihood.” Diana Ceballos, Harvard School of Public Health

“The implications for chemical sensitivities can be devastating to a person’s livelihood.”
Here’s how mold sensitization symptoms often start:
  • Sleep quality starts waning. Months of poor sleep can make the body vulnerable.
  • Digestion begins weakening. Restricted diets are adopted, to only short-lived success, before things continue to worsen.
  • Fatigue sets in. Perhaps brain fog. Perhaps other neurological symptoms (eyes, limbs) or skin problems.
  • Emotional distress can develop. You think you’re “losing it.” Other people might, too.

More Causes

  • Infections
  • Organs
  • Your Genetics

1 — Acute infection (viruses, bacteria, fungus) can cause sensitization.

“Acute infectious diseases may produce some of the same symptoms also.”

Viruses — such as Epstein Barr — can cause sensitization.

A gut infection, even bacterial, can be a cause. Oftentimes, antibiotics prescribed for the infection can make this worse — perhaps, in part, because healthy microbes are wiped out.

And of course, mold is a fungus — it’s a microbe capable of infection. Living in a moldy space means breathing in and swallowing spores that have the capability of living in the gut.

2 — Major organs are affected by sensitization.

There are about 10-20% of almost any population which show greater “sensitivity” to irritants, which is usually organ (e.g., eye) specific, by responding at lower doses.

Chronic inflammation — an immune response, the natural result of chemical sensitivities — directly harms the liver and kidneys, specifically. Downstream, inflammation also deprives cells of needed energy from food and nutrients. The gut microbiome is typically affected by chronic inflammation, as well.

3 — There could be a genetic component, as well.

If you are struggling with environmental illness — or someone you know is, despite sharing similar living arrangements — a genetic component could be involved.

Siblings, children, parents — all have different DNA from each other. Small, minor mutations happen in every each person’s genetic code. Science has identified some very specific ones that can cause the body to detox more slowly.

There are also host susceptibility factors, including genetic predisposition, which will play a role in sensitization and in disease manifestation (Turner-Warwick, 1978; Gregg, 1983).

Genetic variability… may affect the function of detox enzymes, thus impacting the body’s sensitivity to toxic substances of endogenous and exogenous origin.

Ultimately, though, our world is complex. There are usually multiple inflection points that can lead to sensitization.

When these stressors combine, the body can become much more susceptible to sensitization.
Multiple inflection points lead to the body becoming sensitized to environmental stimuli.

At any inflection point, the body can become sensitized. Perhaps we’re genetically more prone to a powerful mast cell (immune) response, but we don’t have to be for this to happen.

Here’s the only thing that matters: The body has become sensitized to a compound. And that sensitization, if it is allowed to continue — if we’re chronically exposed — can expand and expand, into more and more environmental variables.


The Key Behind Environmental Illness?

Are you hypersensitive to your environment?

Don’t lose hope! You can and will feel better. I’m a success story in this! My sensitivity has lessened by, perhaps, 99% compared to just five years ago.

That construction sealant I used this week? I never could have used it when I was ill.

Merely entering Home Depot used to wipe me out — as did most big box stores. Most homes, even. Everything wiped me out.

But I got better, and so can you. The Pillars of Health gave me a foundation to build my health back, first, and removing myself from constant exposure to toxic compounds worked its magic.

It might take a little magic for you to get better! Fortunately, that’s what your body does every day: magic. Trust it, even just a little. Give it what it needs, and watch it bounce back.


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