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Canadians are circulating fresh air into their homes and pushing out potential toxic hazards

It began with reddened eyes, followed by a sore throat and lungs that hurt for months.

Pamela Stagg, a watercolourist living in Picton, Ont., says she assumed she had a virulent cold until her ophthalmologist suggested she had chemical sensitivities.

The thought was disconcerting, Ms. Stagg says, because she had lived without symptoms for nearly six decades. "You wake up one day and your body is a stranger."

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She tried to see an environmental health doctor but the waiting list was months long.

So in the meantime, Ms. Stagg hired Stephen Collette, an environmental building consultant, to identify the toxins and allergens in her house.

After his four-hour assessment, she chucked everything from cleaning and laundry products to plastic food containers, perfumes and her favourite vinyl apron.

"I started to feel better almost immediately," she says.

As rates of cancer and environmental illnesses escalate, more and more Canadians are calling on professionals to detox their homes.

Most clients suffer from asthma and allergies, but a growing number are healthy individuals who say they're alarmed by recent reports of the chemical pollutants found in Canadian adults - including flame retardants, pesticides and banned substances such as DDT and PCBs.

"People are realizing that their house is the most important part of their environment," Mr. Collette says. "It's the place where they can make the most changes."

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Mr. Collette started his Your Healthy House consultancy three years ago in Lakefield, Ont.

He charges $400 to $500 to inspect a home for excess moisture, mould and other allergens. He also evaluates heating and ventilation systems and looks at clients' use of chemically based cleaners and personal-care products.

"I'm definitely getting busier," Mr. Collette says, adding that he does more than 100 home assessments each year.

The potential health hazards of many everyday chemicals have only recently come under scrutiny.

Bisphenol A, found in plastic items such as drinking bottles, causes reproductive-system defects in animals; so do flame retardants and phthalates used in fragrances, lotions, vinyl and other products.

The risks to human health aren't well documented, however - and even less is known about the compound effects of chemical cocktails in the body.

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Canadians have reason to be concerned about potential toxicants and allergens in their homes, according to Tim Takaro, a physician scientist and professor in health sciences at Simon Fraser University.

"When the science is in flux," he says, "oftentimes we need to adopt a precautionary approach."

Dr. Takaro points to research on asthma as an example.

Preliminary studies in Winnipeg and Vancouver suggest that improvements to the home environment may prevent asthma in up to 25 per cent of children at risk for the disease, he says.

Health Canada evaluates the risks of commercial products whenever scientific research raises concerns, according to Claude Chartrand, project officer in Health Canada's consumer product safety bureau.

Meanwhile, the products stay on the market.

Mr. Chartrand recommends that chemically sensitive consumers write to the manufacturer and ask for the product's material safety data sheet. "Nearly all the time companies will freely answer questions about their products," Mr. Chartrand says.

But researching each product is a daunting prospect for individual consumers, especially if one considers the myriad chemicals used in carpets, bedding, insulation, paints, glues and countless other household goods.

For Ms. Stagg, hiring Mr. Collette was worth the expense. "He has made such a difference to my health," she says.

Julie Hardy, an environmental engineering technologist in Vancouver, investigates houses for toxins and allergens through her company JMH Home Environmental Solutions.

She says people who are sick are willing to invest in her services, "but the pro-active approach is harder to sell at $400."

Nevertheless, Ms. Hardy says she is slowly building a clientele of healthy individuals such as Alan Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.

Mr. Jacobs says he contacted Ms. Hardy because he and his wife were expecting a child.

"We wanted to know that there was nothing in the house that could be hazardous to us or a newborn."

Although Ms. Hardy's assessment of their 95-year-old house revealed few areas of concern, Mr. Jacobs says he got his money's worth. "The peace of mind was extremely important."

Some clients face a list of potential health hazards that can run 25 pages long, Ms. Hardy says. "It can be a lot to bear," she says, adding, "I try not to turn people into hypochondriacs."

But until science and legislation catch up to the marketplace, ridding one's home of questionable items is the best strategy, according to Bruce Lanphear, an environmental health scientist and professor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

"I figure if you don't really need something, don't use it," he says.

A toxin-free home

Here are some tips to improve home health:

Air quality Equip furnace with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter or the cheaper 3M Filtrete filter. Use kitchen and bathroom fans regularly. Open all windows once a day to air out house. Avoid indoor pesticide use and chemical-based carpet cleaning.

Humidity Test relative humidity; if necessary, use dehumidifiers and damp-proof the basement and exterior foundation wall to prevent mould growth.

Drinking water Test for minerals such as lead; if necessary, replace pipes and install a water filter.

Bedding Encase mattresses, box springs and pillows in dust-mite barriers. If possible, invest in organic bedding.

Carpets Replace with tile, hardwood or non-toxic wool carpeting. Otherwise, use a vacuum with a HEPA filter.

Decorating Buy paints that contain minimal VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Use cloth curtains instead of vinyl.

Candles Since most candles are petroleum-based and about 10 per cent have lead-core wicks, switch to pure beeswax candles

Cleaning products Replace generic air fresheners, furniture polishes, laundry products and household cleaners with non-toxic products made by companies such as Nature Clean Living

Personal-care products Avoid soaps and shampoos containing synthetic fragrances and chemicals. Replace cosmetics with mineral-based formulas free of carcinogens and petrochemicals. Use pure essential oils instead of perfume.

Kitchenware Replace non-stick pans with ceramic or cast iron. Replace plastic storage containers with glass vessels and plastic drinking bottles with lightweight metal bottles.

Adriana Barton

Identifying hazards

The federal government is taking steps to identify the toxic chemicals found in everyday products.

Health Canada is working with the United Nations to implement the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals, which will require manufacturers to list ingredients that represent chronic health hazards such as cancer and hormone disruption, according to Claude Chartrand of Health Canada.

"I'm curious to see how people will react if companies come up with labelling that says 'this product contains a carcinogen,' especially if it's a product they've been using for years," Mr. Chartrand says. "It is my gut reaction that most companies will reformulate the product [instead]"

The classification system was scheduled to come into effect

by 2008, but the worldwide initiative now faces several years' delay.

Adriana Barton

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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