The holidays are a time for gathering together with family, friends and neighbors, and in religious congregations. In every gathering there can be people who may have special susceptibilities to adverse effects from environmental exposures. Mothers-to-be, babies and children, rapidly-growing adolescents, adults with acute or chronic health conditions, and seniors who rely on medications to remain healthy and active may be participants in your holiday plans, or bystanders to your holiday activities. For each of these groups, the holidays can spell both enjoyment, and potential trouble.
You can protect your sensitive guests and friends using a little forethought and planning. So herewith is HEAL's top ten list of things everyone can do to ensure that holiday gatherings are fun (and healthy) for everyone.
1. NO SMOKING.
Make this a firm policy, and stick with it. Environmental tobacco smoke is unhealthy in general, but it can be even more risky for the pregnant, the very young, the elderly, and the acutely- or chronically-ill. Don't let the habits of some of your friends or family members harm the health of the rest. Don't permit smoking in your home.
If you smoke yourself, don't light up around other people. (Asking permission is not fair play in this situation: Some people who should not be exposed to tobacco smoke will give permission even when they shouldn't.) Consider not smoking around other people as part of your holiday gift-giving. It's a good deed. And it might get you thinking about quitting altogether.
2. HOLD THE PERFUME.
People who have allergies, asthma, sensitivities, and/or chronic severe headaches report that other people's fragrance use is a big problem during the holidays. HEAL gets more mail about other people's fragrance than almost any other social-relationship topic. For these people, your fragrance use can trigger an attack that at the very least will ruin their enjoyment for an afternoon or evening. At the worst, fragrance-incited attacks can send people to the emergency room with difficulty breathing, severe headache, nausea and vomiting and other decidedly un-festive problems.
As a rule of thumb, don't wear fragrance to a gathering larger than four (fragrance-happy) people, unless you know for sure that no one present (including bystanders) will be harmed by your fragrance use. If you don't know, assume that someone will have a problem, and don't use your scented products. Odds are you'll be right to abstain: About 20% of all Americans are allergic, and the number of allergic people appears to be on the rise. An estimated 15% of all Americans are sensitive to chemicals. The bigger the group you will be in or near, the more likely it is that you will inadvertently harm someone through your fragrance use. Don't take this chance with other people’s health: HOLD THE PERFUME.
Please be especially mindful of this issue when preparing to attend worship services. Many people who are too ill to attend services regularly make a special effort to attend during the holidays. These are just the people who are apt to have problems with fragrances used by others.
So please abstain from fragrance use during the holidays. This is a good deed, and we thank you for it in advance on behalf of the thousands of people who either suffer in silence from fragrances used by others, or who often avoid gatherings in order to protect their health.
3. FOLLOW THE NO-FRAGRANCE RULE WHEN ENTERTAINING IN YOUR HOME.
This means that you don't introduce scented materials into your home just before or during your guests' stay. On the OMIT list: scented candles, simmering aromatic spice blends, potpourri, or air-fresheners anywhere in the house. If you generally use air-fresheners, remove them well before your guests are due to arrive, and allow their odors to disperse. Don't use scented carpet, upholstery, or other cleaners during your entertaining preparations. And don't use "aromatherapy" products when entertaining--what is "aromatherapeutic" for you may be the reverse for your guests.
4. THINK TWICE ABOUT USING YOUR FIREPLACE...
...especially if you're expecting a crowd. Open fireplaces (and wood-burning stoves) degrade the air quality indoors in two ways: They consume oxygen while polluting the air indoors with gases and fine particles, and they can interfere with fresh air replenishment by suppressing the heat cycle of your ventilation system. Unless you plan to use auxiliary ventilation when you're using your fireplace, refrain from fireplace use while entertaining. This may not look as attractive to you as a roaring blaze on your hearth, but you and your guests will keep your sparkle longer if everyone can breathe easily. (Not enough oxygen plus too much carbon dioxide makes people sleepy, as well as cranky and dull. These are not desirable qualities in guests -- or in hosts.)
5. DON'T MAKE AN ISSUE OUT OF OTHER PEOPLE'S FOOD CHOICES.
People have to avoid certain foods for a variety of reasons: allergy, intolerance, interactions with medications, health-related regimens -- as well as religious restrictions, ethical considerations, political convictions, and others. You can't be expected to know all of these things about everyone who comes to your home -- and people with dietary restrictions don't expect you to be clairvoyant.
For everyone's peace and well-being, when a guest refuses a food, just assume that "no" means "no." It's not a test of wills, a reflection on your entertaining style, an opportunity to discuss health or other matters, or anything else. Resist the urge to say, "Oh, a little bit won't hurt you." (You could be wrong: a little bit of the wrong food can be life-threatening for some people.)
You can prevent this situation from arising by entertaining buffet style, especially when the guests include people whom you don't know well. Simple vegetable dishes, cooked rice and whole fruits are generally all right, while protein foods, sweets and complicated dishes may be off-limits for some of your guests. With a buffet, no one should be paying attention to who eats what.
6. ASSUME THAT SOME OF YOUR GUESTS WON'T DRINK ALCOHOL, AND PREPARE ACCORDINGLY.
There are as many reasons for not drinking alcohol as there are for avoiding certain foods. Don't attempt to coax non-drinkers into imbibing. Just be sure to provide good quality water, bottled or filtered, and be sure your ice is made from this water too. Lemon or lime twists can add a festive look to a plain -- but much appreciated -- glass of water. Non-drinkers will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
7. KEEP PETS (AND AS MUCH OF THEIR DANDER AS YOU CAN) OUT OF THE ENTERTAINING AREA.
No matter how hard you try, your family pet will have left its dander throughout your home, and you won't be able to remove all of it. Don't be surprised or offended if sensitive guests prefer to linger away from dander-laden carpeted areas and upholstered furniture, however. Plain wooden or metal seating will be appreciated by the allergic, asthmatic or sensitive guests. It's a good idea to put this plain seating in an uncarpeted area that is near a natural stopping place for circulating guests, so that sensitive guests can socialize with everyone, and so that their avoidance of your carpeted and upholstered areas isn't too conspicuous. You may find it interesting to see who gravitates toward this area in your home: pregnant ladies, nursing moms, and grandparents sometimes find this kind of atmosphere and seating more comfortable than more luxurious appointments.
8. PROVIDE HOUSE GUESTS WITH UNSCENTED BED AND BATH LINENS, PLAIN UNSCENTED SOAP, AND NO STRONGLY-SCENTED MATERIALS IN THEIR QUARTERS.
Don't assume that even fragrance users want to be surrounded by scented materials when they sleep. Enforce your no-smoking rule in guest quarters, and keep pets out, too. A comfortable night's sleep makes for a congenial guest -- and a grateful one.
9. RESIST THE URGE TO REMODEL OR REDECORATE YOUR HOME JUST BEFORE THE HOLIDAYS.
Once your home is closed for the heating season, your plans to remodel or redecorate should go on hold until spring. The reason: Almost every material used to redecorate or remodel is initially a source of emissions that can be toxic, irritant, sensitizing, or allergenic. Although these emissions disperse over time, they degrade the air quality in enclosed spaces (like your home), especially right after they are installed. So defer your decorating plans until you can dilute these troublesome emissions with large quantities of fresh air.
If your home is newly carpeted, painted or otherwise recently redecorated or remodeled, it's wise to inform your guests of this fact in advance. Some may not be able to come to your home this season, but they will be grateful for your warning.
10. DON'T BE DISCOURAGED IF YOU HAVEN'T MET EVERYONE'S NEEDS.
The "perfection" trap operates at full throttle during the holidays. It's natural to strive for the perfect gift, the perfect party, the perfect home -- or even the perfect family. But perfection, as we all know deep down, is not a fact of life. And although we often expect perfection of ourselves, we hardly ever expect it from others.
So don't be too hard on yourself if you fail to anticipate everyone's concerns during the holidays. Do what you can to promote your guests' health--they'll appreciate it. And if a sensitive guest is unable to come to your home, or has to leave early, understand that this is not a reflection on you. It's simply a reflection of your guest's own -- far-from-perfect -- health.