We’ve put this off for a very long time.
Remodeling with wheat allergy – who knew it would be so complex? This is yet another nuance of life with food allergies. We can’t give up the kitchen for a week to dine out because there aren’t any local options that can safely handle my son’s multiple allergies. The kitchen is really the hub of control for a food-allergy parent, so taking the dive to get some upgrades in a very old home feels both exciting and horrifying.
First Came the Flare
Luckily, we found a fantastic contractor who understands our family’s unique challenges and vowed to leave the room operable for mealtimes. Score! Thinking this would be quick and painless, I settled in to endure the process and dream of new paint colors.
I wasn’t surprised when we all felt a sneeze, a cough, or a tickle in our throats from dealing with the dust from some demolition and drywall dust on Day 1. Using the shop vac with a filter, a mop, and plenty of rags and water, we cleaned up as best we could to make dinner. It was around this time that my son entered the house and immediately showed acute signs of allergic rhinitis. He never complained (he was in awe of the contractor’s work), but his nose ran constantly, he was sneezing a ton, and his eyes were itchy. By the time we finished dinner, he was noticeably miserable.
Something’s Not Right
The next morning was even worse. Both kids complained of poor sleep, my son still had the same symptoms and his eyes were bloodshot. My daughter, who has a couple food sensitivities but no IgE-allergies, was coughing like crazy. Something wasn’t right.
I went into environmental allergy-mode: the kids took showers, I cleaned obsessively (knowing I’d have to do it again, post-construction), we did eye drops and various natural anti-histamines. Then, the kids went off to school where they said their symptoms almost disappeared.
So, I did what all food-allergy parents do. I immediately began to research.
What’s in my walls?
The first thing I learned is that allergies are very common in the construction industry. There are a number of offenders, from chromates to resins, that cause asthma and contact dermatitis among workers (1). In fact, studies show that many occupations are prone to increased occurance of IgE-mediated allergy, depending on the materials they are exposed to on a daily basis (2). Still, our family is not surrounded by drywall dust on a regular basis and we were feeling ill effects.
This reminded me of how bakers, mill workers or farmers often develop contact dermatitis, rhinitis, or allergic asthma to the grains they work with, thanks to the airborne properties of flour and organic dust (3, 4). Again, this happens over time and didn’t seem to fit with my son’s acute response to this dust. A quick investigation led to one very disconcerting discovery: Many construction materials contain wheat, including some drywall and mudding compounds (5).
Wait, what? Yes, wheat in our drywall and compound dust. Yikes.
Wheat allergy, not Celiac disease
I need to pause here and explain that my son has a wheat allergy, not Celiac disease. He can actually eat gluten from non-wheat sources like barley or rye without issue. He has an IgE-mediated allergy to wheat, which means that his body attacks wheat proteins as though they’re dreadful invaders and mounts an impressive attack that can result in hives or even anaphylaxis (6). Luckily, my son does not have a severe airborne allergy to wheat like some people do to nuts. Still, the histamine reaction that occurs with IgE allergen exposure was very clear based on his symptoms.
Much of the investigation surrounding the presence of wheat in building materials stems from the perspective of Celiac disease and gluten exposure. Celiac sufferers must avoid gluten at all costs while those with wheat allergy must avoid wheat with the same urgency. Scientists argue that the wheat starch commonly used in building materials contains no gluten, and therefore isn’t a problem for people with Celiac disease (7). Unfortunately, there are accounts of people feeling “glutened” after exposure to drywall dust or ready-made compounds (8). This entire debate leaves out those who are allergic to the wheat protein itself – no one is arguing that wheat starch is void of wheat!
Remodeling with Wheat Allergy
So, what are we to do about remodeling with wheat allergy? Here are some things I’ve learned (the hard way) over the last few days:
- Breathe. Yes, you’re giving up control for awhile. Yes, it will be okay in the end.
- Think about the project and try to plan ahead wherever possible. Discuss the project timeline with your contractor and get an idea for what days will hold the biggest mess. Go into the process knowing what to expect and when.
- Hang a heavy blanket (I am using a wool blanket) in your doorways to keep the dust contained to one area. This made a huge tdifference in my son’s symptoms and allowed me to concentrate my cleaning efforts to one location.
- Have one pair of old shoes designated for clean-up, and keep them in the construction area (or outside) for the duration of the project. Try not to track dust throughout the house by accident. If you have pets, try to keep them separated from the area until it is cleaned for the same reasons.
- Remove dirty clothes and shower after cleaning each time.
- Keep epinephrine, eye drops and antihistamines on hand, just in case. Have your inhaler handy if you are prone to allergic asthma.
- If you are severely allergic, discuss alternative options with your contractor. Ready-made compounds are more likely to contain wheat and can likely be avoided. Ask your contractor to cut drywall outdoors to minimize dust in the house.
- Depending on your tolerance, you might consider staying elsewhere while the worst of the construction takes place. Paying someone to clean it up well might also be worthwhile if you have a severe reaction to airborne wheat particles.
- Carino, Mauro, Paolo Romita, and Caterina Foti. “Allergy-Related Disorders in the Construction Industry.” Research article. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2013. https://doi.org/10.5402/2013/864679
- Gündüz, Özge, Aslı Aytekin, Engin Tutkun, and Hınç Yılmaz. “Comparison of European Standard Patch Test Results of 330 Patients from an Occupational Diseases Hospital.” Research article. Dermatology Research and Practice, 2016. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/9421878.
- Mohammadien, Hamdy A., Mona T. Hussein, and Raafat T. El-Sokkary. “Effects of Exposure to Flour Dust on Respiratory Symptoms and Pulmonary Function of Mill Workers.” Egyptian Journal of Chest Diseases and Tuberculosis 62, no. 4 (October 1, 2013): 745–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejcdt.2013.09.007.
- Harbison, Raymond D., Marie M. Bourgeois, and Giffe T. Johnson. Hamilton and Hardy’s Industrial Toxicology. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
- “Unexpected Sources of Gluten Outside the Kitchen.” Ancient Harvest (blog), September 11, 2014. https://ancientharvest.com/unexpected-sources-gluten-outside-kitchen/.
- “Wheat Allergy | Food Allergy Research & Education.” Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.foodallergy.com/common-allergens/wheat.
- “Is Your Home’s Drywall Gluten-Free?” TreeHugger. Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/your-homes-drywall-gluten-free.html.
- Ludwig, Emmy, and MD. “Can Airborne Flour Make You Sick If You’re Celiac or Gluten-Sensitive?” Verywell Health. Accessed April 24, 2018. https://www.verywell.com/suffering-symptoms-from-airborne-gluten-562332.