Chemical Sensitivity

I would like to take a moment to discuss an issue that has been weighing on my mind. I've thought about writing about it for a while, but not until this past weekend did I feel such an urgent need to do so.

There is a portion of the population living among us with a certain disability. I'm trying to watch my words in spite of myself. I mean, there is a controversy as to what to call this issue, even as to its very validity. And that's where I am in disagreement with a great number of other people. I have seen with my eyes the effects, and I refuse to believe that it is all in their heads.

The issue at hand is Chemical Sensitivity, or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, as many sources seem to refer to it. We live our lives exposed to untold numbers of synthetic chemicals  most of which we don't notice. However, there are people who are more sensitive to them than others. There are people who are sensitive to the point of its being debilitating. They find it difficult, if not impossible, to function in a world full of these. In reading about it, I have found that commonly cited irritants are cigarette smoke, pesticides, plastics, perfumes – including scented products – gasoline/exhaust and paint.

I have a friend who has chemical sensitivity. She has been living with this since the 1970's. The things listed above are precisely what she has complained about. (Okay, she harps on the dangers of plastic, but I haven't heard her say specifically that it causes a reaction for her.) I'll give you a small background of her story.

She is an artist. She found herself living in San Francisco (or that general vicinity) and she began to help a friend with dying silk scarves. Her friend had been doing it a while, and found that she couldn't keep up. So, my friend began to do the dying portion of it; taking the scarves and dipping them into the liquid that contained the dye. The dye got into her skin and into her body. She started getting sick, and then Very Sick Indeed. She stayed with a friend and then decided that since clearly she was going to die she'd go back home to family and die with them instead of doing so in a friend's house.

That started a new life for her, one in which she has learned to boost her immune system with vitamins and healthier living and to avoid perfumes and vehicle exhaust at all cost. She lived with an oxygen tank for close to 19 years and has strengthened herself to the point that she can get by without it, though the occasional reaction does require that she use a kindly EMS's oxygen to get herself back on her feet.

She describes the problem as a stretching and freezing of the facial muscles, which causes her speech to be impaired, making it difficult to communicate to anybody what's going on. (Not that they would really understand what she was talking about even if she were able to say it.) This progresses to her diaphragm moving erratically, which makes it difficult if not impossible to breathe. All the while she's losing her ability to think clearly and she'll end up collapsing without realizing she's done so. She has described many, many occasions in which she's had to crawl out of a room or building.

This past weekend I witnessed the first phase. She was around perfume for longer than she should have been and her face looked like she had a mask on. I even had to say, "You're not kidding, are you?" It was unreal. Her upper lip was pulled down, closing the nostrils and it was stretched all the way down. It looked like her face was turning inside-out. She explained to me what was going on, but without the use of her upper lip and with her nostrils closed it was difficult. This happened several times that day; I'd see her walking outside with her mask on. The experience haunted my mind for days. It still does. I couldn't sleep that night. What's worse is that I only saw the superficial part of it, the least dangerous. She told me that it was only the first phase and it was not as urgent as all that because she was able to get to fresh air, and her face did clear up almost immediately when she was outside.

But, if that disturbed me so deeply, imagine living with it for 30 years. Thirty years of avoiding crowds, buses, churches, anywhere where there might be perfume. Avoiding exhaust in a world full of cars and trucks. Avoiding letting somebody into your car to change the oil because he might leave residual cologne in the air and on the steering wheel. And all of this doesn't even touch on the things that affect her digestive system, and her skin and other parts of the body – the pesticides in the grass and on the food, the chemicals in synthetic plastics and fabrics around food, clothing, furniture and everything else we take for granted... it boggles the mind how much we allow ourselves to be exposed to every waking minute of the day.

The American Medical Association doesn't seem to want to acknowledge the problem as real, but the CDC has taken steps in response. The last time my friend was in a hospital the nurse there told her that they hadn't been allowed to wear cologne in years. According to The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation, HUD considers MCS to be a disability w/r/t housing. (My friend has had to struggle to find a place to live that she could tolerate – without treated wood and without pesticides sprayed regularly, etc.)

What can we take from this little story? First of all, please be aware that there are people who truly are more sensitive to chemicals than the rest of us. It's not in their heads. (I read about a small surge in the issue due to the air at the time of 911 and due to the Gulf Wars.) Second, take a minute to consider everything that you allow yourself to be exposed to. It's kind of disturbing if you stop and think about it, but we should at least be aware.

If you are interested in reading more, the website for The Chemical Sensitivity Foundation is

Thank you.