The Wonder Years
When it’s gone it’s gone,
But the echoes just go on and on and on.
We send it out like our breath,
And somebody takes it in, somebody takes it in.
Carrie Newcomer, When It’s Gone It’s Gone
I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s. Television was mainstream media. Represented by the three major networks, ABC, NBC, CBS along with public television, my family was able to receive at best, four or five relatively clear channels, anything else was impossible to see through the distortion or hear over the static. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from school, grab a snack and perch in front of the small, portable black and white television in our den to watch a favorite program, or to sit down after dinner in the living room with my family to watch the news and ‘prime time’ broadcasting on the large wood veneered console.
Television, like radio before it, brought the world into our homes. The Kennedy assassinations, the civil rights riots, the Viet Nam war, the Apollo moon landing, Watergate; all brought to us personally by respected newsmen, Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, that many trusted like a venerable grandfather. Televised entertainment, unprecedented in history, introduced the Beatles to the United States on The Ed Sullivan Show. Long before MTV,+!@#$Clark highlighted top of the chart pop singers and rock bands on American Bandstand. Variety shows featuring Jackie Gleason, Dan Rowan and+!@#$Martin, the Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett were at their peak, as popular as the best sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart and My Three Sons.
Accompanying the revered newscasters, the likeable variety show personalities and the fictional sitcom characters came the commercials. Honed to thirty and sixty-second perfection, they appeared like clockwork at fifteen-minute intervals. Advertising everything from automobiles to toilet paper, these ads ‘sponsored’ the shows we loved and if the hosts and personalities we trusted endorsed these products, why shouldn’t we?
Until 1970, when Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, banning cigarette ads on television and radio, these ads proliferated the airwaves. Catchy slogans, “us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch”, and mesmerizing jingles, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”, entered the minds and consciousness of the viewers. Sexual nuances, from the rugged Marlboro man to “Newport Pleasure”, infiltrated the ads. Virginia Slims even marketed to the feminist movement, comparing sepia toned imagery of ‘repressed’ women in the early 20th century to modern, tall, slim, brightly dressed women, casually puffing away while the announcer exclaims, “you’ve come a long way, baby”. Did we know cigarettes were unhealthy? Absolutely. The fact that almost forty years later these ads still obtain full page spreads in magazines and shout from billboards along the interstates and highways says a lot about powerful lobbies in the industry, Congress’s willingness to turn a blind eye and the myth that advertisers and manufacturers have our best interest in mind.
Before we understood the implications to the environment from phosphates in laundry detergents we had ads for Wisk, “ring around the collar”, Tide and Cheer. They cleaned your clothes well, that’s what the consumer demanded, that’s what they got. But did the manufacturers consider the consequences on human health: the chemical brew these products contained? Petroleum based chemicals, usually in the form of fragrances, remain in clothing and bedding, where they can be absorbed over and over again through your skin and lungs, long after the fabrics are removed from the dryer. The so-called ‘Green Movement’ of today is changing the focus of the marketing and subsequently, some of the ingredients in these products. But this is primarily due to consumer demand, not by any industry-led change for a healthier society.
There were also the countless personal care product commercials. I remember the inept martial artist swinging awkwardly to fend of the hordes of beautiful women supposedly attracted to the lemon-lime scent of his Hai Karate aftershave lotion. English Leather used seductive ads featuring beautiful female models with sultry voices claiming, “all of my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all.” In the early sixties a head of hair plastered in place with a chemical grease was every man’s goal and every woman’s desire. A popular product told us “a whistle and a wink and Wildroot” would get her every time.
Probably the worst offender was the series of kid-friendly cartoon ads for Raid pesticides. Whether it was an ant, roach or wasp the insect’s unfortunate end was always to be engulfed in a cloud of toxic gas while shouting in surprise and defeat, “RAID!!!” followed by the announcer’s baritone voice claiming it “kills bugs dead.” In fact I remember similar scenes in many early cartoons, whether it was a pesky rabbit, a pumped up mouse, or a pipe smoking sailor man, where some conflict develops between hero and foe and one of them reaches for an old pump sprayer while the other inevitably ends up with their head in a cloud of pesticide, eyes spinning and gurgling non-sensibly.
With the exception of a minority of environmentally and health oriented and aware individuals, ignorance still abounds, and the bombardment of toxic products on the general public has only increased. On one end we’re confronted with a pharmaceutical industry that has a chemical solution in pill form for every ailment. Never mind the underlying cause – take a pill to mask the symptoms and forget about it. Feeling a cold coming on? Take a pill. Can’t have an erection? Take a pill. Feeling depressed? Take a pill. Your kid a little hyper? Give her a pill. Not to say prescription drugs don’t have an extremely important value in many situations, including the above, but the problem is they’re over-prescribed. It’s the easy way out. Physicians are influenced and lobbied by the pharmaceutical companies, which proliferates the cycle, but the real problem is as a population we want the quick fix. Very few individuals seem to want to do the hard work to get to the root cause of their symptoms or illness. Simple life changes like eating a better diet, exercising, getting adequate rest and relaxation (‘no-brainers’, as my brother-in-law would say) would go a long way in preventing many of these problems in the first place. I’ve learned the hard way to trust my own instincts regarding my health and my environment.
Some estimates claim there are 85,000 synthetic chemicals in use today. We encounter 500-600 chemical agents daily in our food, our air and our water. Whether by the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, very few of these chemicals have been evaluated and even fewer are regulated. Walk down the aisle of any grocery store, hardware store or department store and look at what’s offered for consumption: a litany of industrial and household cleaning products, personal care products, air fresheners, scented candles, perfumes, deodorants, formaldehyde-laden building products, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, paint, stain, thinners and solvents. Look at the ingredients in any of these. You probably can’t pronounce them but you can be sure your body’s absorbing them. And while the individual compounds go untested, we’re even farther from understanding the health implications of the inestimable combinations of these substances.
Growing up, I understood that these substances were potentially harmful. Unfortunately, as a teenager, I had a cavalier attitude about the need to protect myself from them, reinforced by advertising, availability, and general societal ignorance of the long-term effects of exposure.
My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. I lived with my mother and two younger siblings in our seven-room, suburban West Harford, Connecticut home. As the oldest I felt responsible for ‘keeping up the house’, both physically and emotionally; a task, at that age and level of maturity, I was destined to fail at on both counts. But before I could realize and ultimately accept that fact, I took on numerous home improvement projects. Thinking back on it, most of those projects involved using toxic, oil based products, whether it was repainting a room, sealing the asphalt driveway or re-staining kitchen cabinets.
I had observed my father pour gasoline from a one-gallon can to a rag on a few occasions to clean paint stains from surrounding objects and his hands. Whether turpentine or paint thinner would have been a better choice I can’t say, but I imitated his action and used gasoline in much the same way. Only I ‘improved’ on the process. Instead of putting a little gasoline on a rag then spot cleaning my hands, I would pour a couple tablespoons of the liquid into my palm and scrub my hands together to wash the paint off. While painting, including spray-painting at times, I never took precautions to avoid the fumes. Masks were fairly unheard of for that purpose then and it just didn’t occur to me to use one.
Demonstrating continued ignorance and adding to my careless disregard of toxic exposure I took a position as a groundskeeper at a local golf course for several summers while in college. Several other kids and I were in essence grunt laborers for the head superintendent and his full-time staff. That first summer I started by raking sand traps, doing small landscape improvement projects, and hand mowing tight lawn areas inaccessible to the tractors, but by mid-summer I had moved up to operating the large Ford tractors pulling seven-gang mowers over the fairways and rough. By the second summer I was mowing the tees and by my third summer I’d been promoted to the greens.
A golf course is the epitome of a manicured landscape. It has to be as close to perfect visually and functionally as a professional ball field. The club members demand it. To do this however requires an inordinate amount of time, energy and most of all, chemicals. While the fairways and rough are important components in the overall ‘look’ of the course, their presence is largely a factor of the initial design, layout and grading of the course. Sure they require regular maintenance, including mowing, aeration, fertilizing, crabgrass control, herbicides and the like, but it’s the greens, followed closely by the tees, that become the superintendent’s obsession.
The putting greens were comprised of bentgrass, a cool season, fine-textured, low growing grass. This grass is ideal for the greens, offering minimal resistance to the ball, but requiring an exceptional amount of maintenance. Greens require mowing, watering, and cup relocation every morning. Yet on any given day they may also require aerating, either by spiking or coring, topdressing, reseeding, or fertilization. Also, because of their dominant focus in the function and prestige of any golf course, the superintendent can’t wait for a disease or pest to appear before treating it. Instead, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides are applied at specific times of the season to head off any potential problem. There were many mornings while my mower laid parallel dark stripes over the dew-covered lawn that I’d whiff the pungent aroma of some recently applied preventative. Worse, dismounting the mower to move the pin from the green or lift the markers from the tees required that I trod through the stuff with my boots and handle it with gloveless hands.
By this time I was well on my way to chemical overload and eventual intolerance. Add to this scenario, both my parents smoked when I was young. Whether in the car, at the breakfast table or with evening relaxation, I remember an all too intimate relationship with cigarette smoke, as well as perfumes, after shave, hair spray, and cleaners.
Research has shown that toxins are easily absorbed by the human body but are much more difficult to release. The toxins tend to settle deep in the fat cells until after years of exposure the body reaches a maximum load. Many researchers believe this toxic load can manifest in numerous ways. For some it’s multiple chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, asthma or severe allergies. For others it may be an autoimmune disease like lupus or multiple sclerosis. And for some it’s cancer.
It was after midnight. I got up from my
bed in terror. Not terror from a bad dream, but terror from the ever-increasing reality I’d been experiencing over the last several weeks. I couldn’t sleep. My eyes, my skin, the inside of my nose and mouth burned with a needle sharp intensity. My breathing was labored but the air felt toxic so I didn’t know whether to take in more or less. My heart palpitated uncontrollably. I staggered down the dark hall, arms extended like the Frankenstein monster to avoid bumping into a wall. I had no particular destination in mind. I just had to move to get away from the torment. It felt like a burning acid rain fell on me as I continued walking, only I was indoors, not outside.
I wandered through the kitchen, then the living room, guided by the dim glow of a
few strategically placed nightlights. Nowhere I went, nor anything I did, seemed to relieve the agony. Finally, returning back through the hall in a futile attempt to find relief, I slumped into the empty lower bunk of
my son’s bed. Even though it was a warm July night I pulled the covers over my head and sought a deep,
dream-filled sleep; dreams of a world where my body reaped health and comfort
from its environment, where the soil, water and air weren’t contaminated with
chemicals, and I no longer had to search for safety in the dark.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MSC) is a devastating and often misunderstood
illness. In its most severe form it leaves a trail of hopelessness, suffering and isolation. Whether brought on by a single significant chemical exposure or repeated milder exposures over a period of
weeks or months, individuals with MCS share one common trait; a multiple
symptomatic reaction from exposure to extremely low levels of chemical
substances. The symptoms, varying from mildly disturbing to totally disabling, can affect any part of the
body. Vigilance and action are the twin bodyguards of a person with MCS; the ability to perceive an impending
reaction and the good judgment to remove yourself from the offending
Although MCS is frequently misunderstood and downplayed in seriousness, this condition
is becoming better understood by the medical profession and the general
public. This growing awareness is partly due to consistent complaints from specific groups of people around
particular events, the heavy media coverage these events have received and the
research and studies these events have spawned. Two occurrences, the Hurricane Katrina trailers and Gulf War Syndrome deserve mention.
Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on the morning of August 29th 2005. The storm and subsequent levee breaks put more than eighty
percent of the city underwater, resulting in significant loss of life,
communication breakdown, destruction of buildings and roads, civil disturbances
and mass evacuation.
In an attempt to house the 300,000 plus homeless residents, the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) provided newly constructed trailers as temporary
living quarters for these people. In leaving the flooded city and entering their new homes, these
unknowing evacuees essentially traded a natural disaster for a major health
disaster. The inhabitants began suffering from respiratory distress, burning eyes, headaches, lethargy, sinus
infections and nosebleeds shortly after taking up residence in the new
trailers. Many who remained, and most had no choice but to remain, developed further complications including
asthma, nasal and mouth tumors, and in a few instances, death.
The Center for Disease Control and the Sierra Club conducted independent air quality tests
and found excessively high concentrations of formaldehyde, a known carcinogen
found in many of the materials (particle board, glues, carpeting) used to
construct these trailers. The Washington Post cited that many tested trailers “drastically exceeded” the
Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute for Occupational Safety
and Health’s exposure limits. While there has been some expected disagreement from the trailer
manufacturers, the formaldehyde exposure is generally accepted as the cause of
the health crisis.
The Persian Gulf War ended in February 1991.
Shortly thereafter veteran’s began complaining of vague, inexplicable
medical symptoms upon their return including neurological problems, skin
lesions, memory loss, headaches, dizziness, muscle and joint pain. After almost two decades of denial by
the government and military, or simply placing the blame on psychological
trauma, a congressionally mandated panel of medical experts, scientists and
military veterans conducted intensive research and concluded that Gulf War
Syndrome is a real medical condition.
Their report cited two primary exposure conditions as the most likely major
contributors to the illness. The first, in anticipation of chemical attacks on the soldiers, many of them were
given the drug, pyridostigmine bromide to increase survival rates from possible
nerve gas exposure. Then, to combat desert insects, pesticides were sprayed on troop’s dining areas, tents
As a safeguard to less than adequate below ground ventilation, coal miners in the
U.S. and U.K. traditionally brought caged canaries down into the mines with
them as sentinels. The birds were far more sensitive to dangerous gases like methane and carbon monoxide that
could potentially enter into a new seam in the mine, than their human
counterparts. As long as the birds continued to sing the miners were safe, but if the bird fell ill or died, it
signaled an immediate evacuation of the mine. The expression ‘canary in a coal mine’ has been aptly used
to describe a chemically sensitive individual. The coal mine is now the planet and an ever increasing
population of human canaries are serving, willingly or not, as the sentinels.
From my personal experience, research and discussion with others with MCS, one salient
point emerges: these symptoms are not psychological, but physiological and
neurological reactions to toxic chemicals. The rapid infusion of chemicals into our society throughout
the twentieth century has completely outpaced any possible genetic modification
our bodies could ever manifest to adapt to these threats. These invisible toxins can be found in
our food, water and air from where they’re then ingested, breathed or absorbed
through the skin, accumulate in our fat cells and steadily increase our body’s
Unlike Europe, where the European Union established an environmental policy placing
the responsibility on the manufacturer to prove a chemical is safe before
release, the United States allows hundreds of new, untested chemicals into
production every year. The Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976, did give the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate chemicals but the law was flawed. The Environmental News Service recently
reported that the system is in dire need of reform. The legal hurdles of existing law have derailed the system,
making it impossible to ban, limit, or even regulate the use of toxic
chemicals, and to date, the EPA has only required testing on some 200 of
approximately 82,000 chemicals in commerce. An intelligent analysis and restructuring of this system and
how we introduce new chemicals into the public domain might be a frontline
defense to waiting for the illness and death of innocent people to initiate
Fortunately, some of us are paying attention.
Smoking has long been banned in public places; lawn care companies are
including an organic care option with their services; organic fruit and
vegetables are displayed next to conventional produce at mainstream grocery
stores; grass-fed, hormone and antibiotic-free beef and poultry is ubiquitous
in central Vermont where I live; wool, organic cotton, hemp and bamboo are
finding their way into designer clothing; major paint manufacturers are
beginning to market low or no-VOC paints; and with the recent publicity around
polycarbonate plastic bottles releasing Bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone altering
chemical, when heated, stainless steel water bottles and BPA free baby bottles
have flooded the market.
That terrible night in the house, aimlessly walking room to room, desperately searching for a safe haven, proved futile. Waking that morning, I realized I could
no longer inhabit my house. In
only weeks this mysterious condition had struck me with unexpected swiftness,
producing devastating chronic symptoms and significant life changes, not the
least of which was forcing me outdoors.
My house, work place, family center, had become toxic to me.
The experience of having to restructure my life, essentially from the inside out,
became my personal journey. I didn’t plan it. I didn’t expect
it. If I’d had a choice at the time, I certainly would never have accepted it. The process was painful, slow and unpredictable. Sometimes a day would seem endless. On those days, and there
were many, I took the challenges hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. But along with the pain, isolation and fear, I found strength, courage and healing. I tore a slit in the blinders of predictability that allowed
me to see myself as a far more independent and self-reliant being than I had
realized, and an integral part of a much larger, co-dependent environment.
With each day I found what I had considered the necessary essentials of modern
living: a large home, a full calendar, plentiful furniture, a host of household
supplies, a varied wardrobe, electronics, began to loose their importance and
served very little purpose in my life. I was astonished at how little I actually needed to contentedly
subsist. Survival had little to do with what I had previously considered important – in fact those ‘precious’
possessions were a barrier to truly living life.
Forced outdoors, the subtle shifts in air currents, sun patterns, shadows and cloud
formations; the smell of freshly cut grass, wildflowers, decaying leaves, wood
smoke; the hundreds of sounds, from the almost indiscernible chafe of dry grass
in the breeze to the night-shattering cries of coyotes, previously rendered
mute and invisible by a literal wall of lumber and drywall, became as familiar
to me as the varied nuances in my own home had been. Each morning, as light gradually overtook darkness and the sound of singing birds built in crescendo, I was gently prodded from
sleep. And each night as the air stilled, cooled and darkened, I sought rest. I learned how foreign my relationship with the land, just outside my window, had become. This condition broke something in me, physically and emotionally. This I would restore. But it also broke the illusion of
personal limitations and outer dependency. This would drive me.
Immersed in the Vermont landscape, with a newfound inner reliance, I set out to reinvent