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