Ladies and gentlemen, in preparation for take-off, please fasten your seatbelts and stow any carry-on items beneath the seat in front of you.
I did as I was told, buckling my seat belt, putting my backpack away, and self-consciously pulling the disposable face mask over my nose and mouth. This was not the yellow oxygen mask that comes out of the aircraft when the cabin pressure changes, but rather, the kind you buy at drug stores during flu season. The kind used to keep out dust, germs, and, in my case, fragrances and toxic chemicals.
It was only a few months earlier that I was sitting in a doctor’s office when a woman walked in wearing one of these masks. What kind of obsessive compulsive disorder does she have? I wondered with a mix of judgment and pity. Now here I was, wearing the very same mask, wondering what the other passengers must be thinking of me.
I was on my way to Hawaii with my boyfriend for what should have been a pleasurable trip. But while many of the other passengers laughed and relaxed, my body was tense with the fear that I might not be able to withstand the eight-hour flight because of my chemical sensitivities. Passengers put on moisturizer, sanitized their hands, applied flavored lip-gloss, and I struggled to breathe. My sense of smell, once average, had sharpened to superhero accuracy.
A year ago, I started having weekly, and then daily, migraines. I became anxious, irritable, and confused. My hormonal system changed dramatically, I lost weight, and my tolerance for fragrances, even all-natural ones, evaporated. My eyes would water, my head would pound, and I was dim-witted and forgetful. Ordinary activities like going to the movies, shopping, or even attending parties became virtually impossible because they exacerbated my symptoms. Scared, I went to my doctor who diagnosed me with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a syndrome he believed I had developed through exposure to mold and toxic paint.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or MCS, is a controversial diagnosis that is not widely understood or recognized. Broadly speaking, it is characterized by severe sensitivity to a variety of toxins and pollutants such as perfumes, fragrances, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), gasoline, smoke, cleaning products and detergents.
MCS is controversial in large part because its causes are not fully understood. Many people are exposed to toxins on a daily basis and do not become sick. So, why did I and why do countless others? Some research suggests that people with already compromised immune systems and a history of trauma are more susceptible to chemical sensitivity.
Whatever the cause, the reality is that environmental toxins take their toll on all of us. While most people do not have such an extreme level of sensitivity, many do experience headaches and sluggishness or develop skin rashes, allergies, asthma, or food sensitivities without knowing why. Often times the causes may be lurking in our own homes – in the paint we use, the finishes we put on our floors, the water we drink, or the moldy shower we haven’t gotten around to cleaning. Constant exposure to such toxins can decrease our level of health and wellbeing and increase our level of stress and risk of disease.
What I am learning, somewhat belatedly, is that there is an inextricable connection between health and environment – between my health and the environment. I am realizing from firsthand experience that environmental degradation is inseparable not only from quality of life, but also from human rights.
Educating myself about environmental toxicity and learning to mitigate my exposure to it have become vital aspects of my recovery. It has also raised my awareness of environmental toxicity as a global issue.
The World Health Organization estimates that 13 million deaths worldwide could be prevented every year by making our environments healthier. In children under the age of five, one third of all disease is caused by environmental factors such as unsafe water and air pollution. In developed countries, healthier environments could significantly reduce the incidence of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, lower respiratory infections, musculoskeletal diseases, road traffic injuries, poisonings, and drownings.
Unlike many others who suffer from environmental illness, I am fortunate enough to be able to afford treatment and lifestyle changes. My doctor recommended a treatment protocol that includes taking nearly every supplement known to man, weekly intravenous treatments of an amino acid called glutathione used to help repair liver function, and perhaps most importantly, moving into a non-toxic home.
A chemically safe home is not an easy thing to find, even in a place like Boulder. But it is a critical component of the body’s healing process. Chemical sensitivity affects not only the respiratory system, but also the neurological system. Therefore, in order to heal, the body must have a place where the nervous system can rest and recover without risk of exposure.
No home is perfect, of course, and there is always the risk of leaks, insect infestation, and pollution, to name a few. But there are some key elements to look for:
- Hardwood floors
Carpeting holds odors, toxins, pet hair and dust. It can also be a breeding ground for mold particularly if it gets wet.
- Radiant or hot water heat
Forced air, the most commonly installed heating system these days, blows air directly from the furnace through vents and into the home. Not only do vents have a good chance of being dirty, dusty and who knows what else, but the direct airflow onto skin and eyes can be irritating and drying.
Yes, even in dry Colorado, mold abounds. When looking for a non-toxic home, it’s important to get it checked for mold. There are different kinds of testing, but I have found the most effective to be using a mold dog trained to sniff for spores. Mold remediation is sometimes an option depending on how localized the problem is and the kind of mold.
- No recent painting, carpeting, or renovation
Many home rental and sale listings advertise fresh paint!, new carpeting!, or recently remodeled! Unfortunately, this kind of work often emits volatile organic compounds (VOCs), toxic chemicals that can have wide-ranging health consequences. Generally, a home that is 5-10 years old is ideal because that amount of time allows paints, flooring, glues, and sealants to off gas.
Searching for a healthy home is a long and arduous process. Some days I’m frustrated by how sick I feel and by how hard it is to find a healthy place. Mostly, though, I feel lucky to have the luxury even to be able to look for a new home. I think of the countless people who are becoming sick from their environment, residence, or workplace perhaps without any knowledge of what is causing their symptoms. And I think of those who do know the cause, but are unable to do anything to change their situation. While I know that finding a home for myself won’t do much to help any of them, I am also aware that this experience has heightened my sense of environmental safety as a basic human right. I hope that from that, I can continue to educate myself and others about environmental illness, about how to reduce exposure, and mitigate risk. And perhaps in some small way, I can take a step towards helping to make our homes, our communities, and our planet a healthier place.
Jill Cohen lives in Boulder, CO where she works for the Shambhala Center, a Buddhist meditation center. When not working, she likes to drink tea and talk about her feelings.
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