Consider the trappings of modern life: Calvin Klein Eternity, gasoline, Gore-Tex, hairspray, paint, particle board, polyurethane iPod cases.
Now imagine that you’re allergic to virtually all of them.
Environmentalists usually think about chemical toxicity as either a dramatic local crisis (Bhopal, Love Canal) or the simmering concern of those far away (breast-feeding mothers in the Arctic) or far in the future (our oft-evoked grandchildren). But for people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, the chemical crisis is already here. Indeed, thanks to industrialisation, it is already everywhere. And, like so many environment-related health issues, it disproportionately affects the poor and, moreover, drives many once financially stable people into poverty.
As a disease, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities doesn’t have an official case definition yet (more on this soon), but rather refers to a broad range of adverse symptoms brought on by an even more broad array of everyday chemicals. These symptoms are often provoked at exposure levels far below those that seem to affect the rest of the population — levels virtually always present in our homes, workplaces, and social venues. They commonly include severe headaches, food intolerance, difficulty breathing, nausea, irritation of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin, and disorientation or confusion, but there are many more.
Current theories range from a genetic predisposition to chemical injury, to neurological damage, to abnormalities in detoxifying enzymes, to a so-called “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance” to environmental stressors, in which one particular exposure to a toxic substance overwhelms a person’s system and leaves them unable to cope with exposures to a wide range of other toxins.
It can be even more difficult finding an MCS-safe job. Even if a workplace itself is a tolerable environment (rare, given the ubiquity of toxic building materials), basic job-related interactions with the general public can be impossible. “The way a typical story goes,” says Zwillinger, “is that people lose the ability to make a living because they can’t be out in the public arena” without getting ill. Some MCS patients find a way to work from home (assuming they’ve found safe housing) — but that option is seldom available to poorer Americans forced to rely on low-wage, low-skill jobs.
It’s a bitter irony, since many with MCS see themselves as canaries in the modern-day coal mine. As recently as 1986, the exquisitely sensitive yellow birds were used to detect the presence of dangerous gases in mine shafts, and when they showed signs of illness — when they ceased to sing — it was an unambiguous warning: evacuate.
As growing numbers of MCS sufferers are driven from their homes and jobs, pushed to the fringes of medical science and the brink of financial ruin, made sick by industrialised civilisation itself, we would do well to heed their equally urgent warning. And fast, because this time around we can’t evacuate. There’s nowhere else to go.
Air Corps Chemical Abuse Survivors are the canary in the coalmine for inflammatory illness being caused by ubiquitous chemical exposure in our home, work, vehicles, food & clothing.
The appalling high concentration chemical exposure suffered by Air Corps personnel caused chemical related illnesses in young fit men & women in a very short space of time making us a very valuable cluster for medicine & science to study.
Study us, fix us and there will be a public health dividend.