Monday, June 30, 2008

Another Friend Succumbs

We took a quick trip to Portland, Oregon this past weekend to celebrate the retirement of a dear friend. He was the principal of the elementary school our children attended when we lived in Oregon (in a past life), and along with his wife and two children, we developed a friendship that has survived great distance, in time and miles. It was a quick visit, just overnight, but we had time to talk and catch up with each other. To our surprise, in the course of conversation, his wife expressed her dismay at developing sensitivity to fragrances.

I was so sorry to hear that yet another person I know has succumbed to chemical sensitivity, but I was able to sympathize with her as we commiserated over the discomfort of the symptoms (her eyes get all swollen) and the frustration of dealing with insensitive people. This family lives in a beautiful secluded spot on the edge of the city, and they have always been environmentally conscious and used as few chemicals as possible in their yard and home. But she travels for her job and finds it difficult to know when and where she might run into a problem, with perfume or cleaning products.

The more I talk to people about my own problems with MCS, the more I hear of others having problems themselves. Discussion is good, even if it only validates our own feelings. But I think it does more than that. It educates, and it encourages awareness and accommodation for the many people who must avoid fragranced products.

Monday, June 23, 2008


Well, after a very long winter and cold soggy spring, summer has finally arrived in Montana. It is soooo nice to have all the windows open and feel fresh air on the back of my neck as I work. And I like to think that all the stale air that's been bottled up in my house all winter is now flowing out of the windows and into the wild blue yonder.

The first time I had serious problems with chemicals was the winter of my first year in college (back in the dark ages of 1969/70). Living in a small apartment with five other eighteen-year-old young women was not the best idea. But when spring came, and we opened all the windows, I felt so much better.

Of course, there are the outside pollutants of lawn mowers and the garden tiller, so sometimes I have to shut up the house temporarily. But we live on a quiet dead-end street, so there is little traffic pollution, and my office window is on the back of the house, so I don't even get what little there is.

Now, if I could just sit out under the trees in a hammock and read books all summer, like I did when I was ten.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Helping Others Understand

I had an experience last week that I'm still puzzling over. I'm just not sure if I handled it in the best way. It happened in a small local fabric store.

I know; I know. A fabric store is NOT the best place for a person with MCS--way too many chemicals in those brand new bolts of cloth fresh from the factory. But I really needed a spool of thread and a couple of other things, so it was to be just a quick in and out. It was just after opening, so there weren't more than three or four people in the store, including clerks, and I was doing just fine, rushing around to get what I needed, until I got to the check-out.

As my purchase was being totaled a woman came up behind me. I hadn't even noticed she was there when I could feel a bad reaction coming on--head spinning, sinuses swelling, panic setting in--you know the drill. Then I smelled the intense perfume she was wearing and knew I needed to get out of there. I tried to maintain my composure (a hard thing to do in the middle of such a reaction) as I told the clerk what was happening and that I needed to get out of the store immediately.
"Are you having a reaction to me?" the clerk asked.
"No," I said. "It's something this woman behind me is wearing." At which point I turned around and looked at the person behind me. She looked back at me aghast mouthing, "Who, me?" just as the clerk insisted that I had to sign the receipt before I could leave the store. I quickly signed it, mumbled something to the effect of "keep my copy" and ran out the door.

Neither one of these women was in any way rude to me. I don't know if they were apologetic, because I didn't stick around long enough to see. I do know that they both had a very visual example of a person with MCS having a reaction. I was clearly having difficulty breathing by the time I left the store. I hope they took the reaction seriously and didn't just chalk it up to "a crazy old lady." And I hope they learned something from the experience (other than to stay away from crazy old ladies).

Since I get so mentally spaced out when I have a reaction, maybe it would be helpful if I had something pre-planned to say in such a situation. Of course, that would require me to remember what I had pre-planned. I could carry a pre-printed script that I could read--sort of a cheat sheet. Better yet, I could just hand it to them. Hmmm. That's a thought.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chemical Free Public Parks

When my son was just a toddler (back in the '70s), we decided to take a day trip to a state park in a neighboring county. It was a beautiful area, situated on the edge of a small lake, with lots of trees shading the walking paths and a nice picnic area. As the three of us walked hand in hand, our son started to sneeze and get a runny nose. Within just a short time, his little face started to swell, and, recognizing an allergic reaction, we left immediately. By the time we got back to town, he was having difficulty breathing, so we rushed him to the hospital emergency room. Needless to say, it was a tense experience.

Like any concerned parent, I wanted to know what had caused this reaction in my child so that I could prevent it from happening again. After a few phone calls, I learned that this park had been sprayed with a pretty hefty dose of chemical pesticide/herbicide just days before we were there. I also learned that all the state parks were sprayed in similar fashion on a regular basis. That was the last trip we made to a state park in Mississippi.

Chemical pesticides and herbicides are still used regularly in public parks--city, county, state and federal. However, it is encouraging to hear that some local governments are taking a more environmentally and people friendly approach. In Albemarle County, Virginia (where my lovely daughter Becca lives), the county board of supervisors has just instituted a new policy of using only organic means to control insects and weeds. And in Durango, Colorado, a group of concerned citizens (mostly mothers) banded together and convinced the city to make their newest park (Brookside) chemical free.

Elected officials and public service employees work for the public (that's all of us), and my experience has been that they are generally pretty receptive to public input, especially if many people make comments. We do have an influence on what happens in our communities, as evidenced in Virginia and Colorado. Our county commissioners here in Montana are currently in the process of creating new zoning regulations to address the problem of chemical contaminants in the ground water (there largely as a result of what people put on their lawns and in their septic systems). All local governments are required to have public comment periods before they pass new regulations, so I want to be a part of this process. My life, and the lives of my children and grandchildren, are at stake.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Getting Public Attention

In an effort to distract myself while tackling a basket of ironing last week, I watched a full two-hour movie on a commercial television station. In almost every ad break, there was an advertisement for some product to which I would have a reaction. These included cleaning products, scented laundry products, perfumes and many varieties of air fresheners. These toxic products invade our lives on every turn, and millions of dollars are spent to convince us that they are necessary in our daily lives. Since I don't buy these products, I don't usually notice their advertising, so this experience was an eye-opener for me.

On the other hand, I wondered how much attention is paid to the opposite message--that chemicals in our environment are dangerous, even life threatening. So I've started watching for the anti-chemical message. Much to my (pleasant) surprise, I have found numerous accounts of problems with chemicals discussed in various forms of media. Here in Helena, Montana, our local newspaper is not exactly the Washington Post, but I have found at least one article every day this week about the damage being done or the dangers of chemicals of one sort or another. There are three online news sources that I browse several times a week, and I am finding the same coverage there of new studies of, new diseases from and groups opposed to chemical exposure in our food and/or environment. Just last night, tucked in between the primary election coverage on the national news stations, there was a feature about a consumer group trying to get artificial dyes banned from foods because of the negative effects on children.

Of course, information alone with not change the world, but it may help change some personal behavior--what people buy and what they use in their homes and businesses. After almost forty years of dealing with MCS, and the ignorance (sorry, can't think of a nicer way to say it) of people who don't believe that chemicals can make a person so ill, it's nice to see some public attention being turned this way. I am a firm believer that education is the key, and it's gratifying to see people starting to "get it".

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fragrance Free at Church

We have identified at least nine local church members who have chemical sensitivities. Some of the church leaders think it would be a good idea to establish a fragrance free policy for the church building and have asked me for some resource information. Of course, I am happy to give them all the information they need. One of the questions they have asked is what cleaning products should be used in the building and where they can be purchased. I have a list of products that are readily available at local stores, but I'm in a quandary about what they could use in the soap dispensers in the restrooms.

Restroom soap is a real problem for me when I am in public buildings. I had quite a reaction to the soap in the Bozeman airport on our recent trip to the east coast. I'm going to check with the supplier of what is being used in the church building currently to see if they have anything that would be safe, but beyond that, I'm a little perplexed. Personally, we use an olive oil based bar soap in our home bathrooms and a liquid hand soap (Shikai Very Clean Hand Soap) at the kitchen sink (it comes in a pump bottle). I suppose the church could always purchase the individual pump bottles of hand soap also, but that would be expensive, not to mention NOT environmentally friendly.

So this is my quest for this week--to find a fragrance free, chemically safe handsoap for the restroom dispensers at church.