Over the last six years, I have corresponded with “Alicia” (not her real name), who initially read this column in a suburban Phoenix newspaper. Beginning in 1999, after some health challenges, she began having a physical reaction to certain chemicals, including those found in hand sanitizer, dryer sheets, and pesticides.
According to multiplechemicalsensitivity.org, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) involves an “unusually severe sensitivity or allergy-like reaction to many different kinds of pollutants including solvents, VOCs, perfumes, diesel, and smoke.” Debate rages in the medical community over the cause. But what is known is that nearly every person with it experiences real symptoms, often to the point of having a disability. It isn’t faked.
In an email interview, Alicia said, “When I’m exposed to chemicals, my airway closes down and I can’t get enough air. I can reach a critical point within a few seconds. Even opening mail can give me a migraine headache that can last two or three days. Chemical exposure also causes vision problems, brain fog, and fatigue.”
In 2004, to support her health, Alicia and her husband moved to an isolated desert development in which 30 other families with MCS issues reside. They built an MCS-friendly home, where Alicia now has freedom to venture inside and out and feel well.
She said, “But when I go out in public, I must wear a two-canister respirator to avoid accidentally breathing things like laundry products, perfume or hand sanitizer. About the only time I leave home is to see a doctor or dentist.” Finding an MCS-friendly health professional that doesn’t use fragrances has been challenging. She worries about one day having a medical emergency and visiting a hospital, where cleaning chemicals abound.
At home, much of her day involves working a garden or making quilts, of which she has made 80 the last six years. “Emotionally, this has been very difficult,” she said of having a disability. “When you go out in public wearing a respirator, you lose your identity. They just see a mask. Children cry, adults stare, and many people are rude or ridicule me.”
Even close family members say she has been making up symptoms to get sympathy. She said, “In fact, I lead a 1,000-member online MCS support group and I find that only about five or six of our group members can say their family has been supportive.”