Thursday, December 28, 2006

MCS and its Discontents---A Rant

I can fully admit now that I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), and over the last few years, it's getting worse. Mary has it too, and it is rendering our lives more difficult by the day. Although a large portion of the medical community will not admit that MCS is real, a growing number of professionals and lay-people are realizing that in this chemically saturated world, consistent exposure to toxins may predispose certain individuals to potentially debilitating symptoms.

For myself, I experience dizziness, headaches, post-nasal drip, sore throat, shortness of breath, irritability, memory loss, poor concentration, and other symptoms when exposed to certain substances, fragrances being the worst of all culprits. Colognes, perfumes, deodorants, hair products, cleaning products, soaps, detergents, scented candles, room deodorizers, "Plug-Ins"----they all, to some degree or another---cause symptoms. Research on MCS has found that continued and multiple exposures only serve to increase an individual's sensitivities, rendering that person potentially an outcast from the "scented" world. It is a difficult venture to negotiate a world awash in fragrance, and at times it feels like a losing battle.

When I am reminded that MCS is yet to be fully accepted as a real diagnosis (and not just a psychosomatic illness of crackpots), I reply that it was not very long ago that Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome were themselves relegated to the list of false diagnoses fabricated by delusional malingerers. Even Gulf War Syndrome was given short shrift for a number of years.

One of my current challenges is that I work in an office where a number of colleagues---all non-medical support staff---wear inordinate amounts of perfume and cologne, so much so that it is beginning to affect my health and ability to remain in certain parts of the office. Although my boss had made a previous desultory attempt to "suggest" a fragrance-free policy for the office, I am now stepping up my campaign for the institution of such a policy as a matter of course. The fact that the employees in question are Latino---with fragranced products being a very strong cultural norm and their wearing a mark of individuality and self-expression---brings cultural issues into play which may prove to be uncomfortable. I am trying to pose this issue as being one of health, not of personal taste, but I have found over the years that offense can easily be taken when one voices displeasure vis-a-vis another individual's favorite scent. Telling someone that you cannot abide their perfume can often be taken as an affront, perhaps even as an insult to personal hygiene. Personally, I see the wearing of a strong perfume as invasive as an overly loud car stereo which literally shakes our building when in our parking lot. The fact is, the perfume causes me much more harm than the music.

Finding a fragrance-free workplace is not an easy task, and trying to force a workplace to adopt such a policy is even harder. With the assault against smoking becoming ubiquitous, perhaps the way has been paved for a similar assault on fragrances. I find this culture in particular to be addicted to fragrances, so much so that being scentless can seem almost "unnatural", or is it really just "too natural"? We must cover up everything: body odor, bathroom odors, household odors, pet odors---so many natural odors to erase with chemicals, ("better living through chemistry!") Are we that afraid of how things really smell?

As pesticides, fungicides, dyes, fragrances, and chemicals saturate our world, we lose touch with what a natural world might feel like, how it would smell, feel, taste and look. We alter our environment to suit us, and we allow multinational corporations to dictate that our toilet water must be blue and our bathroom smell like artificial flowers. Chemical analyses of individuals' hair has shown that we are all bathed in chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens. As more and more of us become toxic and overly sensitive, the culture will be divided between those who embrace a non-fragranced world, for example, and those who live for their Airwicks. Just as smoking has divided those who embrace it and those who do not, I hypothesize that, eventually, the knowledge of the hidden dangers of fragrances will become more maintstream, and my currently "fringe diagnosis" will be accepted as real. Until then, I struggle to survive in a world that feels continually and pervasively poisoned.
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