Over the last few years I have written a number of posts about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a condition from which my wife and I both suffer to varying degrees. MCS is essentially an invisible disability, which, although recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act, is still not recognized by the American Medical Association. Thus, gaining recognition is a struggle, as is having people believe that it's even real.
Living with MCS presents layer upon layer of difficulty. Having our own families truly understand what a struggle it is for us to spend time in their homes is difficult at best, and we are often symptomatic with little feeling that we can truly address our symptoms' root causes. In our own home, we find we are deleteriously affected by our neighbors' use of fragranced dryer strips, charcoal, and lighter fluid, something that becomes much more problematic when we want to have our windows open in the nice weather. We love to travel, and this has become a challenge as well, since hotels, trains, buses and restaurants are simply deluged with chemicals and fragrances, and what little control we can exercise does not always seem like quite enough. It's no wonder that people with severe MCS often become socially isolated, losing friends and even family over a disability that so few people seem willing to understand and accommodate.
Working in the healthcare industry, I am equally challenged in trying to control my level of exposure to cleaning products while on the job. In my previous place of employment, a modicum of changes were made in order to accommodate my condition, although I still feel that they could have done much better. People are very unwilling to change, especially when it comes to cleaning products and personal care products, even if those very products are causing harm to someone they care about. Still, it was relatively tolerable, and now that I work at that office as a consultant, I come and go without spending forty hours per week in that poorly ventilated space, and it seems to have little negative effect on me in the bigger picture.
At this point in my career, one reason that I would still refuse to work in a hospital would be the level of exposure to toxic chemicals that such employment would necessitate. As a case manager, I have visited respiratory units where such strong cleaning products were being used that I couldn't imagine that patients were not being negatively impacted. And while many hospitals now proclaim themselves "smoke free" for the health of patients and employees, fumes of cleaning agents and disinfectants poison the lungs and immune systems of everyone who is exposed.
Safe and effective alternatives to these harmful products do indeed exist, but the petrochemical industry is a powerful lobby, and this relatively unregulated industrial giant has brainwashed Americans into thinking that they just can't live without the sickening smell of Tide, Bounce, Lysol, and Cascade. We have been duped into believing that strong fragrances bode cleanliness, when it is the absence of fragrance and chemical residues that is the cleanest and most healthy choice for humans and the environment. "Better living through chemistry" may be true in some instances (my successful use of Prozac for 20 years being a testament to that), but unbeknownst to most Americans, the vast majority of chemicals on the market in this country have never been tested for safety---and are indeed not legally required to be---and many are actually banned in the European Union due to their known carcinogenicity.
I am now in a position where I feel forced to make a decision to resign from my current position as a nurse in a residential hospice in my home town. This pending resignation is due to the fact that my employer is simply not willing to make reasonable accommodations for my (hidden) disability. Sure, desultory attempts have been made to replace the laundry detergent with a "free and clear" brand, and they have finally done away with dryer strips completely. Still, they are loathe to change all of the other products that contribute to what I call the "chemical aura" of the house, even though a patient with lung cancer recently had a respiratory reaction to a cleaning agent used by one of the home health aides on duty. If I had a visible disability, or if one of the office managers used a wheelchair, for instance, there would be no end of accommodations made for what is deemed a "real" condition. Also, the disabled community is a powerful lobby with a great deal of political clout, and an ADA violation is not a small thing with which to reckon. I am hesitant to bring an ADA lawsuit against this employer, and while I will communicate the reasons for my resignation, in the end, they will suffer no ill effects from my departure.
While my MCS has improved over the last few years due to dietary and lifestyle changes made under the guidance of a wonderful and progressive doctor who treats such conditions, the real road to improvement still lies in the avoidance of exposures. Life with MCS is quite simply a struggle which the vast majority of people simply do not understand---even family---and it is, in the bigger picture, a very isolating exercise which has far-reaching implications for lifestyle, travel, employment, friendships, and beyond.