Sunday, March 15, 2009

Toxins Close to Home

Now that it's Springtime (well, almost), my wife and I are thinking about opening the windows and airing out the stale Winter air. This is a great idea in theory, but in our neighborhood we are challenged by factors that make us think that our windows should probably stay sealed year-round.

We live in a small community of homes that are quaintly clustered together. Separated by small yards, abundant trees and footpaths that wind through the neighborhood, it is idyllic in many ways. Many visitors say that our neighborhood resembles a Methodist summer camp, and I take that as a compliment. Wooded and a ten-second walk from a picturesque pond, we hear birds singing all around us.

Living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), we are consistently challenged to function in a world where vaporized chemicals and fragrances fill the air. In stores, at work, in medical offices and supermarkets, we are constantly bombarded with drifting clouds of toxins that cause us a variety of symptoms, some of which are irritating and others which are potentially debilitating, at least temporarily.

With our neighbors' homes in such close proximity, the ubiquitous use of scented dryer sheets is a practice that causes us great consternation and physical symptoms. Our driveway is situated some 200 feet from our home, thus in order to walk to our front door we pass by four different homes. As we meander the paths of our community, we are often hit with a cloud of vaporized Bounce that can cause each of us instant irritability, a burning sensation in our sinuses, sore throat, and asthmatic symptoms in the case of my wife. You can imagine that this is at once unpleasant and unhealthy (plus instant irritability does nothing for a marital relationship!).

As the weather warms and we want to open the windows to let in the "fresh" air, the breeze will often bring with it a wafting scent of fabric softener that invades our home and has the potential to seriously impact our health. Adding insult to injury, one of our neighbors still uses a charcoal grill rather than a gas grill, and the vapors of burning lighter fluid can be carried to our home on almost every summer evening when they're in the mood to grill some burgers.

Last year, we sent a letter to several of our abutting neighbors to request that they consider changing their habits in the interest of our health, as well as theirs. We received some sympathetic comments (and very unhelpful but well-meaning problem-solving), but we have noticed that no one has actually chosen to change their lifestyle. So, this week we drafted another letter with slightly stronger language, but still not demanding any change. With the letter, we included a plethora of educational materials, brochures and articles which are highly informative, easy to read, and backed up by science and research. Yesterday, on an afternoon walk with our dog, we delivered a packet to each of our neighbors, hoping that at least one or two will consider our request, realize that these chemicals are also unhealthy for them and their families, and make a positive lifestyle change that will be better for all concerned.

Navigating a world that's literally bathed in chemicals and fragrances is a distinctly unpleasant challenge, one that brings up many of our worst fears. While many people are personally offended when the MCS community attempts to educate them about the dangers of chemicals and fragrances, we are stalwart in our opinion that most simply have not considered that alternatives even exist for these products, and it is part of our mission to educate anyone who is willing to listen with an open mind.

Manufacturers obviously care little for the environment, or for the health of the people who use their products. Corporate loopholes and trade secrets have kept the ingredients of these products hidden from the American people, and continue to do so. Meanwhile, commercials and advertisements effectively convince Americans that odors are bad, and that products like scented trash bags and "air fresheners" are absolutely essential in order to cover up offending smells.

Americans like a world that's sanitized, shrink-wrapped and tidy, and we have bought this way of thinking hook, line and sinker, thoughtlessly purchasing the products that are shoved in our faces, barely wondering whether we need them or not. Static in your laundry? Buy Bounce! Dirty toilet? Use Febreze! Car smells like the dog? Hang a Christmas tree air freshener on your rear-view mirror! Do we even consider what's in that can of Febreze? Do we really think that a strawberry-scented candle was made with strawberries? The fragrance in that scented candle was manufactured in a factory where the chemist gives absolutely no thought to the effects of his or her work on your health. That company does not have to disclose the ingredients in the scent which they've created, and most of the ingredients that they use are unregulated by the federal government and have never been tested for health effects on humans. So, consider that Plug-In that's in the nursery next to your baby's crib. Do you know what's being released into the air as your baby's brain develops? Do you know what your baby is taking into his or her lungs with every breath? Surely you do not.

As you can see, I'm fired up. I'm fired up that we are so blind to what has been forced upon us. Whether it's war or chemicals or fragrances or the economy, our role as accepting and loyal sheep can do nothing but bring us harm. Sure, some people may say that people with MCS are anxious, depressed and antisocial. They can tell us it's all in our head. But those of us who are aware that we are constantly bombarded by foreign substances in our environment that harm us are not necessarily going to stand by while the air we breathe is consistently polluted.

I can't shut down the factories, and I can't get those companies to listen to me. But I can talk to my neighbors, educate my colleagues, discuss options with the owners of stores and restaurants, and consistently demand and request that people take a look at what they are doing and decide for themselves whether it's healthy or not.

As for my neighbors, I hope to be able to report quite soon that several agreed to change their ways. I hope that, this Spring and Summer, we'll open our windows and be greeted with the scent of warm pine rather than the toxic scent of Bounce. Whatever happens, I can rest assured that I put myself out on a limb, offered information, asked for what I needed, and (perhaps) opened someone's eyes to a slice of my personal reality.

So, the next time you do your laundry or clean your house, consider what it is that you're using. Where did it come from? What is it doing to you, your children and your health? What does it do to the environment when it washes down the drain or vaporizes into the air? Fifteen years ago, few people believed that second-hand smoke was dangerous. Well, the dangers of chemically-based fragrances are no different, and perhaps some of us will now choose to wake up and smell the (real) roses.
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