©2008 Christine Andrew
Blind, deaf, mute, non-ambulatory, developmentally disabled. These are descriptions of disabilities that most people recognize. The causes of these disabilities are often birth defects, accidents or severe illnesses. The people who suffer them do so through no fault of their own. They didn’t cause the problems they were born with or give permission to be in accidents or to become ill.
Such disabilities existed years before there was any legislation to accommodate their needs. Now, thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which marks its 14th anniversary, there is hardly a U.S. city without some sort of wheelchair access on sidewalk curbs, and public restrooms. Braille signs have been installed in elevators, and telephones and televisions have been modified to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing users.
But there is another kind of disability that is not as easily recognized, and which does not receive as much support to accommodate the growing needs of those who suffer from it: Environmental Illness/Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or EI/MCS.
This is a condition that creeps up on unsuspecting people, perhaps for years, until one day it dawns on them that they are allergic to life and wonder what happened to them. By then many have become home bound. Doctors haven’t been able to figure out what’s wrong, and drugs haven’t made any difference. Among the many symptoms of EI/MCS are headaches, fatigue, insomnia, joint and muscle pain, memory loss, imbalance, severe allergies, asthma, chemical sensitivity, and possibly cancer and other autoimmune disorders.
The causes are numerous and have been likened to what is known as the “rain barrel” effect. Just as a rain barrel collects water over an extended period of time, people’s bodies—sometimes since infancy—have been slowly filled with multiple toxins, chemicals, and pollutants: smoke, vaccines, excessive antibiotics (and not just in the prescription form), perfumes from fabric softeners, laundry detergents and other scented products, preservatives from packaged food, cleaning chemicals and pesticides sprayed at schools and homes. Each exposure deposits more drops into the person’s barrel of toxins until the barrel overflows.
I began noticing my own symptoms when I was around 40 years of age. I thought my allergies, joint pain and sever sensitivities to scents, to name a few symptoms, were just signs of aging. I began to accept this belief when doctors couldn’t help me with anything besides medication. With each passing year, it seemed as if my symptoms were becoming worse. I couldn’t walk down the detergent aisle in the grocery store because of the scents, and being around anyone wearing perfume made breathing difficult and my throat raw. I lived with constant rhinitis, but refused the standard drug treatment for these symptoms.
After reading “Staying Well in a Toxic World,” by Lynn Lawson, I realized that my “allergic” symptoms had a cause and a name. My body had just about accumulated a full barrel of toxins. It has taken great effort and time to drain my personal “rain barrel.” I have learned how to remove, repair, replace, avoid and clean up the environment in and around my property, and how to detoxify my body. I would not consider myself to be disabled by any means. But there are many people in communities who have much greater sensitivities and are considered disabled. They are no longer able to go into public places because of the potential exposure to chemicals and other pollutants.
Environmental illness/Multiple Chemical Sensitivity cannot be “cured,” but there are some approaches that can have a profound effect on how a person copes. One of the most helpful things we, the public, could do, for instance, is to add this postscript to the many public signs that ask people to turn off their cell phones: “Out of concern for others, please refrain from wearing perfumes.” Or, “Out of concern for others, please refrain from using pesticides.”
Providing adequate scent-free zones, ventilation—a window and /or a fan— or using nontoxic cleaning supplies or natural alternatives to pesticides are other measures we as a public can take to ensure that those who are allergic to life can still enjoy it. Even though they have no outwardly visible sign of a disability, people with EI/MCS need reasonable accommodations.