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  • Saturday, August 06, 2005


    Better Living Through Chemistry (not)

    The canary in the coalmine is a potent image. These are birds taken by coalminers into the mines to detect the presence of methane and other poisonous gases commonly found in coal veins. Methane is lethal. Canaries falling silent and dropping dead in their cages was the warning to evacuate the mine or die as well.

    A friend of mine has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). There is strong evidence that people with MCS are the human equivalent of the canaries, the first harbingers and casualties of our chemically saturated living environments. This is something she wrote recently:
    And as an important footnote, for people (mostly in other blogs and communities) who are unclear on the concept - Multiple Chemical Sensitivities has nothing to do with whether or not we "like" the smell of a substance. It has to do with the neurotoxic chemicals used to create synthetic fragrances, and the solvents used to extract most essential oils.

    The FDA does not require that ingredients for "fragrance" be listed, and as they are not intended for ingestion, if you list it as "fragrance" you can include the same chemicals that are used in things like paint stripper, lighter fluid, spraypaint, airplane glue, dry cleaning solution, and other substances that one is advised are poisonous and should only be used with gloves and a mask in a well-ventilated area.

    Yet when these substances are put on your skin, they enter your bloodstream. When you breathe them in, they go straight to your brain.

    While those with healthy immune systems and intact livers may not notice these effects at first, they may be the reason you have fatigue, headaches, nausea, and other low-level to disabling chronic physical problems. And because the effects are cumulative, you may not feel sick at the moment you are exposed... but only hours or days later when your liver and kidneys overload at getting the toxins out of your body.

    We with MCS have just hit overload sooner. Whether through chemical injury or illnesses that damaged our livers and kidneys, we are like the Canaries in the Coalmines - the same things that make us sick are hurting your bodies, too. It's just that we are further down the road and manifesting symptoms before you do. The same things that give me migraines, or make me feel like I've been huffing solvents while you feel fine may turn up in you as cancer or asthma a few years down the road. By asking others to stop poisoning our bodies and the earth, we are not trying to be PC. We are simply trying to function at a basic level that most people take for granted.

    So the next time someone says, "I'm sorry, but your perfume/shampoo/essential oil is making me sick," we're not saying you smell bad, or that we just don't find the scent of your products appealing. The truth is, that to most of us with MCS, those toxic fragrances all smell the same - like toxic chemicals - and we're trying to find a way to co-exist without being crippled with pain.

    And though essential oils are less likely to be as toxic, they usually will make MCS folks sick, too, because of the solvents they almost always contain, or because the concentrated nature of the botanicals is setting off plant or pollen allergies. I used to love mixing and wearing my own essential oil blends. [...] And even on the days when I'm strong enough to handle exposure to essential oils, I know someone else I love isn't, and my desire to smell exotic or special is not as important at their right to be free of nausea and migraines. My "right" to parade around in a fog of toxins or allergens is not as important as their right to not be homebound. [all emphasis added.]
    A point I'd like to add is that almost all of the laundry detergents and products in mainstream supermarkets that are marked "Unscented" are not really without scent; the companies lie. How do they become unscented? Why, by adding more scent and chemicals. Counterintuitive? Yep.

    Here's the reason: The various chemicals and dyes that go into detergent have smells on their own, independent of added scents and fragrance. This is just the normal nature of the chemical soups in these products. In order to make them "unscented," they add fragrances designed to cancel the smell of the detergent. Even better, sometimes the smell is too strong to hide so they add smell deadening chemicals. Smell deadening is exactly what it sounds like: chemicals intended to shut down or block the scent receptors in your nose.

    For a reference, I recommend Peggy Munson's The Ever-Unstable World of Labels. Actually, all the articles on Peggy's main MCS page are worth looking at.

    Deliberately or inadvertently, our repeated exposure to these chemicals can eventually overload our bodies. The more I find out about how these chemicals are used, the more outraged I get. Remember Agent Orange, the Dow Chemical defoliant dropped in quantity on Vietnam? Causes birth defects and cancer? Although Dow denies it, it's probably an active ingredient in many weed killers currently sold in US garden stores and used by the chemical lawn industry. A little spina bifida and Hodgkin'’s disease are just the price of progress in the war on weeds, right? There are lots of products like this.

    If you think all of this has nothing to do with you, hark to the warning of the canary. If you don't, you may find yourself or someone close to you suffering permanent central nervous system damage. It happens every day in our chemically dependent society.

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