Confession time! I’m a canary, of sorts.
No, I do not sing like one. (In fact, during school assemblies, I was told to lip-sync, for the sake of everyone present!) -- Like an estimated 15% of Americans, I am highly sensitive to many common chemicals found in offices, homes, and retail establishments. – Why am I called a ‘canary’, then? I’ll get to that, later. Promise.
The condition which affects folks, differently, goes by the names: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI), and Environmental Illness, among others.
The sad truth is that many of this 15% are unaware that they have a condition that comes with both a name and some governmental protections.
Where does the 15% number that I use, come from? Well there have been a number of government and university-level surveys conducted. The range of those who responded that they have hyper-sensitive reactions to certain chemicals in their life was in the 15% ‘ballpark’. (Some lower and some higher.) – What really matters is that the percentage of those of us with some level of MCS is reasonably high.
So, MCS refers to an assortment of reactions when exposed to common (and uncommon) chemicals. Reactions vary with the individual and the chemicals. Common ones include: Vertigo, nausea, muscle pain and weakness, headaches, difficulty breathing, sleepiness, and ‘brain fog’ (inability to concentrate). Because it is not an allergy, there is no medications that really prevent the effects of an exposure. Depending upon the individual’s level of MCS, problems resulting from exposures can worsen over time.
Governors in 35 states have issued proclamations regarding Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/Toxic Chemical Injury Awareness, one or more times. (FL has done so over 6 times!) These states are: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida. Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington. - Also, the Mayor of the District of Columbia has proclaimed MCS Awareness.
Fragrances are but one source of problems for those of us with MCS. Yet, they are an important one. Consider that there are countless chemicals in use that the FDA has never tested and likely will not due to financial costs. Then, you have federal protections afforded cosmetic companies so that they do not have to list many of the ingredients used in their products, claiming the information to be ‘trade secrets’.
In addition to harming those with MCS, asthmatics suffer, often in silence, from being exposed to co-workers’ air fresheners, incense, and perfumes/colognes.
Fortunately, an increasing number of government agencies are banning the use of scented products or at least advising against their use. – For example, the Maine Department of Labor instituted a voluntary fragrance-free policy for those at its one-stop centers. A number of Massachusetts government offices are also fragrance-free zones. – A number of hospitals and professional associations have adopted similar policies, in recognition of the problem. (Ex., http://www.massnurses.org/health-and-safety/articles/chemical-exposures/p/openItem/1346)
Sick Building Syndrome is another source of concern. – Sick buildings are ones where the indoor air quality is such that individuals experience one or more health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a great factsheet regarding SBS. http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pdfs/sick_building_factsheet.pdf).
Extremely ironic is that one of the first publicized examples of a ‘sick building’ was the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1988! (http://articles.philly.com/1989-11-26/real_estate/26140477_1_indoor-air-pollution-epa-headquarters-environmental-protection-agency)
Business Week once ran a cover story, ‘Is Your Office Killing You?’ (http://www.businessweek.com/2000/00_23/b3684001.htm)
Then, of course there are the VOCs. (Volatile Organic Chemicals.) These are often odorless but can have serious consequences. Common sources are furniture, carpeting, and paint. -- Formaldehyde is a major culprit. Think back to the Katrina trailers designed to act as temporary housing for those who were displaced. Well, doctors began seeing a relatively large number of patients who were experiencing nose bleeds, headaches, and nausea. The culprit in many instances was from formaldehyde used in the trailers’ manufacturing. As a result of this, new ones had to be ordered and the existing ones ‘put out to pasture’, all at a great expense.
Some of you have probably experienced headaches, watery eyes, and some sinus congestion when your office space was newly painted, carpeted, or outfitted with new particle board desks. Well, you felt, however briefly, what folks such as myself do, frequently, but on a larger scale.
Another area of concern involves cleaning chemicals. And their lobbying groups.
Cities, states, schools (including universities) have all found great savings from the use of green cleaning products: Dollars and a reduction in absenteeism from those adversely affected by traditional cleaning agents. Among them are Minneapolis, Seattle, Santa Monica, Rochester, Maine, Harvard University Medical School, and the University of Georgia. (http://www.butlerdearden.com/greener-buildings-improve-staff-and-student-performance/) – However, there are lobby groups that represent the traditional cleaning manufacturers and chemical companies. They can feel threatened by the movement toward greener cleaning and therefore try to block legislation that would mandate a change in how government entities are maintained.
Many federal agencies have specific personnel policy language addressing the needs of those with MCS. – Workers’ compensation and EEOC claims have been filed on behalf of employees who suffered injuries or been denied basic and reasonable accommodations.
There are resources available to help employers recognize what primary concerns there are and some responsibilities that they must bear. (http://www.aabri.com/manuscripts/09244.pdf -- JAN (the Job Accommodation Network) is a service of the U.S. Department of Labor. (http://askjan.org/media/downloads/MCSEIA&CSeries.pdf)
Back to ‘my story’.
I have been lucky to some extent. Yes, 2 environmental medicine specialists have diagnosed me with MCS. Yes, I must be careful about where I go and be prepared for any one of a variety of reactions depending upon the exposure. And, yes, explaining MCS to others can be a drag.
But, I am fortunate that agencies have been accommodating, overall. Co-workers avoid using air fresheners and perfumes. They clean their work areas with agents that I provide. And, I work around and with this condition.
My earlier promise to explain being a ‘canary’.
Well, back in the day, when coal miners would need to know whether or not there was sufficient and safe air quality in a particular mine shaft, they would first send down a canary. Canaries are especially reactive to poisonous gases that are colorless and odorless. If the bird was healthy and full of song, then the miners knew that it was probably safe to venture down the shaft. If not, then it was time for them to hightail it out of there. – Those of us with MCS will hopefully help companies produce safer products and governments to provide safe environments for their employees and citizens.
(NOTE: I must warn that there are unfortunately those medical professionals who do not believe in MCS, just as many did not believe in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia or Gulf War Syndrome. And, there are businesses hawking all sorts of bizarre diets and products geared toward curing us. -- The reality is that MCS does exist. There is currently no cure. Avoidance of triggers is the best advice, currently, for us.)
To learn more about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS): http://www.mcs-america.org/understanding.pdf
Russell A. Irving is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.