Dangerous exposure?

Yesterday when I came home, my roommate asked me to photograph her back.  It was covered in a grid of sticky patches and medical tape.  She’s being tested for skin allergies.  Some chemical in some of her clothing causes her to develop a rash, and she wants to find out what it is, so she can avoid it in the future.  Although, if she finds out that she’s allergic to, for example, a formaldehyde finishing resin, which are applied to clothing to create wrinkle resistance, how do you then go about buying clothes that are formaldehyde free?  It’s not like they list all of the chemicals on the tags of things we wear, like they do with shampoo or laundry detergent (other common causes of skin allergies).

What amazes me is how many little dots of irritants they are testing.  Who knew there could be that many potential allergens just in clothing? But then, when you think about just how many chemicals we are exposed to every day, I am surprised that her entire body isn’t covered in sticky dots.  Our lives are covered in synthetic chemicals, no matter how much organic food we buy.  We wear them, wash ourselves and things with them, and we breathe them in.

My mother refuses to go in a Bath and Body Works, and I agree with her. The overwhelming  smell of all of the different perfumed products is nauseating.  The powerful smell is a flood of chemical molecules rushing into your nose.  Luckily, most of us can just walk past to some fresher air, no worse for the wear. But for some people, inhaling even a trace amount of certain chemicals can cause serious symptoms. It’s called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity syndrome, and it’s a controversial diagnosis for a variety of symptoms that are very poorly understood.

The basic idea is that chemical exposure might affect a few people much more than it affects the general population. For those few people, the documented symptoms, ranging from headaches and nausea to breathing problems and physical weakness, can be debilitating. Identifying the chemical causes of such symptoms can be very difficult or impossible.  According to WebMD, many experts, including the American Medical Association think that the link between patients’ symptoms and chemical environmental factors are not well demonstrated. There is no clear medical test, understood cause and effect pathway, or specific treatment for MCS, but it persists as the best description for the symptoms people face.  A lot more research is needed before doctors and scientists will be able to describe it as a disease.

In the meantime, people living with extreme forms of MCS are taking drastic measures to live their lives without debilitating exposure.  In a photo-essay for NYT this weekend, Thilde Jensen, a MCS sufferer herself, shares photos of the drastic measures people have taken to live their lives.  People move to remote, rural areas, live completely outdoors, wear respirators, and limit their use of commercial products, from conventional building materials to clothing. In her essay, you can watch individuals use the solutions they have found to their specific symptoms.

It’s easy to imagine that the chemicals in our environment can cause all kinds of health problems. People with asthma struggle in smoggy cities. My dad once speculated that his lymphoma might have been the result of exposure to diesel fumes that leaked into the interior of the car he drove for many years. We know about major pollution events that have caused cancer clusters of people exposed to toxins. Since Rachel Carson sounded the alarm, we’ve been concerned about the chemicals we put out into the world, but it’s easy to forget the small, subtle chemical exposures we constantly face.  Very few people believe that they have MCS, but the rest of us breathe in the same things all of the time.  Scary thought, maybe we’re all experiencing effects that we have yet to detect, to varying degrees.  Does any one have or know any who has MCS like symptoms?

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