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The homelessness crisis that you never heard about

For people with multiple chemical sensitivities, toxic fragrances and molds can affect lives and livelihoods

Janis Hall lives and works in Brattleboro, and hosts a small fragrance-allergy support group.


Susan’s home was making her sick. She’d searched a long time to find this apartment. With a small budget and health problems requiring certain conditions, it wasn’t easy to find a place that worked.

And now it wasn’t working anymore. Her throat was on fire, and she felt like she had the flu. Many days, she had migraines or trouble breathing. She couldn’t concentrate.

Susan’s work, which she did on the computer in her home office, was becoming seriously impaired. She started to worry about money. She was so tired. She’d moved in only four months ago, and this was a crushing disappointment. She needed a solution.

What was the problem?

First, the common hallways had been re-carpeted, and every time she opened the door, the off-gassing volatile chemicals rushed in.

Then, a new tenant had moved in below with lots of air fresheners and scented candles. The fumes seeped into Susan’s space day and night. Opening windows rarely helped, because the outside air carried powerful synthetic fragrances from the laundry room.

Susan has multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS).

* * *

According to a study published Feb. 16 by Anne Steinemann Ph.D. in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, more than 12 percent of the U.S. population reports being diagnosed with MCS. And more than a quarter say they experience some type of chemical sensitivity.

Most people assume that products sold in stores are made of safe, tested ingredients. But the FDA regulates only foods and drugs. There’s a huge variety of unregulated consumer products that aren’t even required to list ingredients.

And when such products do show ingredients, the item “fragrance” or “perfume” or “parfum” can contain a mixture of chemicals from a list of more than 2,000.

Repeated exposure can trigger chemical sensitization, as Susan experienced, with increasing inflammatory reactions to many chemicals in even tiny amounts. Other people may develop asthma, allergies, or a mast-cell disorder.

Many products deliver chemicals directly to our lungs or skin, which are very absorbent. Think air fresheners, dish soap, hand sanitizer, perfume, aftershave lotion, body spray, and hair products.

Some gradual hair dyes (the brush-in kind) sold in the USA contain lead acetate. Keep your hair away from the baby! However, Canadians and Europeans are safe, since lead acetate is not permitted in cosmetic products there, so the company adjusted the formula for those folks.

* * *

If you’re wondering what happened to Susan, she’s now living in her car. Because it’s winter, she had to travel south.

Thanks to her smartphone, she keeps in touch with family and her friends from the times back when she was “normal.” They try to be helpful, but none of them has a home where she can safely live. Living in her car has made it impossible to keep up her work.

Her best support comes from online support groups. Some are small, local groups; others have hundreds or thousands of members across the country and the world. Members ask advice, vent, give encouragement, and sometimes advertise for a housemate or items wanted, such as used clothing that hasn’t been exposed to fragranced products.

* * *

Susan’s story is, sadly, not at all unusual in these circles. On a regular basis there are posts from individuals living in cars or tents, desperately seeking safe places. Some have young children. Once in a while there’s news that a group member — succumbing to the constant stress, isolation, and lack of help — has committed suicide.

Because... how do you get help when the staff of social service agencies wear perfumed hand lotions? Where can you go for relief when the public bathrooms are filled with synthetic fragrances from hand soap and bowl fresheners? Where can you shop when the stores are bursting with extra-long-lasting laundry scent and perfumed floor wax?

Some groups are trying to help.

After the suicide of Loretta Montoya, two women — Andrea Hartley and Jenny Johnson — started People Rescue, with the goal of providing emergency help to people who become homeless due to multiple chemical sensitivities or mold issues.

* * *

Locally, Brattleboro’s Americans with Disabilities Act Committee has recently heard from residents with MCS.

The Inclusion Center, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, recently invited the public to discuss housing issues for this population. Most people with MCS aren’t able to attend group meetings, so they phoned instead.

“We’ve gotten more calls about this than any other issue we’ve dealt with,” said the organization’s director, Julie Tamler.

Chemists keep inventing new molecules that have interesting smells, and companies keep using these molecules as cheap ways to scent products. The trend will continue apace unless we have new regulations, or unless there’s increased demand for fragrance-free products and spaces.

Until then, wealthy people who develop multiple chemical sensitivity will build nontoxic houses way out in the clean air of the countryside, and people of little means who develop MCS will live in cars, tents, or shacks while struggling to come up with a next move in this toxic society.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #454 (Wednesday, April 11, 2018). This story appeared on page D2.

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