MCS Would Be Bad Enough
By Charles W. Moore
In Franz Kafka's novella, "The Metamorphosis,"
the protagonist, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to discover that he
has been somehow transformed into a giant cockroach. Gregor's parents,
whom he financially supports, become
Eventually a locksmith is called. However,
when Gregor's family and boss see his condition, they are repulsed. The
boss screams in horror and flees. His mother collapses in a paroxysm of
self-pity. His father attacks him. Driven back behind his closed door.
Gregor is shattered. "I'm in great difficulties, but I'll get out of them
again," he pleads. "Don't make things any worse for me than they
Only Gregor's beloved sister is compassionate,
but even she soon grows impatient with his chronic condition. Eventually
Gregor dies, much to the relief of his family. His dried-up cockroach body
is tossed unceremoniously into the trash by a
I'm nuts, at least according to columnists
Leah McLaren of the Globe & Mail, and Sandra Porteous and Nancy Radcliffe
of the Halifax Daily News. I am a long-term sufferer of the controversial
affliction, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), which all three of these
ladies have recently declared to be an imaginary illness. I wish!
Ms. Radcliffe's two recent columns purporting
to "debunk" Environmental Illness, puts me in mind of Kafka's cleaning
woman. Nancy seems to take perverse delight in taunting and ridiculing
people who struggle with an affliction that would be bad enough for its
symptoms alone, let alone having to fend off derisive attacks from skeptical
ignorami -- lay and professional.
Ms. Radcliffe declaims that Multiple
Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a "psychosomatic condition," based on the
fulminations of chemical industry advocate Michael Fumento, and a couple
of obscure U.S. researchers. She might also have included allergist Dr.
Arthur Leznoff of University of Toronto, whose sub-specialty is touting
a bizarre theory that MCS symptoms are induced by "panic attacks" and "hyperventilation"
when the subject encounters a chemical odour. I've read Dr. Leznoff's published
"research." It's a hoot -- at least to anyone who lives with MCS.
One "expert" cited by Ms. Radcliffe
asserts that most MCS sufferers are "middle-class white women, financially
able to exit the environment that's making them sick" -- another sweeping
generalization typical of MCS-deniers.
I've battled MCS for nearly 30 years,
since I was a young white male. I'm now a middle-aged white male, and largely
because of this illness, my income has hovered around or sometimes well
below the poverty line for the past fifteen years.
The Globe's Ms. McLaren, who interviewed
me for, and quoted me (somewhat out of context) in her April 29 piece entitled
"Halifax Hysteria," hews to the "it's all in their heads" line, pulled
the sophomoric stunt during her Halifax visit of dousing herself in a potpourri
of perfumes and plunking herself down in a waiting room at the scent-free
Grace Health Centre. She got (politely) kicked out.
Obviously, the fact that 10 percent
of adults and five percent of children have asthma, which can be life-threatening
and has been proven to be aggravated by
In her May 2 Daily News column, subtly
titled "Stop The Nuttiness," Ms. Porteous equates MCS reactions to the
pollen and dust allergies she personally suffers from,
Well Ms. Porteous, I happen to suffer
from both pollen allergies and MCS, and your comparison is analogous to
suggesting that a head cold and pneumonia are roughly the same thing. Right
now I've been in the throes of a pollen allergy attack for several days.
My sinuses stream; my nose is stuffed and runny, and unlike you, I'm unable
to take allergy medication, because that can cause other problems.
However, the reactions I get to chemicals
are something entirely different. The principal symptom, for me, is pain
and inflammation. I can also get headaches so severe that I vomit, have
diarrhea, and become incapacitated. I break out in hives and sometimes
open sores. I have a photograph of my forearms swollen up like Popeye's
-- the fingers of one hand so bloated that they would not bend.
I'm not a pain wimp. I live with it
literally every day, pretty much all over my body. When I visit the dentist,
I forego anaesthetic, and I assure you that the dentist's
However, while I am obliged to "hide
in my room" as Ms. Porteous puts it, some of the time, in self-defense
against the sort of stuff I just described, I have not "stopped
My first MCS symptoms developedwhile
working at a TV station in the early '70s. I began reacting to the chlorofluorocarbon
solvents used to clean electronic equipment. Over the next fifteen years,
I experienced a sort of gradual falling-domino progression, where more
and more chemical substances began causing problems. One day I would be
fine; the next a few minutes exposure would make me quite ill.
During this time I pursued livelihoods
and hobbies that routinely exposed me to environmental chemicals -- around
cars, boats, photographic darkrooms, and wood finishing. By the mid-'80s,
I was obliged to wind down and liquidate two businesses I owned and operated
-- no longer able to tolerate necessary chemical exposures.
The dominos continued to fall, and by
1989, I was so sensitive to common environmental chemicals that any semblance
of a normal lifestyle became impossible. Exposure to automobile exhaust,
scented personal care products,
I have to wear a gas mask in the car,
not only because of exhaust fumes, but also because I react to plastics
in the upholstery. Ditto for virtually all homes, stores, malls, offices,
and so on.
The laptop computer I'm typing on now
is inside a glass case with an extraction fan venting fumes outside. If
I try to use it normally, within ten minutes I am in serious pain.
I can't smell anything, but I react to some chemical vapor it emits. This
does not happen with my older laptop, which I tolerate fine.
Nancy Radcliffe would probably try to
tell me that this is "all in my head" too, and frankly, I have spent sleepless
nights wondering myself whether some psychological factor might be in play.
However, I have been blindsided too many
I don't pretend to know exactly what
physiological mechanism is at work here. Blood work sent to the U.S. by
the Environmental Health Centre indicated that I have
To my shame, I used to say some of the
same things Nancy, Leah, and Sandra do. Even after I was experiencing MCS
reactions myself, I was in deep denial. I really did not want to believe
this was happening to me, and consequently I continued to push the tolerance
envelope farther and longer than I should have. I have fought this disease
hard every step of the way.
Our culture does not cope gracefully
with chronic illness, especially if it demands long-term inconvenience
or behavioral change in others. Most people are quite willing to visit
your bedside during an acute illness, with sincere good wishes for a speedy
recovery. It's when you can't manage to either get better or die with decent
haste that empathy falters. Death before one's time is romantic; lingering
in poor health for years as a graphic reminder of everyone's morbid fears
is bad form.
The government and the medical establishment
have been banefully slow to respond with research initiatives addressing
chemical sensitivities, and the chemical
Denial is the operative word. Nobody
wants to face the implications of it being "true" that our comfortable,
affluent, convenient way of life is making people sick. They don't want
to give up "living better through chemistry." The very suggestion that
we might have to scares the living daylights out of people. It makes them
feel threatened and angry, and reflexively resent the messenger of
this dreadful news -- the environmentally ill person.
Much better to drive the loathsome cockroach
back behind closed doors and wait for him to expire quietly and conveniently
out of sight and mind.