The Singing Canaries' World

In February I watched a documentary about Sweet Honey in the Rock, a black women’s a Capella group. For 30 years this troupe has sung about social justice issues. One member described their purpose as, “The world needs to know how it looks to us.”

When the Environmentally Safe Housing Initiative (ESHI) first met last fall, the “singing canaries,” those of us with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and/or Environmental Illness (EI), educated other ESHI members about: (1) what triggers our reactions; (2) the effects of chemicals on our physical/emotional health; and, (3) the measures we have taken to prevent, minimize or detoxify from exposures. In our own way, we got to speak about how “the world looks to us.”

Rachel Carson, author of the book Silent Spring, warned consumers in the 50’s of the impending dangers of pesticides and other chemicals. In 1989, the U.S. marked a milestone (of sorts) little known to the general public, producing its one millionth man-made chemical. According to the Environmental Defense Group, of the 4 billion pounds of toxic chemicals released into the environment each year, 72 million pounds are known carcinogens. In a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, researchers tested the umbilical cord blood of ten unborn babies and found 287 industrial chemicals and pollutants contained within it.

With the world as toxic as it is, it’s no wonder that 16% or more of the population is considered chemically sensitive. MCS, according to the Chemical Injury Resource Association of Minnesota (CIRA), is “a reaction to chemical substances that may occur following long term exposure to low level chemicals found in many common products, in naturally occurring substances such as mold, wood, smoke, etc. or from exposure to a large amount of toxins such as a chemical spill.” Environmental Illness (EI) is a broader term that means a reaction to a number of environmental substances, including exposure to electromagnetic/electrical fields (EMFs).

Toxic Triggers

Typically, a MCS/EI individual may react to any or all pesticides, lawn chemicals, plastics, paint/ink, mold, wood, tobacco smoke, perfume/colognes, synthetic building materials, car exhaust fumes, synthetic fabrics, formaldehyde, household cleaning and laundry products, air fresheners, scented candles, and glues/adhesives. A person may be healthy one day, and then suddenly manifest symptoms because he/she has reached what building biologists call “the rain barrel effect.” Every day our bodies are exposed to many environmental toxins, usually storing them in our fat cells. Most everyone has the capacity to handle this exposure without symptoms until we reach a point where our body, much like a rain barrel, eventually fills up and toxic overload spills over causing symptoms that can range from slight to life-threatening.

Physical and Emotional Impact

In general, symptoms can include headaches, muscle and joint pains, fatigue and weakness, disorientation and confusion and respiratory problems. Many MCS/EI individuals are also sensitive to electromagnetic and electrical fields, develop food allergies, and may suffer from asthma, fibromyalgia, mitral valve prolapse, or chronic fatigue syndrome.

Victoria has MCS and metastatic breast cancer. Her diet is limited because she reacts to foods as well. She comments, “… if I deviate from my diet and have two bites of fruit, I experience greater systemic yeast overgrowth, severe fatigue, with painful joints, gastrointestinal bloating and upset, general fogginess and dulled cognitive abilities.” Memory problems, impaired motor functioning, recurring infections, slurred speech and mental confusion are just a few of the impairments she experiences from constant environmental toxin overexposure.

When a MCS/EI person becomes overwhelmed physically, mentally and emotionally, their distress frequently becomes exacerbated by feelings of isolation and abandonment. The steps they must take to recover and maintain their health typically creates situations that cut them off from interacting or socializing with other “normal” people.

Their family and friends don’t understand what’s going on and their general medical practitioner typically can’t help. The recovery process can be a long journey of seeing different physicians and alternative practitioners, trying various dietary regimens, eliminating household products and buying less toxic ones, and substituting new and unusual foods for familiar foods. Dietary changes typically involve shopping and cooking differently than other family members to cut out foods to which they are allergic. Restaurant outings are drastically reduced.

Frequently moving from place to place in order to find an environmentally safe house or apartment is a challenge to their psyche and their already overburdened financial situations. Some severely debilitated individuals move away from family and friends in order to live in a residence (which might mean their car!) that gives them some amount of safety and a sense of security.

Measures to Mitigate Effects

In addition to altering their diets, detoxification measures using juicing, herbs, homeopathy, vitamin/mineral supplementation, massage therapy, chiropractic treatments, detox baths, and visits to steam rooms/saunas become commonplace. Exercise, fresh air, and support groups also play a part in the recovery and maintenance program. Steps to eliminate mold and toxic chemical products from the home are taken to provide internal symptomatic relief.

Since MCS individuals are also sensitive to electromagnetic and/or electrical fields (EMFs), electrically changing their external environment becomes an additional priority. Reducing magnetic fields and unplugging lamps and other electrical appliances near one’s bed at night helps lower the impact of EMF fields and provide a safer environment in which the person can heal.

Making a Difference

During the Sweet Honey in the Rock documentary, a 30-year veteran encouraged viewers to become social justice activists, “You’re going to die anyway . . . make a difference!” For many MCS/EI individuals, wanting to die and/or committing suicide can become commonplace. And that’s why the ESHI “singing canaries,” despite their many challenges, came together in the hopes of making a difference so that they and other victims could have hope of living richer, fuller and more productive lives.

They envision creating housing that’s environmentally safe and sustainable, one home at a time. If you’d like to help make their vision a reality, call Paul Halvorson at Third Way Network at 612-332-1311, ext 22 or log onto www.thirdwaynetwork.org/localgroups and find out how you can lend a hand.

NEXT MONTH: Dorothea and her autistic son Nick’s experience with electrical fields.

Mary Tellers is an ESHI member who has dealt with environmental illness for over 20 years. She has done copyediting and proofreading for Access Press since April 2005 You may contact her at mtellers@yahoo.com for a list of sources used in this article.