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DISABILITIES

By Daniel J. Vance

 

  In April 2004 I interviewed a woman I called "Mandy," not her real name. She reads this column in The Desert Advocate, near Phoenix. At the time of her interview, she and her husband were moving to a new home on 40 acres in rural Arizona in order to avoid exposure to the many everyday chemicals that aggravated her disability: multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

  This columnist has received more emails about her column than any other.

  "In 2001 I became ill with MCS," said Mandy, 55, recently over the telephone, "and it ended nearly everything, including my friendships and ability to work. It changed our lifestyle completely. We have since moved to Snowflake, Arizona, near the Petrified Forest."

  She loves her new home, saying, "I now can go outside without worrying if my neighbor is chemically treating his lawn, spraying his horses for flies, using his meat smoker or venting fabric softener out his clothes dryer. I used to vomit and have bad migraines up to three days after exposure. I would lose leg function and start falling. Here I have clean air and freedom."

  Mandy and her husband have built in Snowflake a "safe house" free of the many chemicals that aggravate her MCS.

  She first began noticing violent symptoms in 2001 after being exposed to perfume and fabric softener. "I had several emergency room visits," she said. "Fabric softener, especially, closes my bronchial tubes and I can't breathe. But my exposure to the many chemicals in the hospital itself were often worse than what had sent me there."

  She said people with severe MCS are "modern-day lepers." Her sister, who has MCS, once called for an ambulance after experiencing symptoms and the paramedics showed up wearing cologne. Many people with it can't find a dentist or doctor that doesn't use cologne or fabric softener on clothing.

  "Two of my sisters have MCS," she said. "We all live in isolation, don't have much of a social life, and don't wear personal care products. If I had a broken leg I'd go to the hospital, but otherwise I stay away from it because being there and exposed to all those chemicals they use could easily end my life."

  Though not yet by the medical community, multiple chemical sensitivity has been officially recognized by about 20 federal agencies and may affect to some degree millions of Americans.

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