Human Canaries and Friendship

In addition to many of the health issues I’ve talked about in this blog, one of the major conditions that has increasingly affected my daily life is my extreme sensitivity to fragrances and certain chemicals.  People with sensitivities like me, and others diagnosed with “multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)” are referred to as “canaries.”  We are human canaries.  The name “canary” comes from a past practice of miners who would take the birds into the mines with them as an animal sentinel, to provide advanced warning of danger.  Canaries are more sensitive to toxic gases than humans, so if the bird stopped singing, got sick, or died, the miners would know they needed to escape the mine or use protective gear before they were affected.

Low levels of fragrances and chemicals that most people probably wouldn’t notice, will make me very sick, so sick that I could be in bed with debilitating migraines, intense sinus pressure and pain, nausea and vomiting for a few days.  This includes perfumes and colognes, scented candles, scented lotions, air fresheners, scented laundry products, personal care products, even some flowers, etc.  Almost anything that contains fragrance, and some cleaning chemicals, solvents, paints, etc., will affect me.

I don’t know why I am sensitive.  I’ve seen doctors and specialists about this.  My specialist said that the only thing I can do is to avoid fragrances and chemicals as much as I can.  With me, it is an “irritant” and irritants need to be avoided.

I don’t know if there was an initial exposure that started this sensitivity, but I wasn’t always sensitive.  It started in my mid-twenties with a few perfumes and gradually escalated over the years to the point where low level exposures or even one whiff of a certain fragrance will make me very ill.  Right now, given that the “why” is unknown, the “why” to me is not as important as the fact than “I am” sensitive and need to make significant adjustments in my life and choose my health.  Other health issues themselves are already isolating enough, but fragrance and chemical sensitivities make it even worse.  This problem affects many decisions I make, and my social life is very limited.  Some of the decisions I’m faced with frequently are:

  • What products I buy – from household cleaning products to soaps, lotions, makeup, etc.  They need to be “fragrance free” or “unscented.”
  • What stores, restaurants or other establishments I visit – Will there be air fresheners, scented candles, or too many fragranced people?
  • What public events I attend – Is it indoors or outdoors?  Outdoors is better with fresh air.  In the last few years, I haven’t been able to attend events that I enjoy, like family get-togethers, ballets, musicals, concerts, parties.
  • What volunteer or other community service activities I get involved in.
  • Who I can be around and who I can socialize with – Will they be wearing fragranced products around me?
  • Whose car I ride in.
  • Who rides in our cars – Hubby has had to “de-fragrance” our vehicle when people wearing fragrances have ridden with him.
  • Whose home I visit – Do they apply perfume, use air fresheners or other scented products?
  • Who can enter my home – I have to be strict about who enters where I live.  It is the only place where we can make it safe for my condition.  Fragrances, especially many scented laundry products these days leave lingering fragrances, especially in upholstery, for several days or weeks.  Sometimes I have to leave my home and stay with my mother while hubby “de-fragrances” it.
  • What home projects hubby can work on and when – Most likely I will have to leave the house if chemicals are involved.
  • When I can go outside –Smells from fragranced laundry products emitted from neighborhood dryer vents trigger a reaction.
  • Who my “true” friends are – True and caring friends will help you.  They will be considerate, respectful and nonjudgmental of your sensitivities if they value a relationship with you.

Chemical and fragrance sensitivities is a growing problem, and it is concerning to me to learn about the types of ingredients that make up many fragrances these days.  I will post more about this later.  Over ten years ago when I was searching the Internet for information and resources, I came across only a couple of websites with passing mentions of the problem.  Now, when you Google “fragrance sensitivity,” “chemical sensitivity,” “multiple chemical sensitivity” etc., there seems to be endless hits.

For those of us who live with this kind of condition, it is real.  It’s not all in our heads.  I will post more information in the future.  But for now, here’s a question to think about (inspired by blogs from two MCS sufferers, Sherri Connell and Linda Sepp).  If a friend or loved one mentions that a certain fragrance or chemical around is making them ill, even if you are the one using a fragranced product, what would you do?

Would you choose the product?

Fragrance - Choosing the Product

Or

Would you choose the friendship and try to help get your friend away from the problem, or make yourself and your home safe when you are around your friend, regardless of the type of sensitivity they have (food, flowers, environmental, electromagnetic, etc.)?

Fragrance - Choosing Friendship

Here are a few fellow bloggers I know of who live with similar sensitivities.  If you or someone you know is struggling with chemical or other sensitivities, please feel free to share your experiences in the comments section or let me know if you/they have a blog.