"Pass the Word"
I was extremely pleased when, upon making telephone reservations at the Comfort Inn in Asheville, NC, I was told by the reservation clerk, "We don't use fragrances in our rooms. We don't use air fresheners or anything with a strong smell."
I could hardly believe my ears, and wondered if that was indeed true. When I arrived at the Comfort Inn, which is clean and nicely appointed, I made my usual "smell test." How refreshing to enter a motel room and not feel my bronchial tubes closing. In fact, I breathed deeply to see if I would have any respiratory problems from polluted indoor air. I did not. I complimented the motel. I always write a letter to companies when I find a place that is mindful of the air we breathe and the health of their clients.
This experience was in deep contrast to my visit to Cracker Barrel restaurant just down the street from the Comfort Inn. Knowing that the Country Store area is usually filled with candles and other "fragranced" products, I donned my cotton mask before entering. Naturally everyone stared at me wondering what dread disease I carried inside me.
I had to suppress a strong urge to climb up on a box and shout out to all the staff and customers, "You won't catch anything from me, but the chemical smells emitted from perfume and potpourri and candles in this room could kill me."
As we get older, many of us find that exposure to small doses of chemicals we encounter every day brings on a strong reaction in our bodies, ranging from burning and membranes swelling in our throats to mental fogginess, unstable walking and even passing out. In my case, the swelling always leads to acute bronchitis that goes on for weeks and weeks. The vocal cords are affected and I become extremely hoarse.
This problem is called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, (MCS), and is sometimes mislabeled as immune deficiency. This is not an allergy. The body doesn't make histamines as it does with an allergy. The ADA covers people with this problem, and we who suffer with it can ask that public places make a clean air area for us just as they would provide for any other person with a disability.
I have learned to ask for a table away from people wearing perfume just as I ask to be seated away from anyone who is smoking. Recently at the Olive Garden in Roswell, GA we asked to be seated in an area where no one was wearing perfume. However, before long the couple seated near us left and the hostess seated a woman whose "fragrance" polluted the air around us. Knowing I would become ill, I asked that we be moved to another area and we were. The staff was apologetic and that helped, but it was obvious that my request had made no impact on the hostess as she disregarded my needs when she sat the second couple.
MCS affects many people, old and young. Indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air because we keep our homes and other buildings shut tight to prevent the loss of heat or air conditioning. Open windows clean out the stale polluted air and bring in fresh air. But plugging in an "air freshener" does not make the air in the room fresh. It only adds to the chemical pollution indoors as it dispenses synthetic fragrance made from petroleum and other dangerous products.
Looking at me, no one would recognize that I have a disability. The average person has no clue that his after-shave or her perfume layered over her body lotion and hair spray can send me to the emergency room within minutes of breathing all that fragrance. A sudden asthma attack or other respiratory condition comes on quickly at times. Spending even a short time in a room with artificial fragrance or odors can lead to days of body aches, exhaustion, brain fog, and memory loss for me and millions of other people who have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.
At times I wonder if some of us will end up living in a bubble because the majority have not yet learned the effects of chemicals on our children, our elderly and anyone who breathes in daily the cleaning products, the pesticides, the laundry detergents and fragranced fabric softeners, the air fresheners, and most of the sprays that we as a culture have come to think as synonymous with "Clean.”
Editor’s note - A shorter version of this article was published in the winter 2010 issue of the newsletter for the Institute for Continuing Learning at Young Harris College.
Glenda C. Beall advocates for clean indoor air quality in workplaces, schools and in homes. She lives with MCS, caused by toxic chemicals in our environment. Her articles, essays and short fiction have been published online and in paper. Her Poetry book, Now Might as Well be Then was published in 2009. She is on faculty at John C. Campbell Folk School where she will teach memoir writing August 21 - 26. Find her online at .