Man-made chemicals have invaded every aspect of our lives – there are herbicides on our lawns, pesticides on our food, carcinogens in our carpets and formaldehyde on our clothes. And that is quite naturally having a huge negative impact on our health. Whilst most of us live our lives unaware of the toxicity of commonplace objects, there are those who suffer the side effects everyday. A condition called ‘Multiple Chemical Sensitivity’ (MCS) is caused by exposure to dangerous chemicals and leaves its sufferers extremely sensitive to household products. Perfumes can cause seizures, and fumes and contact with certain plastics can make them ill for days. I caught up with Kate Harvey, an American Muslimah living in the shadow of MCS to talk with her about her struggle and the ways we can all reduce our exposure to dangerous toxins.
According to MCS campaigner Peggy Munson, multiple chemical sensitivity (also known as environmental illness or chemical injury or chemical sensitivity) is defined as a condition where individuals have become neurologically sensitized to chemicals in the environment, including fragrances, car exhaust fumes, pesticides, cleaning products, and building materials. MCS can be brought on by a variety of reasons. Some will become more sensitive due to asthma or chemotherapy whilst others will have been exposed to dangerous levels of pollutants during industrial labour, such as farmworkers or simply by growing up in a heavily polluted neighbourhood.
“People with MCS are up to one thousand times more sensitive to chemicals than the average person, which means that ingredients in most common products can be extremely detrimental or deadly,” states Munson. “Even the tiniest exposure, such as standing on a street corner next to a person whose clothes were washed in conventional detergent, can cause severe damage to someone with MCS.”
Kate Harvey, a Muslim mother of two from Maine in the USA, discovered she had MCS in 2009. “I had been really, really sick for quite some time, suffering from hives, eczema, asthma, and many other problems, such as stomach distress, when I joined a forum called Food Allergy Network,” she explains. Through her time on the forum and also speaking to her doctor, she realised that she had MCS as well as coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition in which one cannot eat gluten without the body producing antibodies that attack the intestine, destroying it).
“I was literally resorting to using clay to wash my hair and person, soap nuts to wash my clothes, and vinegar to clean my home because I got so sick from chemicals. Since then I’ve learned a lot of tricks- how to make my own laundry soap and personal care products, replacement products like Shea butter for lotion, and even how to get fumes out of things bought recently.”
Despite being a medically recognised condition, many sufferers struggle to convince their doctors that everyday products such as fragranced soaps can cause such violent reactions. Another big problem that MCS sufferers face is exclusion from the wider society and that is no different for Muslims with MCS. Attending a Friday khutbah is almost impossible and there is no effort to accommodate them at lectures, events and celebrations by ensuring that they are as chemical and fragrance-free as possible.
In fact, as many Muslims wear perfumes and oils as part of the sunnah this means that those with MCS struggle to even meet and greet fellow Muslims in their own homes due to fears of chemical contamination. This leaves MCS sufferers left out and isolated.
“It’s very hard to go places,” admits Kate. “People, especially at the mosque, are very perfumed and as a result, I don’t go often. I would really appreciate it if people didn’t wear perfume to the mosque. Natural scents are fine, but fake perfumes are very sickening. A lot of people with MCS feel like they’re putting people out, and are made to feel like they are being unreasonable or picky. We don’t want to be this way, believe me. Just like accommodating a person with food allergies, a little kindness goes a long way.”
Another important point that Kate raises is that the chemicals that cause such a reaction in her are actually toxic to us all. Bleach, ammonia, dyes, perfumes, emulsifiers, flame retardants and plastics, which are petroleum-based are toxic to everyone. They pollute our bodies and the environment and are completely unnecessary – as such, we all need to avoid them whether we feel the effects or not.
WAYS WE CAN ALL HELP
Scents and fragrances are hugely problematic for MCS sufferers as they can cause seizures, vomiting and serious illness. Fragrance-free products are now widely available and you can also use natural products to help reduce your own exposure to potentially toxic chemicals. One simple step you can take to cut your scent is to wash your clothes in fragrance-free detergent as conventional washing powders and their fragrances stick to your clothes for a very long time. Dryer sheets are a definite no-no as they also use lots of fragrances. As Kate attests, a bit of diluted vinegar or baking soda in the wash has the same effect.
Avoid essential oils
According to MCS campaigners, essential oils can be quite toxic because although they are based on natural substances, they are produced in factories and a concentrated to a level which causes negative reactions in some people. So just because a perfume is made from essential oils doesn’t necessarily mean that it is safe, natural and good for you. If you want to cut out fragrance for a particular MCS sufferer, it’s also a good idea to speak to them about their scent-triggers as some natural scents can cause particularly negative reactions.
Natural cleaning alternatives
Replace cleaning products with baking soda and white vinegar mixed with hot water which you can use in various proportions to get the job done. Replace air fresheners with natural alternatives such as spider plants which clean the air. You can also use one teaspoon of baking soda and two tablespoons of white vinegar added to two cups of clean water to make an air freshener by placing the mixture in a spray bottle.