Lisa reported to work on Monday, excited to be moving into a new building and a new office. She organized her desk, put her file cabinets where she wanted them, and hung her service awards and family pictures on the walls. But within a few days, Lisa began getting severe headaches. She rationalized that the added stress of moving into the new office was the cause of her headaches, but she had greater difficulty understanding why she was also going home exhausted and depressed. Some days were clearly worse than others. Most were a trial of enduring debilitating headaches, missed assignment deadlines, and fatigue so paralyzing that often the best she could do at the end of the day was to read the mail before going to bed.
Lisa left her job only one month after the move, unaware that the air in the new building had made her sick. Most Vermonters, like most Americans living in a temperate climate, spend approximately 90 percent of their lifetimes indoors. This statistic is in contrast to the image we have of ourselves as being attuned to and engaged in the out-of-doors.
Sick building syndrome, a term first used in the 1970s, describes a host of symptoms induced by buildings that sicken their occupants. There has been extensive speculation about the cause or causes of sick building syndrome. Poor design, maintenance, or operation of a building's ventilation system is often considered a primary cause. Heating, ventilation, and cooling systems can be of inadequate size to supply sufficient fresh air to building occupants. They can draw upon already polluted intake air. And they can actually breed and disperse air contaminants or respiratory irritants. Interior redesign, such as the rearrangement of offices or the installation of partitions, can also interfere with efficient functioning of such systems.
Synthetic chemicals are all around us. They're in the products we use, in the clothes we wear, in the food we eat, in the air we breathe. No wonder, then, that many people have become sensitized to the chemicals around them. Multiple chemical sensitivity, or "environmental illness," is a disorder triggered by exposures to chemicals in the environment. Chemically sensitive individuals can have symptoms from chemical exposures at concentrations far below the levels tolerated by most people. The symptoms may look like those of an allergic reaction because they tend to manifest themselves immediately upon exposure, although some individuals' reactions may be delayed. As a chemical sensitivity worsens, reactions become more severe and increasingly chronic.
Multiple chemical sensitivity may result from a single massive exposure to one or more toxic substances or by repeated exposures to low doses. Interactions of chemicals in the environment can be isolated and modeled in laboratories, but the unique ability of each human body to respond to different chemicals in different ways makes it difficult to understand the effects of any one chemical in a particular concentration on any person. Just as some people are allergic to certain medications while others are not, the way one person reacts to a chemical in the environment may be entirely different than another person's reaction.
When people with multiple chemical sensitivity are exposed to many substances, including common personal care products, their responses vary from mild irritation to life-threatening reactions. What may appear to be a mild fragrance or chemical odor to one person can be excruciatingly toxic to someone with multiple chemical sensitivity. For example, cigarette smoke or perfume on your clothes, hair, or body can cause disorientation, heart palpitations, muscle weakness, mental confusion, migraines, nausea, asthma, or itching which may last for minutes to days.
The National Academy of Sciences estimates that 15 percent of Americans are unusually sensitive to common chemicals. Chemical sensitivity is now recognized as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Respecting the special needs of chemically sensitive Vermonters is the best way to help individuals coping with this illness. We all can help both chemically sensitive Vermonters and the environment by using non-toxic, unscented biodegradable products. Individual sensitivities vary, however, so it is best to ask chemically sensitive friends which products are safe for them.