The Silent Epidemic of Environmental Sensitivities

In the first part of this series, we broadly touched on environmental and medical history as new (to us) areas of discussion. We examined the impact of poor policy on lead regulation and the “silent epidemic” of lead poisoning in the 1960s, and we wonder what silent epidemics afflict us today as we look for lessons from these fields. So today we turn to what could be a modern day epidemic that has far reaching consequences, chemical contaminants and environmental sensitivities.

There were several inspirations behind the tone and purpose of this short series. We were partly inspired by the June 2013 issue of Journal of American History. Paul Sutter reviewed the state of environmental history and concluded with the fear that moral relativism might overtake the field's activist roots. In the same issue, Professor in Religion and Nature Bron Taylor replied with a reflection on the relationship between academics, environmentalists, and our ethical obligations to nature. He wrote that environmental historians “will need both ongoing critical analysis of human failings as well as an ethical narrative of environmental enlightenment and social progress.” The brief time line we laid out about lead reveals both human failings and triumph over damaging and reductive environmental policy.

We also discovered the medical history blog, REMEDIA, which presents “the history of medicine in dialogue with its present.” Last week our colleague and fellow PhD student Whitney Wood wrote a fascinating post for them about “Pregnancy, Pain and the Profession.” To us, it underlined the personal character of some medical history. Pain is something with which most everyone can identify and sympathize. Unlike histories of nations or specific groups, pain is common and identifiable to us all. There are no boundaries there.

Medical and environmental history both seem to lend themselves to relevant, powerful histories that are irrevocably linked to a unique yet common construct: our bodies. One deals with the human body, the other with the world in which that body lives. Both deal with life and death. They talk about the world that sustains us or the vessels that let us experience it. It's hard not to connect with their work when they're about you and your world.

It shouldn't be strange then that when these two fields overlap the topic is often striking and worrisome. As our history of lead hopefully demonstrated, when health is impacted by environment, we should pay attention. Without a doubt, we are exposed to far more chemicals today than our ancestors and historians might one day be examining the next silent epidemic of what's called environmental sensitivities. While these sensitivities appear in various forms, including Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, and others, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is the most aptly named. All of these are the result of exposure to chemicals in our daily lives. They have different symptoms, ranging from headaches, fatigue, nausea, and chronic pain. Those who suffer from them range from being inconvenienced to suffering from a debilitating life-changing illness.

It's unclear how many suffer from environmental sensitivities. In the 1980s a condition was labelled “Sick Building Syndrome.” It occurred seemingly without one specific cause across an entire building. Without specific symptoms and many different circumstances with varying amounts of self-diagnosis, it was believed that its cause was from airtight ventilation in new modern buildings. Contaminants were spread throughout the building by air ducts and caused sickness on each floor. As Michelle Murphy writes in a fascinating history of the syndrome, by its nature Sick Building Syndrome was an uncertain designation. As a “syndrome” it was a collection of conditions rather than a specific origin, and with the name “Sick Building” it was implied that it was contained within the limits of a particular building – not indicative of large scale chemical exposure. When a specific cause could be found, such as the presence of asbestos, it was no longer called Sick Building Syndrome. The result was a vague, uncertain label applied to a disease that was being caused by chemical contaminants, but not acknowledging the danger of those chemicals in other spaces and longer time spans.

In the last three decades, there has been a gradual acknowledgement of the danger of chemical contaminants on a large scale. It's clear that the problem was (and is) more serious than just badly planned ventilation and unlucky office inhabitants. Multiple Chemical Sensitivities and other environmental illnesses have become much more common and prominent for doctors in recent years. It was once attributed primarily to psychological reasons rather than environmental ones, but evidence is mounting to suggest that chemical exposure causes serious, sometimes crippling, illnesses. While many chemicals are regulated, many more go uncontrolled or even unnoticed, and their impact is only slowly being understood. The Canadian Human Rights Commission now obliges employers and government to consider the impact of environmental sensitivities, having published medical and legal perspectives on the issue as well as outlining appropriate policy.

Serious environmental sensitivities are yet unknown among most of the population. Despite the name it can be a serious disease. You may know someone who doesn't like scents, and avoids perfumes and scented detergent, and might get rashes or headaches when exposed to them. On the other end of the spectrum are those unable to enter a building under construction without being laid out in bed for days. For some, exposure to chemical scents is not just a mild discomfort but a physical barrier keeping them from leaving the house or even inviting others to their home. For years these individuals were thought to be suffering from psychological disorders rather than biological ones. Now we know better, and it's evident that they might be canaries in the coal mine. We are all exposed to chemicals just without their serious symptoms.

We hope that Canada (and all governments) can continue to assess, update and renew the public health policy that protects us from our own ignorance. It's worth repeating the words of someone who saw the disaster that leaded gasoline would become. As we begin to understand the newest “silent epidemic” that remains unreported and mostly unknown, we should take heed of the words of the public health advocate from 1925 who warned of the dangers of leaded gasoline:

conditions would grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come so insidiously . . . that leaded gasoline will have been old . . . before the public and the government awaken to the situation.