Joining up the dots...

Chemically sensitive Lesley Williams calls us to action

I need a cardboard sign to hang around my neck. ‘I suffer from chemical sensitivity’ it would say. ‘Would you please be good enough not to wear perfume products when you are with me. Would you please not use any household sprays. Would you please not have perfumed flowers in your house. Would you please clean your bathroom with non-volatile cleaning products. Would you please… Would you please… Would you please.’

The sign would be so large that, as I’m only five feet one inch and a bit tall, I would not be big enough to carry it.

But why do I need the long list in the first place? Why is it that no one knows my condition? Well, they do – they just don’t know that they do.
‘I cough and have a tight chest when we paint the house,’ they say. ‘My eyes run like taps and I don’t feel well when I’ve been in one of those public toilets that have air fresheners in them’ they tell me. ‘I can’t breathe and my eyes go runny every time I go into my sister’s kitchen – I think it’s what she cleans with’ they complain. ‘My brother/sister/ husband/son/ daughter has asthma – yet you hardly heard of it at one time’ they say worriedly.

There are people who have bad reactions and who have been prescribed steroid medications, but who have not been advised to avoid products that make them ill, so they just keep on taking the steroids and using their cleaning products, their hair-gels and their plug-in room perfumers.

And why is it hospitals, at which allergy specialists and immunologists are treating people like me and advising avoidance, use an abundance of volatile chemical cleaners? Why do they allow hospital wards to be filled with perfumed flowers, many strains of which have been artificially perfumed, and which can cause respiratory

I’m delighted, of course, that there are medical experts who are seeking a medical solution to chemical sensitivity, but at the moment all they can do is to develop medication which will relieve symptoms but not avoid illness. There is no cure.

Cure – or prevention?
But is a ‘cure’ the only thing we should be seeking when sufferers’ lives could be made so much easier? If the many unnecessary ingredients that cause the illnesses were to be eliminated, these people would not be ill in the first place.

Well, I’m not saying anything we don’t know, am I? There are many commercial companies making products for people like me – products that have irritants designed out of them. There are enough sufferers for them to find enlarging ranges worthwhile and even creating new businesses specifically supplying products for people with respiratory conditions and chemical sensitivities.

There are so many of us in this world that there are public authorities in the USA and Canada that have changed their building contracts to ensure that no volatile products are used in the building or maintenance of their properties. Cleaning products are chosen for their benign ingredients and employees are requested not to wear perfumed products in their premises in consideration of colleagues who suffer from respiratory conditions.

Restaurants and bars have similar policies. I know of at least one hotel in Canada that has a floor of 42 rooms catering for those with respiratory and allergic conditions; some rooms even have carbon activated filters installed on water taps. They have made a serious effort to eliminate the products which cause health problems.
And what impresses me most about this hotel is that it is not run by a private hotelier who can be dismissed as being ‘screwy ‘ about allergies, but by a major North American hotel chain, which consulted Dr Robert Schellenberg, an allergy specialist who works with the University of British Columbia and St Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, to ensure that they were ‘doing it properly’.

So some employers and organisations are beginning to recognise and address the problems created by our increasing use of chemicals and their effect on health. And so they should. If well publicised reports such as that of Professor Ashley Woodcock of Wythenshaw Hospital in Manchester, showing that one in four children under the age of five have suffered lung damage, can’t produce some sort of response then it’s a sad day for public health.

But in the UK...
So, why don’t I hear of the same sort of organised action here in the UK? If public authorities and businesses can take action in other countries, why can’t they do so here? Individuals – people who are doing something about it in the UK – those who make the ‘purer’ products – all say the same thing: that everyone knows something about the problem, but no one is joining up the dots, nobody is looking at the big picture.

When I visit a pub/restaurant/shop where they don’t put perfumed air fresheners in the toilets or they clean tables with a clean damp cloth instead of the ever ready bottle of chemical spray cleaner, I write and thank them and explain how they helped me stay well. Sometimes I don’t receive a reply, and sometimes I receive a very happy reply. Am I making a difference? I don’t know, because I don’t know if anyone else is doing the same thing.

I was visiting a café in Manchester recently, which is part of a chain. As I went to the toilet I saw a notice requesting staff not to wear perfumes or perfumed hair sprays ‘for the comfort of the customers’. It’s a start; someone is beginning to join the dots together.

Individuals can write to businesses and organisations and this can achieve results. The more people who write the more requirements of patients will become known, and the less isolated suffers will become. It will help join up the dots.

Some years ago when there was a proposal to introduce perfumed air fresheners on the London Underground, a major campaign was mounted. All the relevant charities worked together to protect not only those who are presently ill, but also those who could become ill if subjected to a daily dose of perfumed chemical air freshener.

Take action!
So in addition to writing individually, how about joining an appropriate charity – Asthma UK, Allergy UK, Action Against Allergy, Friends of the Earth or the one best suited to you. You would then be among friends and you could encourage them, with their level of influence, to write to major chain stores such as Marks and Spencer, for example, telling them how much the increase in the use of chemical fabric treatments of their products is affecting those with allergies and respiratory conditions.

How beneficial it would be to them and their staff – and the workers in the factories which make the garments that they sell – if they reduced their use of these fabric treatments.

How painting their buildings with solvent-free paints will not only improve the health of customers, but will probably reduce their staff sickness and absenteeism.

How removing air fresheners from toilets would improve the comfort of members of the public using them, including those one in four children under five who have yet to suffer the consequences of lung damage.

Surely we shouldn’t only be concentrating on developing medication to overcome the illness caused by ingredients in products that did not need to be there to begin with, but on producing those products in such a way as to not cause ill health in the first place?

So this is my suggestion. How about a concerted campaign informing those who really can make a difference – big business, health authorities and education authorities? How about asking them to commit to a campaign within their own organisations? How about encouraging influential charities to meet with them and act, not to wait for the ‘big threat’ (like air fresheners in the underground) before reacting. It is such a simple message. How about joining up the dots?

Click here for more articles on chemical sensitivity

First Published in 2009

Back to top