By Donella Meadows
–August 17, 1989–
Until she was 26 Annie Berthold-Bond had never had a medical problem. That year her husband Daniel was a graduate student at Yale, and she had just finished art school and was working as a waitress. One day there was a gas leak at work. “Lots of people passed out. I didn’t, but now I see that was a turning point.”
Annie was tired and depressed all winter, as if she were getting a flu. Doctors found nothing wrong. She and Daniel spent the following summer in Hanover, New Hampshire, where their families lived. Outdoors and active, Annie felt much better.
In the fall she walked back into their New Haven apartment and smelled something strange. An exterminator had treated the place with pesticide. Within three weeks she had to quit her waitressing job. “My body was rigid with tension, and I had crashing headaches. I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t read or watch TV. I had no strength any more. I’d wake up at 4 AM, obsessed with worry.”
The Yale doctor sent her to the mental health clinic, which put her into therapy for an emotional problem.
In January Annie’s apartment building was treated with pesticide again. She went into an emotional nosedive. “I couldn’t believe the violent thoughts I was having. I was afraid I was going to kill someone.”
As her aggressive mood grew worse, Annie convinced Daniel to take her to the hospital. She stayed two nights, medicated on Valium, then was sent home. The problem came back. Desperate, Annie committed herself to the hospital again. She was diagnosed as an “atypical manic depressive” and consigned to the psychiatric ward. She stayed in the hospital two months more, on antidepressants.
Annie might have been in and out of mental hospitals for a long time, if it hadn’t been for her sister Kathy, a biochemist and the mother of a hypersensitive child. Kathy had concluded that her son had allergic reactions to junk foods and petrochemicals. She suggested that Annie try some allergy tests.
That was another turning point. Annie’s response to common allergens tested off the scale. Her immune system was wildly over-reactive. She stopped looking inside her mind for the source of her trouble and started focusing on her environment.
She quit painting with oil-based paints. She tried to stay away from pesticides. But she and Daniel had just moved to Bard College in upstate New York, and the fresh paint, sheetrock, and joint compound in their newly renovated house made her sick. Then Bard sprayed the campus with the herbicide 2,4-D to kill dandelions. Annie’s aggressive symptoms started up again. Pesticide drifts from an orchard three miles away made them worse.
Gradually, though, Annie was finding help. She joined HEAL, the Human Ecology Action League, a group of about 5000 chemically sensitive people. A HEAL member told her about Dr. Neil Solomon of Baltimore, one of a small number of doctors who treat her ailment — which is variously called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), environmental illness, total allergy syndrome, chemical susceptibility, or profound sensitivity syndrome.
Dr. Solomon helped stabilize Annie’s immune system and counseled her on how to avoid triggering chemicals. She recovered slowly, except for maddening setbacks whenever she ran into any of the thousands of traps the modern world sets for the chemically sensitive.
Sunlight striking a bulletin board and vaporizing its binding chemicals could make her sick. She reacted to residual pesticides in melons. She couldn’t ride in a car with a badly tuned engine. She had to remove the swab soaked with fungicide in the receiver of every telephone. During her summers in Hanover, whenever Dartmouth College sprayed its elm trees, she had to stay out of town for a month. She and Daniel have had to move again and again, in search of a chemically clean home.
They can’t live within five miles of an orchard, or near agricultural land, power lines, train tracks, golf courses, smokestacks, garbage incinerators, gas stations, toxic dumps, major highways, or many kinds of businesses. They can’t use synthetic fibers — only cotton or wool, untreated with stain protectors, pesticides, or flame retardants. No fresh paints, stains, varnishes, urethane. No cosmetics. They clean with baking soda and unperfumed soap. They plead with neighbors not to spray fruit trees or roses — and the neighbors are not always understanding.
You could say that Annie is allergic to the twentieth century. She’s not the only one. The Environmental Health Center in Dallas has treated 17,000 MCS patients over the past 12 years. Canada recognizes MCS and offers many social services to its victims. The Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 15 percent of the U.S. population is sensitive to common household chemicals.
Neil Solomon guesses the percentage is even higher. He thinks that everyone has a threshhold of exposure, beyond which hypersensitivity can develop. Some people, like Annie, have lower threshholds and higher exposures than others. They are canaries for us all, able to sense poisons that we can’t detect in our coal mine.
How many people with chemical sensitivities are in mental institutions or on drugs that can’t help them? How many children like Kathy’s are being punished for behavioral problems, when in fact they’re having allergic reactions? No one knows.
What are the rights of these sensitized people? No one has thought it through. Annie says, “I try to get the neighbors to stop burning trash, or the town to stop spraying trees, and I’m treated as a nuisance. It’s so demoralizing.”
Annie and Daniel are slowly learning how to exist in a petrochemical world. Annie is starting a service called Environmentally Safe to help others learn too. She is especially interested in helping pregnant women — because last year she finally felt well enough to have a baby. Her daughter Lily is now a smiling, roly-poly eight-month-old.
“There’s something about having Lily now — I don’t feel like such an aberration any more. Those years were devastating to my self-esteem. Now I know I have to fight these chemicals.” Annie told me her story calmly, in precise detail, in her carefully planned, chemical-free home. But the years of fear and frustration have not left her entirely. As I was about to leave, she stopped me and ask, tentatively, a bouncing Lily in her arms, “You do believe me, don’t you?”
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989