On Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness Month: 5 Ways To Act in Solidarity As We Face The Toxic Tipping Point


On Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness Month

May is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness Month. The Health Justice Commons is calling in our communities to engage with this month in a way that challenges ableism and supports an understanding of the deep & inherent interdependence among health, disability and climate justice.

People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) and Environmental Illness and Injury (EII) sometimes refer to themselves as canaries. This helps explain that like the proverbial canaries in coal mines, their bodies rapidly express symptoms of harm when they are exposed to toxins at levels that may be indiscernible to some. We believe people with MCS and EII are planetary whistle blowers, an indicator species within the human family alerting us all to another shocking aspect of climate chaos: it isn’t just carbon levels that are higher than ever before, we have surpassed a global toxic tipping point.

There are over 85,000 synthetic chemicals currently in use in the US alone. Only ¼ have ever been tested for safety. Many chemicals used in personal care and cleaning products are ‘secret’ and don’t need to be disclosed on labels. According to a 2018 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UC Davis Air Quality Research Center, personal care and industrial products are now outpacing transportation as sources of urban air pollution! NOAA atmospheric scientist Jessica Gilman explains, “gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy. Volatile chemical products used in common solvents and personal care products are literally designed to evaporate. You wear perfume or use scented products so that you can enjoy the aroma. You don't do this with gasoline.”

Because of systemic ableism, awareness months can sometimes over focus on cures while discounting the role of injustice and climate change in causing illnesses which affect everyone or inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes of people with chronic illnesses as victims, worthy of pity. Recent media coverage of Ady Barkan, a badass spokesperson for Medicare For All, exemplifies this type of ableism. Barkan has repeatedly been referred to as an ASL ‘sufferer’ and as being ‘confined’ to a wheelchair. Reality check: that chair got Ady to congress and we are all the better for it. Mobility devices like wheelchairs are assistive technologies that help people who need them be where they want and ought to be – a part of public life with the autonomy and self-determination we all deserve.

Yet, many people with MCS and other environmental illnesses face great difficulty having a public life and voice. Increasing levels of environmental and indoor air pollution, especially in urban environments, keep people with MCS and EII isolated from many aspects of daily life. People also face incredible stigma from medical institutions. While seeking healthcare, many people with MCS or related illnesses are forced to challenge the presumption of a mental health condition that is used as sufficient reason to dismiss their general credibility with regards to reporting on and understanding their own symptoms. This undermines a person’s human right to treatment. It is ableism at its worst, highlighting the abusive challenges many of us face in getting the care we deserve, particularly those with mental health issues, with whom we stand (or roll with) in firm solidarity.

People with MCS and all types of environmental illness need our awareness and solidarity now more than ever. Environmental racism and classism, and the planetary ecocide we are all racing against the clock to halt are the hidden causes of MCS and environmental illnesses. Those of us living with these invisible yet telling disabilities should not have to apologize or be shamed for requiring changes in our daily living and work environments. People with MCS and EII are actually exceptionally adept at serving as a warning system for ever growing rates of toxins – reducing these chemical exposures are changes we all need to make to survive and thrive.

Ready to take action? Here’s 5 things you can do:

#1: If you have MCS, Environmental Illness or Injury, you are not alone. Join our movement by completing this survey: You’ll be part of our people’s science efforts to raise awareness about environmental and health justice. And, watch our Facebook page for the launch of the Health Justice Commons new website on May 29th and a video offering a people’s science and disability justice perspective on MCS and EII!

#2- Listen to planetary whistle blowers! If you have friends, relatives, colleagues or neighbors who have MCS or EII listen to their feedback and requests regarding personal care and cleaning products, appliances, and construction materials, all of which may emit dangerous levels of indoor air pollution. This is solidarity that can literally save lives, including yours!

#3- Check out Sins Invalid’s Disability Justice Primer, required reading for our times! It provides a disability justice overview and details for how to make events accessible for people with all types of disabilities. Get your DJ Primer here.

#4- Make your home and work place low or no fragrance zones by using eco-friendly and fragrance free personal care and cleaning products. Environmental health data is increasingly showing that personal care and industrial cleaning products are outpacing transportation in causing air pollution. Here’s a great resource for going fragrance free from the East Bay Meditation Center.
You can also learn more from Black Women for Wellness
And, Women’s Voices For the Earth

#5- Organize for Right to Know Laws, Pesticide Bans, or other community environmental justice action! We need to build a new consensus about the toxic tipping point. Engage your loved ones and communities about these facts, and come up with community-based solutions to reduce indoor and environmental air pollution. Some strategies include engaging your city, county or state to ban pesticides like glyphostate or advocating for laws like CA’s California Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019 (SB574), which will soon be ratified.


Image Caption: A hill covered with green is in the foreground with a view of a hazy cityscape, urban smog, with high rises and many buildings in the background.