The Gift of Chemical Awareness

My life has brought me many gifts. Some I’ve appreciated, others I’ve sought to return. I’ve discovered that when events in our lives change our awareness, there is no returning the resulting, sometimes unwelcome, new perspectives. For over 35 years, I’ve been trying to return one of life’s “perspective presents”—without success. Finally, I’m seeing that what I’ve viewed as a handicap and a curse is an essential perception: a special ability.

This ability that events in my life have given me is that of chemical awareness. My body has become a sensitive biometer that registers the presence of unnatural, life‐destructive chemicals—particularly airborne ones. In this category, I find the volatile organic compounds of artificial fragrances to be among my most difficult chemical challenges. Unlike other chemical practices, fragrance usage is largely an individual choice; it is one area of chemical pollution where everyone can make a difference. For this reason, I will use this as an example of destructive chemical impact on my health and functioning.
I’ve been told by several f/Friends that they don’t understand why I make such a “big deal” out of fragrance usage. They don’t mean to be cruel; they are just ignorant of the terrific impact on my life of fragrance usage. Here’s an example:

I entered the bank—and knew immediately that I was in trouble. Heavy fragrance odor dominated the air. I could feel the impact on my brain and my nervous system. I left immediately, intending to use the ATM outside—but barely made it to my truck, parked nearby. I crawled inside and shook, cried, and generally suffered. I did all I could to minimize the impact of this “chemical hit.” I took vitamins C and A and put my coat, which had absorbed the fragrance, into a plastic bag and sealed it. I wiped my face, hair, and hands—all that wasn’t covered by my clothing—with a wet washcloth. Fragrance immediately clings to skin and hair: synthetic musk at work. I’d come to town prepared to deal with fragrance hits as best I could, but I couldn’t deal with this one.

The extreme effects of that 20‐second exposure to a bank clerk’s fragrance lasted for over 6 hours. It took me several hours and much wandering in the rain in confusion, crying, just to find a pay telephone to call a neighbor. Fragrance chemicals affect the brain of those who have become chemically sensitized. Among other effects, these chemicals trigger unnatural firing of the limbic area, the center of emotions. This causes uncontrollable emotional responses. By the grace of my friends, I got home late that night. For the next two months, I was unable to bear any fragrance chemicals at all. My neighbors shopped for me.

Looking back on this event, I know that the chemicals I was exposed to in my dentist’s office the day before, plus fragrance in my relatives’ home that night, set me up for this instant and devastating reaction. What most people don’t realize is that the effects of exposure to airborne chemicals are cumulative in both chemically sensitized persons and those who haven’t yet shown this degree of impact. Though a chemically sensitive person may not immediately react to a fragrance exposure, such exposure increases the possibility that with additional exposures, he or she will react severely. The initial effect of unnatural airborne chemicals on those who are not yet chemically sensitized is more subtle and thus less likely to be noticed, initially. Over time, however, with continuing chemical exposure, one’s health and functioning are impacted.

I remember the clerk’s welcoming smile as I entered the bank, her obvious desire to please. I realize that she, and others, probably wear such fragrances to be more attractive in social situations. Most people never know when their fragrance products impact those around them. Chemically aware persons move away from the person or situation causing them pain and dysfunction. To stay around and speak of the effect of fragrance exposure is to increase the potential of a more serious reaction. Many who are not yet chemically sensitized have become aware of being affected by strong fragrances but feel powerless to go against our cultural taboos; we are conditioned not to speak critically of, or even seem to notice, another’s body care habits.

Fragrance chemicals have been the crowning blow to me of our society’s toxic chemical habits. When they began to be used by the majority of people, I and others like me were driven from our jobs; we lost friends and spiritual communities; we were badly impacted in our health. We were forced into the fringes of our world.

I’ve done considerable investigation of the research literature available about the components of modern artificial fragrances. Anyone with Internet access can do this for themselves. Simply do this Internet search: +fragrance +toxic +ingredients. According to what I’ve read, most (over 95 percent) of the ingredients used in fragrances come from petrochemicals. No research has been done on the health effects of products containing any of 4,000–7,000 complex chemical compounds; no research design is currently adequate for this type of investigation.

The information on the ingredients that have been investigated is frightening. Some of them are listed as dangerous contaminants in the most polluted Superfund sites. We are rubbing these fragrance chemicals on our skins and on the skins of our children. As with airborne chemical exposure, absorption of these oil‐based chemicals through our skin is cumulative. They are stored in our fat cells; our bodies’ water‐based elimination systems cannot discharge them. Artificial fragrance and other chemicals become a permanent part of our bodily environment. In this manner, the pollution of our bodies resembles what is happening to our Earth. The Earth’s systems are also water‐based; its natural processes of waste removal and renewal cannot flush out these life‐destructive toxins.

I have read that there are those who are born with a sensory malady that makes them unable to register pain. As children, they must be constantly supervised and carefully taught what dangerous situations to avoid. As adults, they must rely on learned concepts and behaviors rather than firsthand experience to avoid serious injury. If such sensory‐deficient people were in the overwhelming majority, the resulting culture would have less of a concept of the cause‐and‐effect relationship of danger and injuries. The occasional child born into this society with the ability to register sensation and pain would experience life like walking through a minefield, with fear of grave injury at every step. Such children might even be regarded as handicapped. Allowances are made for seeming “errors of perception” in children, but in this imagined culture, adults who reacted to their environment in this way would probably be subject to pity at best, or disbelieved and rejected.

This is what I see happening in our culture, today. The position of the chemically aware person is that of a person who feels pain in a culture that denies the reality of such—that denies the connection of injury to dangerous situations.

I was not born with an ability to perceive dangerous chemicals. This life gift was given to me when I was chemically injured. I was exposed to massive amounts of pesticides in 1965 while working in a Venezuelan slum. Twenty‐one years after my chemical injury, I was tested for pesticide residue in my blood and fat. I tested in the highest percentiles of those tested for dangerous pesticide residue. Pesticides are also oil‐based chemicals; our bodies cannot discharge them. Damage accumulates, resulting in various symptoms of ill health that are mysterious in their origins.

With this chemical injury, I was in effect newly born into my society with perceptions of pain and warnings of danger that were not only uncommon, they were denied. In truth, few if any of us are born with the ability to perceive dangerous chemicals in our environment. Why? Because until the last couple of centuries, these substances were not present in the human environment. Our species has not had time to develop appropriate senses to register danger when encountering dangerous chemicals.

Aside from my injury and its consequences, there is life’s gift of perception. What is my responsibility for this unasked‐for present? That it is truly a gift I have come to know experientially. If I could not perceive chemical dangers in my environment, I could not avoid them. Nonavoidance of chemical dangers leads to my immediate health breakdown of one sort or another. My experiences have given me perspectives that I must share with my world. How shall do I do this?

One of the ways that Friends act responsibly in accordance with their gifts—of insight, of spiritual transformation, of hope for our world—is to “speak truth to power.” These words have lately been haunting me. What do they mean in the context of my life? Have I spoken my truths to the powers of this world? What, in my understanding, constitutes my life’s truths—and to whom, or what, must I speak them?

In my contacts with friends, I’ve spoken frankly about my need for a chemically clean environment if I am to be a part of their lives. I’ve also made many attempts to tell others that this is not my private malady; they are also in danger. In almost all cases, the real message my life speaks, the underlying spiritual truth to which it points, is not received. In communicating with others who have been chemically injured and thus chemically sensitized, I find that they have the same experience.

The conditions labeled “chemical injury” and “multiple chemical sensitivity” are seen by most in our culture (including medical practitioners) as an individual’s health problems. What we, the chemically sensitized, know—what we have lived deeply and need to communicate to others—goes largely unheard. A broader perspective is needed in looking at our lives. We are saying to you that our individual, damaged lives are evidence of a corrosive pattern of choices and action, corporately and individually. Our lives point to a need for profound, all‐encompassing change in everyone’s mutual approach to life. Our lives illustrate deeper spiritual truths: what could be called the truth of our mutual situation.

Fragrance usage and our culture’s reliance on petrochemical products in general have seemed like trivial concerns to many Friends when issues of world peace are knocking at our door. Recently, in response to the events of September 11, 2001, many have become aware of the connection between our current war‐torn world and our culture’s reliance on petrochemicals. Planetary peace depends upon our recognition that we are connected to one another in a web of life. We who are chemically sensitized are constantly impacted by decisions made by others, by our toxic environments, and by our culture’s toxic mindset. The lives of the chemically sensitized speak this message: we are all one. If we do not respect the lives of the most sensitive and vulnerable among us, we follow a path to our mutual destruction.

The lives of the chemically sensitized are but one example of the many ways lives have become disenfranchised by the policies and practices of our current culture. Many of those so affected, the plants and animals of this world among them, have no audible voice to speak their truths.

Let us, as Friends, look at our cultural conditioning to disregard those populations few in number. Let us be sensitive to the minorities, to the individuals among us, and to the messages inherent in their lives. It is only to individuals, human or otherwise, that the gift of life is given. Respecting and honoring “that of God in every one” is what brought Friends together as a community. Now, because of our global economy and the threat of global destruction, we can see more clearly a spiritual truth often unrecognized by our predecessors: life is not an inheritance we can claim without honoring it in all of its expressions. Reverence for life is the message of all of our gifts, including that of our lives.

John Woolman’s Journal has inspired me to keep trying to get my message to Friends, as a start. Without a community of caring and perception, the individual voice is soon silenced. If John Woolman’s voice had not been heard, that is, his message received in the hearts of at least some of his listeners, the Religious Society of Friends might not have come as a body to reject slavery when it did. It took several generations before Friends came to consensus that owning slaves was spiritually wrong. Will it take more disasters like that of September 11, 2001, to awaken us, as a culture, to the relationship between our “American way of life” and planetary destruction?

World peace knocks first at our individual hearts before it knocks at the hearts of our communities and our planetary consciousness. Change begins with receptiveness to truth in individual hearts.

The process of “speaking truth” to receptive hearts must, I think, necessarily precede “speaking truth to power.” In our current world, individual voices are ignored, drowned out by the constant bombardment of media‐generated, corporate‐controlled news. When an individual is heard at last by our world at large, it is because his or her truth has been received in the hearts of enough people that it becomes impossible to ignore. It is only through our united efforts to “speak our truth” that the powers of this world will finally hear us.

Will you, our friends, loved ones, and companions on life’s journey, make a place for those of us who have been chemically injured? Will we find family in you and true community? Can we speak our truths to you? Will you join with us in voicing the truth our damaged lives illustrate? Will you change your lifestyle practices and speak out against the destructive chemical practices of our culture?

With your support, we, the chemically aware, will speak our truth with our lives and with all our gifts of expression. Together, life will speak through us and open hearts to its truth.

Alicia Adams (formerly Carter) joined Victoria (B.C.) Meeting in 1974 and is now a member of Berkeley (Calif.) Meeting. She lives in Mimbres, N. Mex., and attends Gila Meeting in Silver City with her partner, Daniel Richards, who also is chemically sensitive. Their e-mail address is [email protected]

Posted in: Features


Sign up for Friends Journal's weekly e-newsletter. Quaker stories, inspiration, and news emailed every Monday. Web comments may be used in the Forum column of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.