May 062014


Chemical Sensitivities

Ft. Pierce bridge – Photo by Fran Childress

Most of my life I’ve tried to hide the fact that chemical sensitivities (i.e., fragrances, air fresheners and cleaning products, etc.) make me ill. These chemicals take my breath away and for approximately three days after exposure, my lungs are painful and sore. As I am getting older, the chemical sensitivities are more pronounced and has severely limited my quality of life.

It all started when I was only 18-years-old. I went to visit a close relative unannounced and my relative was dusting with ‘Pledge,’ which is an aerosol furniture polish. I went inside the home and my breathing immediately became labored (asthma). It was like trying to breathe through a thin straw while being underwater. I literally had to walk back outside to catch my breath. I did not realize at that time I had chemical sensitivities.

Since then, I’ve had two spontaneous pneumothoraxes (collapsed lungs) complemented with chest tubes and countless pleurisies (lining of lungs irritated) from inhaling various chemicals. When I suspect pleurisy, I’ve learned not to visit the emergency room as there is nothing they can do for me other than give me pain medications and send me back home to rest.

Unfortunately, the pain medications (opiates/opioids) have no effect on me whatsoever and have never eased my pain. It is akin to taking a placebo so I usually refuse the script for pain medications when offered. While this renders me helpless to the sufferings of pleurisy, that diagnosis eases my anxiety as it could have been much, much worse if a ‘bleb’ burst and collapsed my lung.

Chemical Sensitivities and Lung Blebs

Lung blebs are small sacs of air on the surface of the lung (blisters) normally evident in certain individuals after a sudden change in air pressure. If these blebs ‘pop’ or burst, it could collapse the lung. My struggles are different though; the blebs result from having chemical sensitivities, not the air pressure changes.

Think of breaking out in hives from an allergen. The hives are similar to blebs except the hives are external (on skin) and the blebs are internal (on lungs).

To give you an idea of my daily struggles, many years ago, I stood in a check-out line behind a woman who reeked of heavy perfume. I did not want to change lanes as I was in a hurry and that lane was the shortest. So I suffered as I stood behind her with a handkerchief over my airways to breathe. It didn’t work, I ended up at the ER the next day as the pleurisy was so painful from smelling her perfume. I thought a bleb burst and collapsed my lung, again. The pleurisy pain preludes and could indicate a collapsed lung.

Presently, the chemicals smells such as this woman’s perfume are hindering my job opportunities. I am unemployed and having chemical sensitivities drastically limits my employment choices since I have to be cognizant of all the potential health risks beforehand. Office buildings are widely known to harbor furtive chemical culprits and are no safe haven to the chemically sensitive individual.

Previously, when I accepted an office position, I became constantly ill with respiratory ailments. Needless to say, the company terminated me during the probationary period. My doctor deduced the office carpet was routinely commercially cleaned with chemicals, thereby causing my respiratory ailment diagnoses.

My home is my respite, my only ‘safe’ place where I can escape the chemicals lingering out in public. I attempt to make it fragrance-free and void of all chemicals but have you ever tried to purchase shampoo or dish detergent without fragrance?

Or have you had to politely excuse yourself from friends’ homes due to their plug-in air fresheners or candle burning?

In the meantime, I do not have the official diagnosis and was told it would be ‘unethical’ to test me for my specific chemical sensitivities. Not having a diagnosis, not having a financially stable job and struggling to pay a student loan has lowered my quality of life and has forced me to become a ‘homebody.’ This was not my choice.

Alas, my lungs are now permanently scarred from all the trauma caused by the chemical sensitivities and now mimics emphysema-like COPD. Lucky me.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity