Understanding the Cultural Response—
What We Are Up Against
I used to think that people with sensitivities got treated badly partly because their ailments were invisible. That opinion changed in November of 1995 when Life Magazine ran a cover photo of a Gulf War veteran holding his child with very visible multiple congenital disabilities. The President’s Commission on Gulf War Syndrome concluded that the veterans’ problems were caused by stress in spite of the highly visible birth defects and illnesses afflicting their children, the fact that their sperm is caustic, and that their ailments appear to be even casually transmitted. Partners report the sperm to be caustic, but no one will test it.
Even an inquiry by an initially sympathetic Congressional committee did not conclude that veterans had been made ill by chemical exposures. Gulf War veterans, like Vietnam War veterans, have waited years for benefits, medical care, and a respectful audience, and their wait continues (although the mainstream conceptualization of Gulf War Syndrome is finally beginning to change).
This is exactly the same kind of disrespect and dismissal endured by those with MCS and EMS. I believe that people with these conditions are an inconvenient cog or threat to the economic/industrial system that makes decisions based on profit and “risk” assessment, and has little or no respect for life and the environment. To study this system is to experience anger, frustration, and temporary feelings of helplessness. But understanding the system also provides a realistic idea of what anyone who opposes industrial capitalism is up against. To truly understand the system, you must stop naively hoping that chemical companies will do the right thing willingly; learn to rely on yourself for your own protection, and eventually align with others to make changes through education and activist work.
Industrial Capitalism Is the Bottom Line
To my mind, neither the emergence nor the overlooking of environmental sensitivities is all that surprising given the way that corporate industry has treated the environment and those without power. Minorities and poor people have lived for decades with environmentally induced cancers, birth defects, and high levels of chemicals in their children’s bodies. Native Americans endure political manipulation by industry and government to coerce them to accept nuclear dumps and storage facilities. Mexican migrant workers live and work (in many cases without access to health care) in constant proximity to mutagenic, carcinogenic, and embryotoxic pesticides that threaten their health and that of their children.
Economic interests dictate that to continue a technology and chemical dependent lifestyle, we must not acknowledge the culpability for the resulting negative health effects. Conventional medicine is unable to help because it is so embedded in the dominant economic/industrial structure that adopts and supports new technologies in the name of production, regardless of their consequences. Some of these technologies (e.g., nuclear power) are associated with consequences that will be salient for thousands of years (Mander 1991; Mies 1993). Those disabled by chemicals and other technologies are thus in conflict with the dominant culture that values only measurable commodities: reducing human effort into “labor,” defining the natural world by its ”resources” or “raw materials,” and labeling the act of caring for others as “women’s work.”
Health is measured against profit in “risk assessment,” and human health and natural ecosystems are seen as fair trade-offs for convenience and increased production. Industrial culture continually attempts to convince us that chemicals bring convenience, save lives, and improve our ability to provide and transform “resources” (e.g., “ADM—Supermarket to the world”). Thus, characterizing chemicals as problematic in any way—let alone as causes of illness—is going strongly against the grain of society. We become dependent and even addicted to new technologies. Cell phones are now an intrinsic part of most people’s lives. Even though my students study the negative effects of electromagnetic fields and have genuine concern about the issue, they feel unable and unwilling to give up the convenience of the technology.
Consequently, the far-reaching influences of the chemical and technical industries have rendered those who live with the consequences of environmental injuries as some of the only voices able and willing to provide information and to motivate others to fight for a healthy, nontoxic environment. The increasing number of people who have been killed from being directly exposed to thousands of volatile chemicals calls for immediate action to ensure our safety in the future.
Lax (1998) says that when viewed holistically and in context, “MCS is a product and problem of contemporary capitalism” (p. 737). Historically it has been possible, even easy, for middle-class Americans to hide from the consequences of our treatment of the environment. Factories are constructed in inner-city neighborhoods, toxic waste is dumped into the oceans, and outlawed pesticides are shipped to “developing” countries. Middle-class Americans leave their polluted cities to vacation in as yet uncontaminated areas. Eventually there will be no place to hide as pollutants migrate to all parts of the globe. Arctic peoples are storing high levels of PCBs and other hormone-disrupting chemicals in their fat tissues not because these chemicals are used in their region, but because the contaminants migrate north in water currents, air streams, and in the bodies of birds and fish who consume them when eating fish from contaminated rivers.
Often, when people suffer corporate or government-induced environmental injury it is not an “accident” per se. Much of the dumping and polluting is done illegally and with full knowledge of the consequences. Jerry Mander (1991) discusses the fact that corporations have all of the rights but none of the responsibilities of individuals. In fact, corporations are “legally obliged to ignore community welfare” (p. 123), as they could be sued by shareholders if they ever failed to put profit motives first.
Although injured parties can sue them, the corporate individuals who make the key harmful decisions are immune from any personal liability. Having the company pay a settlement is often deemed preferable to and cheaper than changing damaging practices. For example, we know that cigarette companies have known for years that tobacco is addictive and that they even manipulate nicotine levels to make some brands more addictive.
Everyone needs to better understand the motivations and behaviors of economically driven institutions and become fully aware of the manipulation used to market toxic products. Often, when problems are identified, instead of truly cleaning up their practices, companies hire public relations firms to refashion their public images into environmentally concerned entities. Industry officials anticipate and head off information likely to concern citizens in regard to chemicals. Responding to just the proofs for Our Stolen Future (Colborn, Dunanoski, and Myers 1997), a book on the global effects of hormone disrupting chemicals, a public relations firm of a chemical corporation said:
“Quite honestly, my first reaction is that this might be a cause of genuine concern to women and the general public. Even though this issue affects virtually every segment of the population, women are affected in a direct way: the issue plays into the concern of many women’s organizations that breast cancer research is underfunded . . . Up to this point, the general media have not shown much interest in this issue. With the release of Colborn’s book, however, this may change.”
The memo goes on to encourage the pesticide and chlorine industries to feature women spokespersons, produce women-oriented fact sheets, and conduct media outreach to women’s magazines. Is this why we now see so many women scientists on commercials? Yet business as usual continues for hormone disrupting chemicals. Some of this ongoing polluting is extreme; for example the Ecologist reported that the PCBs released into the St. Lawrence River near Montreal’s Technoparc are 8.5 million times above government guidelines according the Environmental Bureau of Investigation (EBI) (“PCB pollution” 2002).
Male turtles in heavily polluted areas of the Great Lakes now ovulate and have reduced penis size. Research has shown that the herbicide atrazine makes hermaphrodites out of male frogs. Girls are menstruating at earlier and earlier ages and showing pubic hair as early as age 3.
More and more, corporations are controlling basic research. The Ecologist reported that between 1980 and l997 academic research funding from corporations increased eight hundred percent (“On the payroll,” 2002). The financial crisis for education only adds to the pressures on universities to “partner” with corporations. The meeting room where I teach some of my seminars and attend faculty meetings is called “The Partnerships Center.” When corporations get caught in illegal acts as in the Enron scandal, they are audacious in their approach to spinning the PR. The most creative I have seen is Kenneth Lay’s legal move of claiming “moral bankruptcy” (“Bush’s Ken Lay” 2002).
Corporate greed leads to imperialist wars against less powerful countries that have devastating consequences for the health of their people. Children in Iraq suffered increased leukemia and birth defects in the ten years following the first Gulf War. The Ecologist cited a report that found that congenital malformations increased from 3.04 per 1000 live births to 22.19 in Basra between 1991 and 2001 (“Depleted uranium” 2003). People in Afghanistan now eat bread made of grass because of the widespread devastation and hunger exacerbated by U.S. military intervention (“The killing silence” 2002).
As the U.S. and other industrialized countries seek to remake less technological societies into new markets for their products and sources of cheap labor, the governments of these countries are pressured through the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to make “structural adjustments” to the way they allocate their moneys when they accept loans from the above mentioned bodies. Senegal, as a result of IMF structural adjustments has lost farms, increased its number of hungry people, increased unemployment from 25 to 44 percent (from l991 to l996), and cut its healthcare with resulting increase of 60 percent in maternal mortality (from l988-1993) (“Running on empty” 2002).
Under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) any national, regional, or local legislation that can be seen as interfering with trade can be challenged. For example, the U.S. Clean Air Act has already been weakened as a result of challenges from the Venezuelan and Brazilian governments regarding regulations on gasoline. We now sell dirtier fuel than before the challenges as a result of the WTO and their Appellate Body ruling that the U.S. did not prove that it used the “least trade restrictive” measures to enforce fuel standards (Retallack 2002). The effort to expand GATT to develop GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) is part of the agenda of “progressively raising the level of [trade] liberalization.” The impact of this on people is that the 137 member nations of the WTO would open up to free trade laws their health care, education, libraries, law, social programs, water, environmental protection, broadcasting, transportation, postal services and others. Free trade laws can override environmental and safety regulations if these regulations are seen as interfering with “free trade.” This means that a state or locale would not be able to enforce safety or environmental stipulations if pressured by a corporation that construed those stipulations as obstacles to its conducting of business. “Third world” countries are being pressured to open up services like control of their water to industrial corporations (“The last frontier” 2001).
How well these corporations steward resources like water can be seen by the situation in Kerala India where a new Coca-Cola plant has used up so much water that 20,000 farmers can no longer water their small farms (“Killa cola” 2004). The same has occurred in Columbia. Because of industrial-induced large-scale changes in the environment’s ability to support people, there now exist very large numbers of environmental refugees, homeless from floods, global warming, droughts, or contamination (Townsend 2002). A host of books document the rise and corruptness of corporations and their connection with/power over our government. See chapter notes in Appendix C for a list of some of these books.
I believe that people with disabling sensitivities are environmental refugees as well, being a direct challenge to chemical and electrical technology and hence to profit as usual. Having the nerve to complain that perfumes and other pollutants make you directly ill often puts you in an extremely precarious social position. After all, you are asking for building redesign (You want air?!); changes in ingredients in perfumes, paints, waxes, and cleaners (You object to inhaling degreasers into your brain tissue?!); the reconsideration of modern farming techniques (You want safe food?!); and serious research on human health effects prior to production and release of any new products. Likewise people with electrical sensitivities need to avoid and ask for zones free of the technology around which others have arranged their lifestyle.
The person with sensitivities is a challenge to the dominant company line that prescribes more chemicals, less health care, and growing corporate power. People debate whether environmental damage can be rectified or whether we have come so far that things will never get better. Environmentally sensitive people are a very important part of this debate. The challenge of having to respond to disabling sensitivities propels people into soul-searching, political activism, aiding others, and many other activities. It makes sense that the incidence of environmental sensitivities is a warning of what is to come if we continue arguing rather than acting in regard to environmental cleanup. Having MCS or EMS, you know something that is both illuminating and painful through personal experience. The world will never again look the same. The innocence of consumerism disappears once you experience firsthand the unforeseen consequences of Western industrial exploitative culture. Chemical sensitivity/injury is thus a warning to and a critique of the Western obsession with production and profit. Ironically, such injury is a condition that prohibits any continuance of a chemical-laden lifestyle for those who experience it. People so injured must find a new way of living and contributing. Often this takes the form of activism with people making tremendous contributions despite personal challenge and illness. Even though the process is challenging, activist work brings attention to the voice of a marginalized group of people who have been either ignored or delegitimized by inadequate health care systems. People who have experienced environmental injuries are the most qualified to help others understand and contend with these conditions. Unfortunately, powerful interest groups purposely counter messages from this disabled community with false assurances of safety and erroneous characterizations of the chemically injured as somaticizers.
Sometimes going up against a monolithic system with an unwell body can seem impossible. Some of what we try to do to better the world may indeed be impossible. I am inspired by the Indian activist, novelist, and speaker Arundhati Roy, who writes not only fiction, but also environmental and social commentary. The Indian parliament was so unimpressed with some of the things that she said about the Indian government, that they treated her to arrest and some jail time. Roy would rather write her novels than the social commentary, but she has said that when something grips her, she must go through with the work that has to be done. When addressing the failure issue she says that she knows people who get much less recognition than she gets who go to work every day knowing that they are going to fail. BUT STILL THEY GO. I tell my students that when I die and God asks if I knew the world was a mess, and I say “yes” and S/He asks what I did about it, I doubt that “I sat around and ate bon bons – what do you want from me?” will be an acceptable answer.
People with disabling sensitivities have: founded and maintained national advocacy groups; published high level newsletters; written books, pamphlets, and workbooks; conducted original research; served on Presidential committees; testified before Congress; created educational videos; counseled and supported others; generated successful environmentally friendly businesses; lobbied at local, state, and national levels for legislation; served as resource people to legislators; and worked to improve air quality in the schools. This is only a short list and certainly leaves much out, but it shows that people with disabling sensitivities have a contribution to make because they understand what many others do not about health and environment. Many people are working with coalitions that tap the strengths of two or more organizations, such as Health Care Without Harm, a movement to clean up the environmental practices of hospitals.
In some instances activists have been able to influence high-level policy makers. For example, as a result of activism the U.S. Access Board and the National Institute for Building Sciences (NIBS) are currently working on a project in conjunction with several MCS/EMS activists that promises to lay groundwork for future protective regulation.
Having these sensitivities means having to redesign an entire life, complete with purpose, actions, script, and props. It is probably the hardest thing you can do, but you have to do it. I hope that this book has been able to help a little with these tasks. I wish you meaningful relationships, a spiritual connection, your own good purpose, a sense of humor, inner strength, enough righteous anger and energy to fuel your own substantial contribution, and a connection to the planet Earth.
—Pam Gibson, 2006