Increasing hordes of allergy-sensitive people are retreating into the wilderness in hope of finding freedom from pain and misery, while others are dying by suicide, according to a new book.
Millions around the world are suffering from being triggered by the 85,000 synthetic chemicals in the modern world, while also being largely abandoned by a scornful medical establishment.
These 'sensitives' experience fatigue, headaches, brain fog and chronic pain, as well as the psychological distress of health professionals determining that the ailments are psychological in nature.
Journalist Oliver Broudy’s book The Sensitives: The Rise of Environmental Illness and the search for America’s Last Pure Place takes us inside the world of those people.
He tells Jesse Mulligan when he met individuals who seemed to be strongly affected by environmental degradation triggers it presented the chance to explore chemical dangers of the modern world in detail.
“When I ran across this group of people it seemed to be an opportunity to consider the possibility that 'what if everything we have come into contact with on a daily basis really is as terrifying as we might fear'. How then would that change our lives, how then would that change our perspective on government regulation, on the medical establishment and all these other institutions that we rely upon to basically frame our reality for us.”
The triggers vary widely for people – from hair spray, the exhaust of cars, to ice cream with preservatives, or something more obvious, like a chemical spill.
“It depends. Usually it will start off with one big chemical exposure like a chemical spill at work, or a long exposure. There was one woman I spoke to who had been picking strawberries when she was younger. And so her theory was over the years the pesticides built up in her system until it reached some type of a tipping point. In terms of the symptoms, the most common are fatigue, brain fog, muscle aches, memory difficulties.
“There was one guy who said it’s a bit like being pregnant except after nine months it just keeps going.”
Sensitives live even more prudently than the public now forced to take precautions to avoid Covid-19 and the psychological impact of having to avoid dangers is significant, he says.
More damaging in many cases is the stigma of being considered strange, and the suspicion among doctors that their symptoms are psychosomatic.
“I think there is a weird, unexpected defensiveness in the scientific and medical establishment when they dismiss stuff they don’t understand, because in a way it’s an indictment of the ignorance of experts," he says.
The book evolved into an exploration into the nature of suffering, as the experiences of many people affected by these sensitivities were multi-layered and profound.
At the very extreme there are people who can’t tolerate their homes any more, he says.
"So they go moving from one place to the next.
"The term for these people in their own community is ‘runner’ - just searching for some place on Earth where they can feel normal. Often, in the course of doing this, they may lose the faith and understanding of their loved ones, not to mention the medical community. So, they are very much on their own, not unlike living on a totally alien planet, which explains how the rate of suicide in this community is unusually high.”
The exposure levels to chemicals has increased over several decades, even with the banning of the most well-known carcinogenic products like DDT. Lack of testing of the 85,000 synthetic chemicals prevalent in society to ascertain their harmfulness poses huge questions.
“They’re not just untested individually, but they’re untested in combination. So, if there are 85,000 untested ones, how many combinations are there. In a way it’s a regulatory failure, but on the other hand what type of regulatory body would you need to have test that amount. It’s impossible.
“There’s no doubt we live in a chemically-flooded environment. Something like 4 billion pounds of chemicals are dumped every year into the environment annually and that’s just in the United States. Meanwhile the size of the chemical industry has tripled between 2004 and 2013.”
Broudy says he scrupulously avoided the danger of sounding alarmist writing the book but the figures he found where shocking, with health problems skyrocketing over past decades too.
“What is very real and true is thyroid and liver cancer are up 30 percent between 1975 and 2014. Non-Hopkins lymphoma and kidney cancer is up 200 percent, autism up 220 percent between 2000 and 2017, and on and on. Intellectual impairment, allergy sensitivity, there was an alarming study that came out a couple of years ago about sperm counts, down by 50 percent in the last 40 years.
“Nobody knows why but what else could it be… there is a suspicion that this is linked to chemicals, but because chemicals are so ambient it is impossible to make any definitive conclusions.”
The Western concept of progress has seen the chemical industry evolve in a haphazard way, beginning with the manufacture of synthetic clothing dye, discovered accidentally.
Unravelling the chemical mess is bound up with technological progress and market-driven demand for new products and convenience.
Broudy says the science of safety has struggled to keep up with the mass application of technological advances and new products and the risks seem to be getting bigger. Increasing conflict poses one such risk.
US soldiers involved in the invasion of Iraq were affected by illnesses afterwards but studies have found no definitive cause, he says.
These people displayed symptoms similar to those associated with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, belonging to a family of mystery illnesses involving inflammatory responses and nerve sensitivities.
However, people suffering from environmental degradation can identify an incident or cause. Without the support or validation of doctors, some have retreated to the remote town of Snowflake in Arizona to form a community.
"The existence of Snowflake preceded a lot of online communities. It was started by a guy who had experienced an industrial solvent spill in the workplace and he withdrew to Snowflake, the appeal being it's the outback of eastern Arizona, totally isolated, 6000ft above sea level, very dry air, sparse vegetation, no pollution and cheap. No one wants to live there so you can get an acre for $300. Word got out and one activist-type woman settled too and got the word out."
Broudy says one individual, 'Brian', acted like a pastor online for sufferers. A man of faith, he gave voice to the suffering and experience of Sensitives, and went missing. Broudy ventured out to locate him, and his story helped to inspire the book. His last known location was at the rim of the Grand Canyon.
"I knew a guy who would be passing by there, another sensitive... one of these 'runner' types, who kind of kept a normal life going, but did so by endlessly circling around the United States in his Range Rover and never really stopping anywhere for long," Broudy says.
"We went in search of him. He was one of these more extremely-affected types and that's definitely the type of person you found in Snowflake. People who just couldn't exist anywhere else. There was a guy I ran across who was typical of this category of extremely-affected people. He said the only place I can exist in peace is halfway up Mount McKinley."
US President Donald Trump has made matters worse by undermining existing, flawed regulatory structures and vowing to put regulatory bodies out of business, he says.
Chemical corporatism under the Trump Administration has has found its fullest expression to date, with leading industry figures appointed to regulatory bodies.
He says risk has changed, increased, and is now global, citing the case of Chernobyl. There is also less possibility of doing something about it.
"You've got a risk that is not contained by the country in which this accident happened. It's not contained within the generation of people who are alive when it happens, and finally there is no institution on Earth capable of intelligently managing this risk."
Broudy says doing something about it comes down to what risks we find acceptable and what future we want to create overall in the face of environmental degradations.
"We have created this world and it's up to us to decide what type of world we want in the future and start advocating for it."