UNFORTUNATELY, WE NEED AIR TO BREATHE
Support Women’s Health, Not the Chemical Industry
I want an end to patriarchy and all oppression. But sometimes, I just want to smell clean air. Well, not really clean air, which is impossible, but air that doesn’t stink. That shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?
It’s not even that I live in a neighborhood with factories. I grew up in one, so I know the stench well – toxic fumes pouring out day and night, a half block from our house. I was told it was a cosmetics factory. (Vanity causing cancer.) Sometimes the chemicals blistered paint off cars. At school, there was another factory stink, probably Proctor and Gamble. Where I live now could be relatively clean-smelling, even in dense Oakland. Sometimes I can smell beautiful clean air from the ocean miles away, with trees and flowers on the wind, but the next moment will be a lungful of nauseating stink. The laundry products’ fumes pour into our open windows and seep in even when the windows are closed.
This time it’s not factories – it’s simply people being conned into buying toxic, dirty-smelling laundry products sold by rich corporations. What if people stopped wasting money on polluting our air and water? (All these poisonous products do end up in the water. There is media focus on pharmaceutical drugs and pesticides in drinking water and even in the bodies of fish, but they are also contaminated by detergents and fabric softeners.)
This could be easily avoided if people bothered to buy non-toxic products, but, while many people try to help the environment by carefully recycling and even changing what they eat, how much they travel, and how many other products they buy, few even consider stopping doing their laundry in the poison that is affecting everyone’s health around them.
Because these products are neuro-toxic and numb our sense of smell, people aren’t aware of how badly they stink. I’ve seen women holding detergent boxes to their faces, saying, “I can’t smell anything,” while those of us who are chemically injured are nauseated and worse. People already harmed by long-term exposure to poisons react sooner, but, like with other carcinogens, they do harm everyone. We all absorb the molecules into our lungs.
It doesn’t help that the spewers of these poisons are not unreachable, unchangeable corporate industries. It might be easier to accept if it was. No, these are regular people in this and every neighborhood, who choose to buy and release this poison into the air we are forced to breathe. But why?
Our next door neighbor is a gay man with AIDS, but he refuses to stop using Tide, even when we offered to buy him a safe product. He knows that he’s harming my friend who has had three separate, unrelated cancers, but why should he care when he refused to stop for his own mother who had been made so ill by Tide that she begged him to switch to a safer detergent?
The irony for me is that I grew up in Cincinnati, being exposed every day to Proctor and Gamble, one of the U.S.’s biggest polluters. (Don’t believe the “green” industry label they have.) It’s like a nightmare science fiction movie that I am now thousands of miles away and am still forced against my will to smell Proctor and Gamble’s toxic products — coming from neighbors’ vents blocks away, and from the nauseating fumes pouring off people’s clothes in every public place. Even walking alone in the woods, I can smell most people’s foul detergents and fabric softeners from 100 feet away, so Proctor and Gamble follows me.
Whenever I think I’ve discovered all the monstrous ways that greed has made this beautiful planet into a nightmare, I find another man-made horror.
I’ve heard women actually laugh about and deny Chemical Injury, but those who’ve died from asthma as a result of exposures to toxic scent are real, as are damaged lungs and hearts from being forced to use steroids and amphetamines in inhalants in order to breathe. Some people even react to toxic air by having grand mal epileptic seizures. Others’ worsening health and disability from Chemical Injury has caused some women to commit suicide.
It doesn’t help when women who try to make community events more accessible by asking for no scents are just ignored. It used to be the same with smoking, where no one cared who they were harming, even though the effects were well known. (My mother wouldn’t stop even when her husband was dying from lung cancer. Getting emphysema stopped her only because she literally couldn’t breathe.) Laws had to be changed, in spite of the power of the tobacco industry, to stop smoking in public places, but the stink lobby seems to be more powerful.
I’ve been disabled by chronic illness since 1981. I’ve called it “Myalgic Encephalomyelitis,” “Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome,” and “Fibromyalgia,” but didn’t get diagnosed until 35 years later when I was told that I had one of the highest titers of Epstein-Barr Virus seen at the Stanford clinic. I was also told I have high titers of “mycoplasma pneumonia,” though I have no respiratory symptoms. I feel like I have endless flu with deep exhaustion, fevers, nausea, joint pain, malaise, strange sudden sharp pain, difficulty sleeping, headaches, etc.
I always hated the smell of cigarette smoke, perfumes, etc. but it wasn’t until I was sick for several years that I began to identify as being Chemically Injured or having MCS – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. What this means for me is that I have a sense of smell I consider normal for someone not living covered in toxic chemicals in patriarchy. People in more natural environments have stronger and more accurate senses of smell. (I’ve read that people in Viet Nam could smell US soldiers an enormous distance away because of their toothpaste alone.)
Chemical Injury causes many symptoms, including cancer, asthma, liver and kidney damage, nausea, vomiting, migraines, seizures, hormone disruption, immune suppression, MS-like reactions, pulse and blood pressure changes, heart arrhythmia, dizziness, confusion, panic attacks, memory loss, impaired vision and concentration, insomnia, exhaustion, depression, irritability, aggression, loss of muscular coordination, convulsions, and coma. People having migraines and depression and other physical and emotional problems are increasing and few suspect the real cause, so they get drugs from their doctor.
People who are most vulnerable, like those with asthma, know well the dangers since they can literally die from an exposure. It’s interesting that even the poorest people with asthma have figured out how to find and use unscented products. So why can’t everyone else? Instead, many privileged people with high incomes claim they can’t find or can’t afford safer products. Again, shouldn’t we all have the right to have the cleanest air possible?
A common response from people who won’t stop poisoning our air is to refer to the nearby freeways as being more toxic, as if that cancels out what they are doing and as if we could stop the cars. The diversion is like saying there’s nothing wrong venting poison they are forcing us to breathe against our will because there are already other poisons in the air. Shouldn’t the response be to try to make less?
As I update this article, we are having a smoke alert about unhealthy air quality over most Bay Area counties because of the North Bay firestorm, where hundreds of thousands of acres and entire neighborhoods have burned. Clean wood smoke is toxic enough and causes half of the winter Bay Area air pollution, including many deaths,1 (which is another problem most people don’t care about since few use fire for heat, but instead do it for pleasure), but this smoke is far worse because of the burned plastics and other synthetic materials from the homes and buildings. In spite of the health alerts, people continue venting their laundry products, so even when there is a lull in the smoke and we are desperate for better air, we can’t open our windows and doors.
Being in public means being forced to breathe poison against our will because almost everyone stinks of “personal care” products and detergent and fabric softeners. Going to a store for food means being forced to breathe in more nauseating stench because supermarkets have aisles of toxic air “fresheners,” pesticides, etc. Even health food stores reek from scented candles, soaps, “personal care” products, etc. Food in the stores also tastes from absorbing the perfumes and toxins. It’s gotten much worse since people are buying more scented products all the time. (I’ve actually been asked by women what products I use when they recite their long list of things that never used to exist and that I’d never consider buying or using. Why don’t people realize that are being obedient, manipulated consumers wasting money on poisoning themselves?)
After being exposed to the public stench, it sticks to us, so we bring it home, where it affects those we live with. (It’s so bad that after going to events, washing my clothes doesn’t clean them because they first have to be hung outside for days. I also always have to shower and wash my hair to be able to be around my friends at home and not contaminate the air and furniture in our house.)
Advertising propaganda that equates toxins with “cleanliness” has meant that chemists continue to develop new chemicals that are designed to take much longer to off-gas. Ads brag about how much more invasive and persistent the stink in detergents are than ever before. Television ads for Gain target women and show dowdy older women going into ecstasy and obscenely gyrating after smelling their foul detergents while men stare in awe. (Seriously). Another Gain ad shows a man mourning his wife, trying to throw her scarf into the ocean but it keeps blowing back and hits him in the face. He can’t get rid of it or the smell. (This is aimed at women also: “He’ll never forget you.”) But why do women support such obvious manipulation that ridicules them?
It’s actually easy to get away from toxic products and make our communities more accessible if people just stopped using them. It’s not like any of these products smell good, no matter how many ads try to convince us. People also are spending more money buying cleaning products — the irony being that they dirty their homes and bodies in the process – sometimes permanently. (Once a fabric is washed in Tide, Gain, Downy, etc., it is impossible to wash it out, which we discovered when a friend gave us a commemorative t-shirt that we left out in the sun and rain for a year. It smelled as bad afterward as when we first were given it. If we had tried washing it with our other clothes, they would have been contaminated and become unusable also.)
This issue has been known for decades and there used to be signs in hospitals and clinics asking people to not wear scented products (though the industry put a stop to that.) So why do most women, including Lesbians, pay money to apply men’s scents to their bodies, marking themselves as men’s property? It doesn’t matter how terrible they really smell – the marketing propaganda convinces them otherwise. Yet, as one leaflet says, “Perfume is as romantic as hazardous waste.”
The use of toxic perfumes and cleaners is a female and Feminist issue because women are the most targeted by advertising to use these poisons. Women are also the majority victims of chemical injury. I believe this manipulation plays into most women feeling contaminated from growing up in patriarchy and so believing that they are “dirty” from sexual assault by males as well as from their chosen sexual contact with them. Men also tell women we are dirty and smelly. Before the AIDS epidemic, when ads asked for Lesbian blood (known to be the cleanest in terms of being less likely to be carrying hepatitis or STDs, etc.) to help our gay “brothers,” gay men publicly announced they didn’t want Lesbians at their pool parties because we’re “dirty.” (I’ve never seen this form of “separatism” by gay men criticized like Lesbian Separatism is.). Women’s obsession for cleanliness has led to developing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and major corporations, like Proctor and Gamble, know this and direct their advertising accordingly. Yet, what smells as good as natural female aromas?
Almost everyone trivializes this issue of health as being their own or others’ “personal problem,” calling our reaction to toxins “allergies.” Allergies have nothing to do reacting to toxic scented products any more than people who get lung cancer from cigarette smoke or factory emissions are “allergic.” It is simply poison. Ninety-five percent of the ingredients in scented products are synthesized from petrochemicals. This is far more than personal — it’s a political issue about accessibility and the right to have access to unpolluted air.
Most people trust the government to protect us and either refuse to believe they don’t or are shocked that toxic chemicals are sold without testing or regulation – yet they are usually aware that the government lies to us about many things, including reasons for invading other countries, the safety of our water and food supply, pesticides and herbicides, hormones and antibiotics in meat, GMO and irradiated food, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste, big pharmaceutical companies’ toxic drugs, etc. Toxic scented products are made by many of the same industries, just as chemotherapy drugs are made by the industries that cause cancer. People who otherwise are careful about the environment and would never buy other products from well-known polluters still happily give these corporations money when it comes to personal care and household products.
Women’s attachment to scented products shows in their trying to find “organic” scented products, but one study revealed that EVERY scented product, including those labeled organic, contained toxic, carcinogenic ingredients. (This includes all organic essential oils.)
Be aware that many products that claim to be scent-free are not. The chemical industry knows people increasingly want safer products, so companies make false “green” knock-offs that are as toxic as their usual brands. This has been maddening because no matter how often I warn new friends and wait for them to switch to safe products so that I finally can be around them without getting sicker or wanting to vomit, they ignore the safe brands we and MCS sites recommend and buy phony brands, such as Safeway’s “Bright Green” toxic detergent. I was going to drive a visiting friend around for a week and she arrived proudly showing me her mainstream “unscented” detergent, though I’d warned her about false labeling and to not trust any supermarket brands. We could smell her from our back yard when she was standing in the street. It was excruciating. I’m left wondering why they don’t believe us. Is it classism or just ableism or both? Yet if they were boycotting something for animal rights or another issue, I doubt they would make such a “mistake.”
Another problem is that sometimes mainstream brands that were once less toxic, like Arm and Hammer “unscented” detergent change their formulas and then are more toxic and smelly. So we always use the less mainstream brands that are well-known to be safe. (But some of them, like Ecos laundry detergent, have scented versions, so friends have mistakenly bought the wrong ones.) Another problem is that stores smell so bad that you can’t tell until you are home for a while and your sense of smell clears that the product you just bought is scented.
Please Don’t Poison Us in Other Ways
I shouldn’t have to mention how harmful using poisons are, but I obviously have to since, after writing this, a friend I trusted, who claims to have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, had invited me and another friend to visit at her house. I trusted her, but it turns out that the yard she invited us to sit in for hours she had heavily sprayed with carcinogenic glyphosate/Roundup, which is so toxic that it’s being banned in Europe. She also kept pushing us to eat her fruit without warning us how toxic it would be. (I refused. That yard looked so poisoned.) She even kept complaining about how badly some of her plants look, without telling us about the herbicide that covered her yard.
Glyphosate is said to last for 22 years, and is in all of our bodies already. Why would someone so lie like this by omission? Anyway, if you’re going to use poison (and please for the earth and every living being, don’t, ever), at least warn people you will be exposing to it. Give us the chance to say no.
Saying “No” to an Exclusionary Community
Lesbians are my people. I love Lesbians with all my heart. I want us to have the best communities possible, which is why I’m focusing on Lesbians here.
As much as I hate cigarette smoke, I understood it was an addiction. (I had no escape from it as a girl since my mother refused to stop, no matter the effect on my health. It finally killed her.) What I don’t understand is why women are so resistant to giving up toxic products that are not addictive. And why do they slather on the most foul-smelling perfumes and colognes, even though they know it makes others sick? Some of these products are so full of petrochemicals that they smell like kerosene or disinfectant. Most do have toluene, benzene, and formaldehyde, which, in other situations, is considered hazardous waste and dealt with accordingly.
“But what about people’s right to choose? We shouldn’t control what people want to do, should we?” Well, the insistence on freedom to do what we want is behind large industries’ pollution of lakes, rivers, and oceans, as well as their spewing factory filth into the air. It is also the rationale for clear-cutting our last old growth forests and mining on national park lands, as well as hunting for trophy sport. Without regulations and laws, the rich do what they want, and the poor suffer and die.
We had no protection against smoking until laws were finally made to prevent people from forcing everyone else to breathe in their toxic smoke. Even most ex-smokers are glad about the laws now. So why are products allowed to be sold that equally pollute public air? At least cigarette smoke doesn’t travel as far as drier vents spewing Downy and Gain. With cancer rates constantly increasing, we can’t afford to play games over access to cleaner air. It’s those who are trapped in these homes without a choice or who are living in institutions who I feel the worst about – helpless, vulnerable animals, babies and children. I remember when dogs didn’t get cancer. I remember when cancer was so rare that only one member in my huge extended family, which included many old people, got cancer. There is so much that we can’t control about carcinogens in our environment, but this is one source of cancer we can control, and we can save money at the same time. Our choices also determine which products continue to be made.
Most of this is really about people being conned into wasting more money on products that they are told will make them more acceptable or desirable, with oppressed women being targeted in particular, even though more oppressed communities have higher rates of asthma and cancer.
Women are much more likely to change products if they think animals are being harmed than other women. So consider the connections between the most toxic companies and those that experiment on animals. (NO experimenting on animals is ever justified.)
Many women refuse to believe perfumes can hurt anyone. My mother only believed Tide was harmful when her doctor told her it was the cause of her rashes. Before then, she could care less. One friend who already knew that perfume is toxic came to a women’s event, proudly saying she was only “wearing a light scent.” (It was disgusting, and a Lesbian with asthma reacted immediately.)
The selfish narcissism in this is astounding. Our patriarchal culture regulates and punishes any female who steps out of line in regards to following male-defined rules of femininity, but encourages false “freedom” as long as that really means staying “feminine” and spending money.
It doesn’t even seem to stop personal polluters when beloved Lesbian singers tell their audience that being exposed to scents hurts their voices. Every time I go to an event, someone will coyly announce I shouldn’t hug them because they are wearing “fragrance.” When I told one woman that she was harming the health of everyone in the room, she said, “I know, it’s my choice.” (Ironically, or not, she soon was asking for money for health problems and died less than a year later.)
We shouldn’t have to choose between our Lesbian communities and protecting our health. Women who react the most severely should not be forced to be homebound. It is the right of every living being to be able to smell clean air and be able to breathe. I know Lesbians who say they want to give up their car to help the environment (which I do not recommend), but they won’t give up Tide, scented detergents or other toxic products. What is going on?
Trying to have friends visit creates another problem. Ninety-nine percent of those who say they are unscented actually reek from various products. Many homes are unbearable to visit because of the stink, yet often animals are trapped living with it. For those who take offense if you say their candle scented with oily volatile toxic ingredients is painful to be near, would they want to spend several hours closed up in a room with a chain smoker? Being in the same room with someone scented also means that you, your hair, clothes, and every bit of fabric in the room absorb the stink. Some people seem surprised at this, yet they know cigarette smoke does the same thing.
The bad smell also transfers to other surfaces (which is why I now always bring an insulite/thermarest pad to sit on in public – which I have to leave outside after I go home since it stinks for days afterward). Before my housemate and I stopped being too afraid to offend anyone by making our home safe, a visitor sat on our couch for 2 hours – and the couch stank of Tide for over 6 months. We’ve also put down a plastic tarp on a chair for a visitor who was scented only with Gain, but the smell soaked right through the tarp, and the chair stank so much afterwards that we couldn’t keep it in the house.
Another problem has been when I’ve given rides to friends who were previously unscented, and then suddenly they’re using a new, nauseating product. The worst time was when I’d arranged to drive us several hours to a Lesbian music event. (No matter how sick I feel, I’m always the driver since no one else’s car is safe for me to be in.) Being in a car accentuates any scent because of the closed space, but I could smell her as soon as she arrived because she’d put on a new lotion. It never occurred to her that I should have said no to being trapped in the car with her all those hours. I didn’t, and was nauseated the entire time. I also know that this is likely to have a long-term affect my health, with increasing nausea and headaches. She wouldn’t have dreamt of lighting up a cigarette and saying she needed to smoke, so why did she do this? I still don’t know how to deal with this kind of thing, so I often drive alone, unless I’m with a trusted friend.
Those of us who know about the effects of toxic scent have additional stress on us when we go to public events, knowing we are damaging our health further, perhaps permanently. Some of us have to do a lot of things to make it possible to go out, such as using caffeine and pain-killers, so we can be part of the community. We always have to weigh whether the risk and the effects are worth it.
Lesbians’ lives are already so hard. There is so much in patriarchy that damages our health that we have no control over, so shouldn’t we at least support ourselves and each other in trying to protect our health? For those who still feel immune, please know that several women I knew who adamantly refused to stop subjecting others to toxic products are now so chemically injured that they can’t leave their homes.
This is one of the few things that we can do that’s in our control to make our communities safe and welcoming. And nothing smells better than natural Lesbian scent!
Here are some links that explain more:
An excellent leaflet (“Fragrance: A Growing Health and Environmental Hazard) with a lot more information and links can be ordered through: Redemske Design, 344 Gardiner Road, Jefferson, ME 04348. Their phone number is 207-549-3531 and 207-549-5358.
CHEMICAL COMPOSITION OF WOOD SMOKE:
carbon monoxide methane VOCs* (C2-C7) aldehydes
substituted furans benzene alkyl benzenes acetic acid
formic acid nitrogen oxides sulfur dioxide methyl chloride
napthalene substituted napthalenes oxygenated monoaromatics
total particle mass particulate organic carbon oxygenated PAHs
Individual PAHs chlorinated dioxins normal alkanes (C24-C30)
sodium magnesium aluminum silicon sulfur chlorine potassium
calcium titanium vanadium chromium manganese iron
nickel copper zinc bromine lead