How Accessible is your Congregation for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities?
"Better Living Through Chemistry"? Remember those old DuPont ads that said "Better living through chemistry" and how we all thought that statement was true? Well, we have since learned that the misuse, overuse, and inappropriate use of chemicals has led, for some people, not to "better living" but to severe sensitivities—not only to what we think of as chemicals—people can also be sensitive to natural essential oils and fragrances.
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) IS REAL. MCS is defined as "an acquired disorder characterized by recurrent symptoms referable to multiple organ systems, occurring in response to demonstrable exposure to many chemically unrelated compounds at doses far below those established in the general population to cause harmful effects." 
MCS is not simple to diagnose because reactions can be subtle and sometimes don't appear until after the exposure. That's why other people unfamiliar with MCS may mistakenly conclude that a person with MCS is not really physically sick, or should use "will power" to overcome symptoms. These attitudes create barriers that cause distress for a person with MCS just as much as the chemical compounds create barriers and isolation.
The person with MCS responds to chemicals at levels that don't bother most people. Most of us can wear clothing that has been made wrinkle-resistant; use scented shampoo; sleep on mattresses padded with foam; live with carpeting; and treat our lawns with herbicides. But, depending on a person's individual sensitivities, any of these things (or exposure to any one of hundreds of other substances) can produce life-threatening symptoms in a person with MCS.
Actually, about 15 percent of us have some degree of sensitivity to chemicals. People have a wide range of sensitivities and responses. For example, during Sunday worship a slightly sensitive person may get a headache from people wearing perfume in surrounding pews, but s/he feels better when the exposure stops. Or s/he may have a headache for hours after the exposure stops. Or s/he may actually become confused and unable to think clearly because of reactions to the perfume or other chemicals in the church—or fall sleep during the service—or suffer debilitating fatigue for days after the exposure. 
It seems complicated. But in fact, accommodations may require only minor adjustments. Actually there is a lot we can do. As a United Methodists' publication tells us: "Making churches more accessible for people with environmental disabilities may seem to present a formidable challenge. Nevertheless, a large amount of improvement in air quality is achievable with very little effort."
The most important requirement is a spirit of wanting to help on the part of the congregation and church leaders. We may actually find that making these accommodations will increase the physical comfort level and alertness of many people who had not previously noticed their slight sensitivity. We must keep in mind though, that in addition to general considerations that will help us all, specific accommodations need to take into account the individual needs of a particular chemically sensitive individual who is having difficulty (and who should be asked about specific changes that will be most helpful.)
MCS questions for a congregation to think about:
- Are building entrances kept free of people smoking?
- Are vehicles allowed to stand for periods of time with their motors running near the building?
- Are unscented beeswax candles used?
- Is property near buildings kept free of herbicides and pesticides or are notices posted before and after treatment?
- Is at least one restroom free of air fresheners/deodorizers and scented soaps?
- Is there a designated fragrance-free area in a well-ventilated area of the sanctuary? Is the area wheelchair accessible?
- Have silk flowers or organic flowers been considered as an alternative to flowers treated with pesticides?
- During coffee hour is there a fragrance-free table or area near a window that can be opened and as far away from the kitchen gas stove as possible?
- Are Care and Concern Committees advised of the special needs of people who have chemical sensitivities?
- Have maintenance staff and others been familiarized with less toxic cleaning products and are they used whenever possible?
- Is the building adequately ventilated and is it aired out periodically? Is the building free of mold and mildew?
- Are remodeling materials chosen with regard to low off-gassing qualities?
- Is advance notice given when chemicals (such as floor wax and pesticides) are to be used within the building?
- Have congregation members "signed on" to the idea of creating a supportive environment for people with MCS?
Air quality/pollution may affect many of us. Many of the items on this list are just common sense. Indoor sources: smoking; pesticides used and/or stored indoors; combustion exhaust from hot water heaters, furnaces and gas stoves; fumes from laser printers and copiers; volatile organic compounds in cleaning materials; scented soaps, air fresheners, and deodorizers; mold and mildew; scented candles; recent remodeling; new drapes, carpets, or upholstery; chemicals and/or microorganisms in heating and cooling systems; inadequate fresh air, improperly maintained filters or inadequate duct design in ventilation systems. Outdoor sources: herbicides and pesticides; emissions from cars idling nearby. People sources: perfumes and other scented products; freshly dry-cleaned clothing or clothing that was cleaned with scented detergent or fabric softeners.
Do we have to eliminate all of these potential chemical/pollution sources? We cannot create a safe environment without eliminating each problem at its source. We cannot have a fragrance-free seating area and think that we can call ourselves MCS-friendly if the sanctuary carpet has been cleaned with petrochemicals and we have scented soaps in the restrooms. While it may be extremely difficult to create an environment that will accommodate a severely chemically sensitive person, many people with mild or moderate sensitivities can be accommodated relatively easily.
Some Suggested Products
Not meant to be complete—based on an original list compiled by Sheila Bastien  PhD and her patients these products can be found in many health food stores. Read labels carefully to be sure the unscented product has no herbal scent or essential oils.
Deodorants—possibly any unscented brand, including:
- Arm & Hammer Baking Soda
- Crystal (Le Crystal Rock, Natural Stick, Natural pump spray)
- Mennen Unscented Speed Stick for Men
- Mineral Rock
- Tom's of Maine Unscented
- Life Tree Dishwasher Liquid
- Planet Dishwasher Liquid
Gel/Mousse—possibly any unscented brand, including:
- Aloe Vera Gel
- Aubrey Hair Gel
- Baking Soda
- Bio-Kleen cleaning products
- Orange Power/Citra-Solv
Laundry Detergents—possibly any unscented brand, including:
- All Unscented
- Arm & Hammer Unscented Washing Soda
- Borax Unscented Washing Soda
- Cheer Free
- Tide Unscented
- Almond Oil (with no essential oils added)
- Burt's Bees Lemon Balm Cuticle Cream
- Granny's Old Fashioned
- Lubriderm Fragrance Free
- Moisture Guard
- Nature's Plus Vitamin E Cream
Shampoo, Conditioner—check for fragrance-free
- Clinique Unscented
- Dr. Bronner's Unscented Baby Castile Liquid Soap
- Granny's Old Fashioned Unscented
- Infinite Chamomile shampoo (conditioner is scented)
- Magick Botanicals
- Tom's of Maine Unscented
- Shea Shaving Unscented
- Tom's of Maine
- Dr. Bronner's Baby Supermild Soap
- Dr. Bronner's Unscented Baby Castile Liquid Soap
- Granny's Old Fashioned Soap
- Kiss my Face Olive Oil Soap
- Aubrey Organics Ultra 15 Natural Herbal Sunblock (check the label because some Aubrey sunscreen has apple essential oil that may bother some people with MCS)
- Hawaiian Tropic Sensitive (Fragrance and PABA free)
- Cullin, M.R. ed. (1987) Workers with multiple chemical sensitivities, Occupational Medicine.
- Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Accessibility for United Methodist Churches from "Accessibility Audit for Churches," A United Methodist Resource Book.
- Dr. Bastien is a neuropsychologist who has MCS.
For more information contact access @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.
Last updated on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.