Disability Caucus
of the United States Green Party
Resources for People with Disabilities Displaced by Hurricane Katrina
Providing Shelter for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
by Cyndi Norwitz

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People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (aka Environmental Illness), asthma, allergies, or reactions to chemicals beyond what the standard person experiences can be difficult to accommodate. Like anyone else, people with MCS are grateful for the help they receive in a disaster. But the reactions they suffer may keep them from being able to accept the help. A few changes may allow you to serve more people with MCS.

MCS is a breakdown of the body's detoxification systems. Some people have symptoms like headaches or joint pain which, although uncomfortable, can be dealt with in emergency situations. Most people with MCS do not tolerate medications such as drugs used for pain control although some will take them when no options are available.

Many people with MCS, however, have symptoms that can not be ignored, not even for short periods. Asthma attacks, other difficulties breathing, neurological symptoms, cardiac symptoms, loss of the ability to digest food, bleeding from all orifices, cognitive impairment, rage reactions, and even brain damage are all possible and, unfortunately, not all that uncommon. When a person with MCS refuses offers of shelter, it is usually because their reactions are so severe that accepting shelter is more dangerous than foregoing it.

Each person with MCS has different reactions to different items, depending on where the detoxification systems are broken and to what degree. One person with MCS can tolerate things that would cripple another. Also, many people who would benefit from being treated as a person with MCS do not identify with that label. Some may not even consider themselves disabled. Be alert for people with asthma, multiple allergies, and those who "can't be around" things like perfume. They may also need accommodation with items they do not mention.

Although MCS is specific to synthetic chemicals, some people with MCS, and many without it, react in the presence of animal dander, pollens, unsealed wood or aromatic trees like pine and cedar, or other natural substances. Many also have food allergies or other reactions that mean they can not accept much of the food a shelter would offer.

Because people with MCS vary so much, it is difficult to say exactly what will work for the population. Given an emergency situation, it is understandable that providers will only be able to make a minimum of changes. Here are some general guidelines. When possible, try to also incorporate the needs of the specific people with MCS you may be sheltering.

Absolute bare minimum accommodation:

  • No pesticides/herbicides used in or near shelter during stay.
  • No smoking allowed in shelter or in areas where the person with MCS needs to be (this includes smoking by open doors or windows).
  • No air freshener, Lysol, or sprays used in shelter during stay.
  • Cot or bed not recently sprayed with disinfectant or pesticide.
  • Bedding washed separately from others with baking soda (or a detergent the person indicates as safe), or all bedding washed in fragrance-free detergent.

Basic accommodation:

  • No pesticides/herbicides used in or near shelter for at least one month.
  • No smoking allowed in shelter or in areas where the person with MCS needs to be (this includes smoking by open doors or windows).
  • No air freshener, Lysol, or sprays used in shelter for at least one week. Window open in bathroom.
  • Cot or bed never sprayed with disinfectant or pesticide and not brand new.
  • Bedding never washed in scented detergent or with fabric softener. Washed at least once with baking soda (or a detergent the person indicates as safe).
  • Shelter located in neighborhood with reasonably clean air (no conventional agriculture, gas stations next door, factories, or highways).
  • Person with MCS allowed to sleep separately from regular shelter clients (or at least to choose a space away from people using scented products).
  • Scent-free personal care products available. Strongly scented ones not used by any client or staff.
  • No dry erase boards used during stay.
  • No new carpet (3-12 months), fresh paint (1-4 weeks), or new construction (3-12 months).
  • Person with MCS allowed to use oxygen, respirator or filter masks, or other adaptive equipment as needed.
  • Some food choice allowed to accommodate sensitivities.
  • Clients with electrical (EMF) sensitivities allowed flexibility in sleeping and other locations.
  • Shelter as mold and mildew-free as possible.

Best accommodation:

  • Individual placement with a host family familiar with MCS, or one who lives organically and is willing to learn.
  • A location where pesticides/herbicides have not been used for at least a year.
  • No smoking on property.
  • No air freshener, Lysol, or sprays used for at least several months.
  • Lots of fresh air circulating.
  • Bed or cot that has never had bedding with fabric softener or scented detergent, has not been sprayed, is at least a year old (for mattress).
  • Scent-free personal care products used routinely in home.
  • No dry erase boards.
  • No new carpet (2-3 years), paint (3-6 months), or new construction (6-12 months) unless done to MCS nontoxic standards.
  • Little to no mold or mildew.

Individual placement/accommodation:

There is no such thing as a site that will meet the needs of all people with MCS. The disease is too varied and chemical assaults too plentiful. The guidelines above will help shelter a majority of people who identify as having MCS, as well as creating a safer environment for people with allergies, asthma, and other sensitivities. They will help as well with people who benefit from chemically safe environments, such as pregnant women, infants, young children, the elderly, people with AIDS, and anyone with autoimmune disease, a compromised immune system, or other ailments.

Whenever possible, ask shelters and hosts for details about their location and ask the MCS client what they can and can't tolerate. You of course want to avoid placing a person with MCS into an unsuitable environment, but it would be just as unfortunate to miss placing someone in need because a location does not meet a criteria listed in this article yet is tolerable to the person in question. Some people with MCS can not be in the same building with a gas appliance, others use them routinely. Some are alright with mild perfumes but can not be across the street from fresh paint. Still others will react strongly to animals, pollens, or wood smoke.

Questions for shelter/housing providers:

  • What pesticides/herbicides have been used in the last year?
  • What construction or remodeling has been done in the last year?
  • What animals are on the property?
  • What is the source of heat?
  • What type of cooking, hot water, laundry dryer? (gas, propane, electric)
  • Is there air conditioning?
  • Is there shared laundry? what products are used? can these be changed? how close is it to the client areas?
  • Is there smoking allowed indoors? outdoors?
  • Are there candles, incense, or wood smoke?
  • Which brands of cleaning products are used? can these be changed?
  • What is used for air freshening?

If you are not sure if a placement will be suitable, let the person with MCS know what concerns you and let him/her decide if the placement is worth a try. The more information you can give clients, the better decisions they can make.

Note that most people with MCS also have diagnoses of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Fibromyalgia or both. These three are basically the same syndrome with different primary symptoms. Please also read the guide to Providing Shelter for People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome & Fibromyalgia.

For more information on MCS, see An Introduction to Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.

Katrina survivors with MCS, and their friends and family, are welcome to join the support list Immune at http://www.immuneweb.org/.

Any shelters or others who serve Katrina survivors with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are welcome to contact Cyndi Norwitz for information on accommodating these people safely. (707) 775-4475 (9am-9pm Pacific Time except in emergencies) or cyndi@tikvah.com.

Site maintained by Cyndi Norwitz at cyndi@tikvah.com. Last modified 9/8/05