The Hittman Chronicle

Absolute Non-sents
Dave Hitt

You're not allowed to have common scents in Halifax, Canada. You can't wear after-shave or perfume or hair gel or scented deodorant or even use a shampoo with any discernible smell. Don't even think about showering with a scented soap or shower gel. The town has been declared a fragrance free zone, and anyone defying the ban on scents can expect to be booted out of public buildings, kicked out of town meetings, escorted off of busses and even kicked out of school. In fact, one teenager who has been suspended twice for wearing Dippety Do hair gel and Aqua Velva deodorant may be arrested for assault.

That's right, assault. Smelling, even smelling good (although I doubt this kid did) is now a crime.

Who is assaulted by odors? Those suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). MCS victims are highly susceptible to common chemicals. Extremely low levels of exposure, which don't bother normal folks, make life miserable for MCS sufferers. Things we take for granted, like the ink on magazines or the smell of a new car or the touch of synthetic fibers or just about everything else that makes the modern world modern, gives them severe reactions. Some of them hang their mail outside for weeks before daring to open it. Some insist on clothes that are not only made from all natural fibers, but unbleached and uncolored. Many live as far away from civilization as possible, in houses carefully constructed to use a minimum of chemicals. It's a miserable existence.

And the worst part of it is that MCS does not exist.

My Gawd what is that awful smell.  Could it be {sniff sniff}...Why yes, it's bullshit!The human body simply doesn't work that way. Exposure to toxins tends to raise resistance, not lower it. This is not the case with allergies, where increased exposure increases sensitivity, but MCS sufferers are quick to point out that MCS symptoms are toxic reactions, not allergic reactions. And while some people may have increased sensitivity to one or two classes of chemicals, there is absolutely no medical basis for people to have such adverse reactions to such a wide variety of vastly different substances.

The medical community, being familiar with the way the human body works, have mostly ignored these people. The few double blind studies that have been conducted confirm what real doctors suspected - these people are suffering from nothing more than extreme hypochondria. When MCS suffers were exposed to distilled water, but told that it contained trace elements of one of the chemicals they were afraid of, they had horrible reactions. Exposing them to water that was doped with their chemical de jour, but telling them it was pure water, evoked no reaction.

Real doctors direct sufferers of MCS to real psychotherapists, who might be able to help them find relief. But most MCSers respond by writing off the real doctors as quacks, then seeking out real quacks and throwing money at them. One doctor who specializes in MCS diagnosed 196 out of 200 new patients as having MCS. (The other four came in with previous diagnoses of cancer.) Quacks often prescribe homeopathy, a make believe cure for a make believe disease. Sometimes it even works, temporarily. All cures are temporary, though, because a permanent cure would mean the MCSer would have to find another way to get attention.

If MCS were a real disease it would be spread through out the population, but the vast majority (80% by some estimates) of MCSers are middle aged, middle class white women. Evidently minorities are either too busy working or too realistic to suffer from it. Wealthy woman have other ways of getting attention and poor women, who can't afford high priced quacks, don't bother with it either. Most men prefer getting attention by shows of strength instead of shows of weakness, so hypochondria isn't nearly as common among us. (Is there anything more pathetic than a male hypochondriac?)

You think *you're* sick?  Let me tell you how sick *I* am...MCSers make their illnesses the center of their lives, often surrounding themselves with other MCSers. They usually have plenty of other diseases to complain about too, spending hours poring over medical and pseudo-medical literature, searching for new illnesses to add to their list. They prefer diseases that are rare, untreatable, and difficult to diagnose.

The principle of MCS is the "Total Load" theory. We're asked to imagine a barrel being filled with something, drop by drop. Eventually one drop causes the barrel to overflow. When this happens there is no cure and no way to empty the barrel. Of course, human bodies aren't barrels, and are perfectly capable of flushing out most of the chemicals MCSers blame for their illness. But the theory is appropriately named - it certainly is a Total Load.

Coal miners used to take canaries into the mines. The birds are more sensitive to deadly gasses than humans, so if the canary keeled over it was time to leave and pump some fresh air into the mine. MCSers love to refer to themselves as "Canaries In The Coal Mine," the sacrificial victims warning the rest of mankind of immanent danger. Unfortunately, they refuse to take the metaphor to its logical conclusion and die. Instead they just linger on, spreading their misery to anyone they can corner.

THIS ought to get me some attention...I've had the misfortune of dealing with several of these pathetic creatures. One of them travels in some of the same circles I do, and if I don't see her first (yes, she's a middle class white woman) she'll immediately provide the details of her latest illnesses and maladies. Sometimes it's hard not to laugh in her face. My favorite was when her dentist told her she had gum disease and would have to floss more often. She claims she flossed so hard she got carpal-tunnel syndrome.

It's not surprising that governments cater to such nonsense. First they stepped in to combat second hand smoke - a real thing with an imaginary connection to real diseases. Now it's scents - a real thing with an imaginary connection to an imaginary disease. The next step will be demanding protection from imaginary things that have imaginary connections to other imaginary things. Soon new laws may let us sue strangers whose bad ju ju made our invisible pet unicorn cranky.

I wish I were kidding.


Other Links

Read their firsthand stories. Note that nearly all of them are middle class white women.

I wonder how they clean the bathrooms?

It's always good to get a little Reason on a subject

May, 2000


© 2000 Dave Hitt

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