Carrie Young has to work part-time from home.
“It’s the only way I could be a reliable employee,” Young said Tuesday.
And home these days for herself, her husband and infant son is a room in her mother’s house in Winthrop, because the same condition that makes it difficult for her to work in an office — chemical sensitivity — also made it impossible for her to live in her new home.
But there are those worse off than her. People who are homeless, who’ve lost everything.
While it may sound like a rare, scary condition that the rest of us cross our fingers and hope we never get, most people have some level of chemical sensitivity.
The toxins from the things we use daily, like soap and laundry detergent, as well as the more obvious ones that bombard us, like perfume and cigarette smoke, are making most of us less healthy than we could be.
Young’s website thinkbeforeyoustink.com not only advocates for those whose lives are hampered by chemical sensitivities, but she also sees it as an “act of compassion” for fellow sufferers, an attempt to raise awareness.
Smell is one of the underrated senses — when it’s good, it’s good. Smells can bring us back decades and evoke emotion, putting us back in our grandmother’s kitchen or with someone we love.
But they’re also a warning sign that we’re being exposed to something that’s not healthy for us.
Smell is actually masses of particles bombarding our nose. They are also bombarding the rest of us, sinking into our skin, entering our bodies through the air we breathe.
Workplaces, as Young, 36, learned the hard way, are breeding grounds for toxins. Computers, plastics, electronics, carpeting, paint, perfume, cologne, lingering cigarette smoke and more, all sealed into a building with windows that don’t open make a toxic stew that, even if we don’t realize it, affects our health.
Personal care products are another offender — soap, laundry detergent, perfume — the things we use every day are full of chemicals that can harm us.
Young acknowledges that the name of her website is misleading. It’s not only things that smell that cause the problem. But fragrance is a leading indicator of many of the toxins that affect us.
She said the fragrance in, for instance, a co-worker’s cologne isn’t just one element, but actually hundreds of chemicals.
For many people it may be an annoyance, for others it may make them sick. Many people have had the experience of being affected by a smell in the office. But that’s usually where it starts and ends — complaints are hard to resolve or aren’t taken seriously.
Non-toxic living is often seen “as just another hippie fad,” she said. But it affects the health of everyone.
Young says her mission is to get the word out that chemical sensitivity is an illness, one that should be taken seriously and one that affects more people than most realize.
In Young’s case, working full-time in an office gave her severe headaches, brain fog, weakness and sometimes tremors when she tried to sleep. It affected her enough that on some days it wasn’t safe for her to drive home.
Her issues were compounded when the solution used to stain the log cabin she and her husband bought “destroyed” it for her. That was after careful research and sampling. The house is now up for sale, and she, her husband and 7-month-old son are living in her mother’s house.
Most people’s sensitivities aren’t as severe as Young’s, but everyone has them. “We’re exposed to so many toxins, the body reacts,” she said.
People who have conditions that affect the immune system — Young has Lyme disease — or are on chemotherapy or those who are already sensitive to smell are the most likely to feel the effects.
But the biggest battle, Young says, is getting people to take it seriously.
Everyday toxins have increased over the past few decades with more heavy metal plastics in our environment, tighter buildings, more synthetic materials.
“I call it a social disease,” she said. “Our society has created an unhealthy environment and our bodies can’t handle it.”
She said corporations that contribute to much of the toxins we’re exposed to can make choices about how toxic their product may be and government regulators can take notice, but that’s not something that’s on their radar.
For instance, there’s no regulation of the word “natural” in food and care products, so a consumer may think she’s buying something that’s safer when it’s labeled natural, but it may not be.
The Food and Drug Administration is “very lenient as to what they call safe,” Young said. “They’re not interested in creating a system that’s safe for (people with chemical sensitivities).”
“We’ve built a societal construct” around a world full of chemicals because of the choices made by corporations, the government and people like us.
“Now we have to backtrack,” she said. Solving the issue, or at least easing it, “comes down to choices.”
But backtracking is slow, and the biggest thing slowing it down is attitude.
Young gives people some credit — she says the world is a complicated place and people are overwhelmed, so it’s easy to say this is one more thing they don’t want to deal with.
Those of us who are more cynical say people don’t want to do the work it would take. It’s easier to keep using the same products than doing the research or making the changes necessary to live in a more toxin-free world.
Young’s website has tips for living a less toxic life. The biggest offenders are personal care products and our home and office environments. Besides the products we buy, things like new carpeting, paint, the type of heat in a home, all add to the overload.
Young said those around her have made an effort to make changes in their lives. The result is, they’re finding they feel healthier, too.
“Sensitivities build up,” she said. No one can completely avoid it. “But when you’re around them all the time, you can’t heal.”
Maureen Milliken is news editor for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. Email her at [email protected]. Twitter: mmilliken47. Kennebec Tales is published the first and third Thursday of the month.