In my early 40s, I developed an increased sensitivity to poor air quality. I believe this sensitivity began much earlier, in my childhood, through the daily exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke which, at the time, caused me chronic ear and throat issues.
While these adverse health effects have always plagued me, more recently I began to have strong reactions to chemicals, first with formaldehyde and epoxies associated with home construction and building materials, and once I became reactive, more broadly to pesticides and herbicides. My response to poor air quality, such as car exhaust, inversion, or even campfires, is markedly more severe than that of other healthy adults. However, everyone is affected whether or not it impacts their life as strongly as it does mine. Studies say that between 15-30% of the population self-report some form of chemical sensitivity that impacts their behavior—be it as innocuous as sneezing when a co-worker wears perfume, or the need to avoid the cleaning aisle at the grocery store.
My heightened sensitivity gives me a unique perspective. My physical responses have led me to learn more about the chemicals we are all exposed to on a regular basis. One example I came across is the legal level of formaldehyde in the US for construction materials like particleboard, as compared to the EU and Japan. Our country is significantly laxer in its standards despite very clear health effects that have been shown in numerous scientific studies.
Recently, I was able to move to a house and neighborhood that lessened my exposure to certain chemicals and pesticides. However, like everyone else, I am not able to avoid the wildfire smoke that we in the West are breathing more regularly as climate change continues to take hold. During even mild smoke I experience immediate respiratory irritation, head cold symptoms, and an overall general inability to think clearly. Moderate to heavy smoke forces me indoors.
My kids will always remember the summer of 2017 when the air was so hazardous I did not permit them to leave the house for days. They even had to miss school, while the fires near our home burned well into September. I found that their school, and most public schools, do not have air filtration to deal with the small particulate from wildfires.
My heightened sensitivity to air pollutants has forced me to prioritize establishing a clean space in my home. In that way, it has been beneficial to my family. We are equipped with medical grade air filters when the air outside is unsafe. But keeping kids home from school to protect them from dangerous air quality is not a fair solution. Too many kids and vulnerable adults can’t afford home air filters and our schools, and most public places, are not currently equipped with adequate filtration. Given how many of us are vulnerable to air pollution, both indoor and outdoor, we must insist on better public policies and laws to protect the most sensitive among us. Each individual has very limited control over the air they breathe. We all deserve clean air!
First published: December 19, 2018