How People With Extreme Sensitivities to Everyday Chemicals and Electricity Design Their Diets, Habits, and Homes

Slate’s design blog.
July 18 2014 9:03 AM

How People With Extreme Sensitivities to Everyday Chemicals and Electricity Design Their Homes and Routines

140716_EYE_Snowflake3
Entering Snowflake, Arizona.

Courtesy of Ken Lund/Flickr

Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible covers design questions large and small, from his fascination with rebar to the history of slot machines to the great Los Angeles Red Car conspiracy. Here at the Eye, we cross-post new episodes and host excerpts from the 99% Invisible blog, which offers complementary visuals for each episode.

This week's edition—about designing communities for those with extreme sensitivities to low-level chemicals—can be played below. Or keep reading to learn more.

Well before the early 1500s, when Sir Thomas Moore first coined the term utopia, people have been thinking about how to design their ideal communities. Maybe it’s one that doesn’t use money, or one that drops traditional family structures and raises children collectively.

Advertisement

For a community of people on the outskirts of the small Arizona town of Snowflake, utopia is just a place where they won’t be physically sick. That’s because everyone in this community is suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity.

People with MCS suffer from migraines, muscle pain, rashes, nausea, fatigue, and other debilitating symptoms they believe to be caused by low-level exposure to chemicals such as laundry detergent, perfume, and car exhaust.

Although most scientific studies have not shown a strong connection between chemical exposure and symptoms, there’s no real medical consensus about what causes the illness. Doctors disagree about whether symptoms are physiological, psychological, or both.

140716_EYE_Snowflake2
A small community on the outskirts of Snowflake, Arizona, is a haven for those with multiple chemical sensitivity.

Courtesy of Delaney Hall

People with MCS are often dismissed as hypochondriacs and can find themselves without sympathetic medical care or access to services that people with recognized disabilities might have. There are a subset of doctors who believe in MCS and treat it, but most mainstream physicians avoid the diagnosis. A lot of people with the illness take matters into their own hands, designing their diets, habits, and environments to make themselves feel better.

The people in this Arizona community might be the closest thing there is to an MCS think tank, and they’ve developed building techniques to help manage their sensitivities. That means using “safe” materials like ceramic tiles or concrete floors rather than carpeting, which traps chemical odors. Many leave their windows wide open, even in the winter, to keep air flowing through their houses. People with MCS also experience sensitivity to electricity, so some houses forgo electricity or have it routed through a single room that can be completely shut off from the rest of the house.

There are about three dozen households in the Snowflake community, but the waiting list is long. Susan Molloy, who keeps track of the housing, gets calls every week from “runners,” who are moving from place to place, looking for somewhere that won’t aggravate their sensitivities.

140716_EYE_Snowflake1
Some local businesses in the larger town of Snowflake have even begun to adapt to the MCS community on its outskirts.

Courtesy of Delaney Hall

Snowflake isn’t the only community of its kind, but it’s one of the largest and most established. Some local businesses in the larger town of Snowflake have even begun to adapt to the MCS community, at least a little bit. Sierra Dental has tailored its practice to make it friendly to MCS patients. There’s a real estate agent who helps people find MCS-friendly properties. There’s also an organic food store where the owner will shop for people with MCS and leave the groceries outside for them to pick up, so they don’t have to come into the store, which smells like incense.

This MCS utopia could fall apart at any moment, and Susan Molloy is keenly aware of this. “All it takes is one family building a gas station out there on the road, and a lot of us would have to move.”

To learn more, check out the 99% Invisible post or listen to the show.

99% Invisible is distributed by PRX.

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 11:25 AM The GOP’s Phantom Menace The Republican Party’s new agenda is trying to solve problems that don’t exist.
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 16 2014 10:17 AM How Jack Ma Founded Alibaba
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 10:52 AM Bill Hader Explains Why Playing Stefon Made Him Laugh and Why LeBron James Is Funny
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.