"My church is making me sick!" This claim is not a figure of speech complaining about the hypocrisy of church people. Instead, it is a literal description of what happens to some people when they enter a church building. These people become sick because their bodies are not able to adapt to the thousands of synthetic chemicals pervading our environment, including our church buildings. This distressing condition is known by various names; two of the most common are "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity” and "Environmental Illness."
Adverse reaction to chemicals is not confined to a small group of people who get seriously ill from chemical exposure. Many voices are suggesting that all of us are vulnerable and we are affected in ways that we rarely recognize. Those most at risk are the oldest and youngest members of society.
The toll on children
In 2008, a group of more than 50 scientists concerned about human health and the environment published a consensus paper citing over 200 studies linking chemicals to developmental disabilities in children. To illustrate the extent of the problem, they estimated that out of the approximately 3,000 chemicals manufactured in large quantities in the U.S., "about 200 are adult neurotoxicants and another 1,000 are suspected of affecting the nervous system." They went on to explain that "children are not little adults" and are more affected because their nervous systems are still developing.
Children with neurological impairments are in our communities and in our congregations in greater numbers than ever before. They come into our worship and Sunday School classes in increasing numbers, showing signs of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and various other learning disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and childhood mental illnesses. If the church does not respond appropriately to their needs, these children and their families will not stay long.
Canaries in the coal mine
Adults with chemical sensitivities, on the other hand, are more likely to point out a clear link between chemicals and disability. They function like canaries in the coal mines, warning of the dangers to all of us in our environment, if we pay attention.
Church buildings are not exempt from this growing concern about environmental contamination. Already in 1986, Mary Davis wrote in Christian Century, "Many [church] sanctuaries contain 'indoor pollution' such as synthetic furnishings, carpeting and, in the case of new buildings, construction materials. During services the air tends to be filled also with the scent of powders, perfumes, hair sprays, deodorants and after-shave. Burning incense and candles adds to the problem."
Here are some of the stories ADN has heard about in Anabaptist settings:
A teacher in one of our church schools became ill after long-term exposure to toxic mold in the basement of the building she worked in. She now must wear a powered respirator whenever she leaves her home.
A former pastor cannot attend church services or his grandchildren's school functions. Among other things, he is allergic to perfume, deodorant, after shave, scented soaps, and anything containing formaldehyde.
Another person cannot attend church in a building with gas or oil heat. She tells us that only a certain type of furnace filter will prevent her from getting headaches and a kind of "brain fog."
Yet another person tells of attending a church conference on a college campus and being "compelled to flee immediately after the soccer field was sprayed for grubs."
A church member is confined to her home. Her only contact with her church family comes through occasional visits by people who have learned to avoid the products that would make her ill.
The response of the church
The stories could go on. As our awareness grows about the high personal cost of environmental contamination, how can the church respond in love, not fear?
Some congregations have begun by establishing a "fragrance free" zone in the worship area. However, this strategy has many problems, one being that it is impossible to confine fragrances to one part of a room.
A better solution is for a congregation to raise awareness and establish policies that such things as personal fragrances, air fresheners, and aromatic or harsh cleaning chemicals (such as chlorine bleach) can be toxic and should never be used in a church building. Tips for churches.
Please contact us if you have success stories of responsive churches to share.
Worlds Changed by MCS
Pat Becker story [Editor's Note: Pat Becker passed away shortly after she contributed this story in 2007.]
Mariann Martin story
Peter Neufeld story
Roberta Krehbiehl story
Resources from others
Prevention strategies to address invisible allergies and sensitivities, from the United Methodist Committee on Disabilities. This archived newsletter issue includes several articles related to chemical sensitivities and a resource list.