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June 21-27, 2006

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Ecology House

Refuge: Funded by HUD, Ecology House is for low-income renters who gladly follow its many stringent rules.

Breath of Fresh Air

Ecology House provides a refuge for the chemically sensitive

By David Sason

Hanging clothes that I'd just washed in baking soda to dry on the line, I pondered what it would be like to be required to do this with each load. I spied my just-purchased bottle of fragrance-free body wash and suddenly felt very lucky to have only been sneezing my head off from pollen the last couple of months. What if every day were like this? Indeed, walking outside is much more damaging for residents of San Rafael's Ecology House, the 11-unit HUD apartment building for which I and my attire were de-odorizing.

While a specialized grooming routine normally exceeds common courtesy when visiting someone, it's much appreciated by tenants at Ecology House, and for good reason--Ecology House is the nation's only affordable-housing building specifically designed and constructed for people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

Multiple chemical sensitivity is described by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences as a "chronic, recurring disease caused by a person's inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals." Common household products such as cologne, bleach and even fabric softener can harm the afflicted's organ functions and central nervous system, and even cause seizures.

Most buildings are virtual deathtraps for MCS sufferers, so builders went to great lengths to make Ecology House as chemical-free as possible. Pressure-treated wood, flourescent lighting and glues are just a few on the long list of banned items. Since asphalt is toxic to sufferers on hot days, the parking lot is paved with concrete. The siding features factory-baked enamel paint and integral-color stucco--two choices ensuring that no repainting (and the noxious fumes that accompany it) would be neccesary.

Laundry-room appliances are another example. "We call them 'virgin machines,'" says resident Connie Barker, an officer of the Environmental Health Network. "They've never had bleach, fabric softener or scented detergent [used in them]."

Home sweet home is definitely an understatement for Barker, who's lived at Ecology House since it opened in 1994. "When I came here, I had been a home- and bed-bound person for the better part of 10 years," she says.

Barker's symptoms first appeared after her freshman year at UC Berkeley. Viral illness and 105 degree fevers led to extreme fatigue, which doctors diagnosed as mononucleosis. "I went almost overnight from being a student to someone who could barely get out of bed and balance her checkbook," Barker says. As an engineering major, this extreme decrease in cognitive function proved detrimental to her academic career. "All of a sudden, I couldn't even add a single column of numbers," she says. "It was like trying to think through mud."

When the mono didn't pass in a few weeks, doctors surmised she had depression. "I thought, 'Yeah, I'm depressed--I'm tired and I'm sick all the time!'" Nonetheless, Barker began undergoing unsuccessful counseling and taking antidepressants that made her even more ill. By the late '80s, she had reached the nadir, weighing only 85 pounds. "It was really common for people to assume that I was an end-stage cancer patient," she remembers.

It wasn't until she joined a mono support group that she began learning about MCS. A fellow member suggested Barker's worsening condition was linked to the formaldehyde emission in the mobile home she'd just moved out of. "I said, 'Formaldehyde? You mean the stuff they pickle frogs in?'" she recalls. With her skeptical, scientific mind, Barker needed proof, so she began tracking her condition following stays at a friend's mobile home. "Lo and behold, I would be sick after each visit," she says. "Then I really began paying attention."

Barker immersed herself in research and meticulous monitoring of her health patterns. "I noticed these relapses of what I thought was my mono were happening when I had gone into a freshly painted room or where they'd recently sprayed pesticides," she attests. Barker thought back to her short-lived college days--particularly a biking trip shortly before her health declined where she was in constant proximity to pesticides.

Within months of moving into Ecology House, Barker's health dramatically improved. She finally felt she had her life back. "I still can't do math at that high level that I used to be able to do, but I can balance my checkbook again." Having recently earned an AA degree, Barker is planning to go back to Berkeley--this time to graduate.

Perhaps most importantly, the House afforded Barker some sorely needed empathy. "It's not just that it was a community," Barker says, her eyes watering. "People didn't get mad at me if I was a little out of it. It was OK to be disabled here, it was OK to be sick."

Although people like Barker can clearly recover, skepticism regarding MCS has been present ever since Dr. Theron Randolph began pioneering environmental medicine half a century ago. "Because there hasn't been a consensus for the medical definition of the syndrome, many people in the medical profession say that it doesn't exist," Barker says.

Cynicism led to sensationalistic bad press back in 1997, when ABC's John Stossel featured Ecology House in his 20/20 segment titled "Junk Science." Despite MCS being "Stosselized," as Barker calls it, and discredited on websites like, she remains undeterred.

"As a person who's lived with these physical problems and helped run a support group for over a decade, there's no question in my mind that it is real," Barker says. "There's too much overlap among the symptoms and among what seems to get people better." Evolution also provides a strong defense. "How many petrochemicals do you think the average caveman had to deal with each day?" she asks.

Working closely with the disabled community has been a key way to spread knowledge and recognition of the syndrome. "Poor indoor environmental quality can be as real a barrier to getting in a building as steps are for a person in a wheelchair," Barker says.

With the burgeoning green building movement giving hope to workers and an upcoming conference on properly defining the syndrome, it seems that the world may come around to MCS sufferers after all. The Sonoma County Residents for Safe Housing is even looking to follow Ecology House's example. But until that day comes, only a few fortunate tenants with MCS sit at home and healthily breathe a sigh of relief.

For more information on Ecology House, go to To learn more about the Sonoma County Residents for Safe Housing, write [email protected]

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