Are cleaning products making you sick?

If you’ve ever gotten a rash from a face product, or had an adverse reaction to a shampoo, gotten dizzy walking through the war zone of smells in a perfume department, or had issues shopping in the laundry aisle you likely have a chemical sensitivity. You may have also been told that you are overreacting, it’s just a mild irritation, or you just ‘don’t like the smell’. The provincial Environmental Health Clinic (EHC), a collection of doctors, put out a report in 2010 (updated in 2011) that says environmental sensitivities (ES) and multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) are legit. There was no funding and these doctors worked basically for free. They are real doctors, who aren’t trying to sell you anything. Also, these medical issues have been recognized as disabilities in Ontario as of 2000 and Canada’s human rights commission as of 2007, plus they’ve been studying this for 50 years. The Canadian Community Health Survey reported (in 2010–11) that physicians diagnosed 2.4% of adults over 12 years old and 3.4% of women had been diagnosed with ES-MCS. A whopping 1/3 of the Canadian population self reported as being chemically sensitive to fragrances and perfumes (including many who have asthma).

The EHC report claims, “ The science of toxicology has evolved substantially and there is a move away from “physical” versus “psychological” models of disease/illness to the multiple determinants of health model utilized by the World Health Organization (WHO). There is also increasing understanding of unique responses to low doses.” But not in my experience. Last year, I had to go to Toronto General emergency after going through customs and immigration at Pearson airport (like getting punched in the face by chemicals) and while trying to explain what was happening, I was told I was merely having a panic attack and had to demand to be examined. I was told that low levels of X in my system would not cause my reactions and the intake doctor didn’t believe in MCS.

As of 2011, there was no diagnostics code for ES-MCS, so doctors working on it could not bill for it. As it’s been a disability in Ontario since 2000, what?

Not funding ES-MCS is costly

The provincial Environmental Health Clinic in Ontario study of 128 patients found that 68.8% had to stop work. If we make an assumption and take that to the 3% of the population that have been physician diagnosed with ES-MCS as of 2011 (again, likely more now), at our current population, that’s 1,098,782 people who are heavily reacting to chemicals and 755,962 who are unable to work. That’s a lot of disability and social aide for the country to dish out because people can’t get diagnosed early on and our public spaces are making them worse. Further, this study found patients with MCS/fibromyalgia/chronic fatigue visits in Ontario to GPs were 10.7, and to other physicians were 13.7. This was much higher than other areas of Canada, where the numbers were 2.9 and 0.79. So if we use the 2013 doctor costs (assuming non-GPs are specialists), that’s $1591.60 annually in Ontario each person. At 3% of the population of Ontario, that’s $419489.52 annually. And may we just guess that pollution is the cause of a lot of that as we are one of the filthiest provinces?

Won’t someone think of the children?

Some children are being misdiagnosed with ADHD and other learning disabilities because they cannot focus in their classrooms due to environmental exposures. Chemical sensitivities have also been known to make children with neuro diversity worse. Dr. Claudia Miller of the University of Texas who has named MCS, Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance, spoke to the Autism Society on this topic in 2012. She suggested that the only way to test a child for severity of learning disabilities was to have a clean room free of chemical substances. Instead we have schools full of cleaning products that need MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets).

By law, schools have to accommodate kids with MCS who are diagnosed but we do not have a paediatric ES/MCS clinic in Ontario and The Environmental Sensitivities clinic in Toronto only sees adults. My son is currently going through the long wait for ‘learning assessments’ through the Toronto District Public School Board (TDSB), and he has a chemical sensitivity for certain. He has nose bleeds if around certain cleaning products for extended periods, he gets rashes, dizzy and flushed cheeks. The TDSB recently announced a budget increase for special needs students, which is good. To support them, we also need to change to scent free non-toxic cleaning products (which are cheaper) and then roll out a scent free policy in all of our schools. I’m sure the teachers would appreciate all the help they can get and the kids deserve a place they can think. How many kids are being unnecessarily medicated for something that could be mitigated by environment? This is an unacceptable oversight. Especially when there have been safe school guidelines since 2010.

We need health care reform

The fact that doctors don’t even know the list of symptoms to send you to a speciality clinic is appalling. Having to change doctors because their office was making me sick and they didn’t accommodate my MCS, was very depressing. We have a HUGE knowledge management problem in our health care industry. Also, due to the lack of funding to the mere THREE clinics that exist nation wide, it’s a 13 month wait to get into the Women’s College clinic and you have to do a 27 page intake. When your brain is fogging from chemicals, that’s a beast to attempt. People from out of the city and province have to travel to Toronto and find accommodations, or to Nova Scotia, and the only paediatric clinic is in Alberta.

Health care reform is not something to wait on. It costs us money, people get increasingly ill waiting for doctors and specialists take far too long to get into. People who are worse off cost more to treat and then they can’t work, which costs even more. In a large city wait times are much less. We have no standard of care, and clearly medical studies aren’t getting passed onto GPs and walk-in clinic doctors. This system encourages patients to seek non-medical advice and for purchase ‘cures’ pop up while people try to manage their symptoms, not knowing the answers. They bleed money on procedures they hope will relieve their symptoms even a little, potentially harming themselves more in the process.

We need a call to action for scent free public spaces

All medical facilities I’ve been to here are coated in chemical cleaners and my reactions are much worse there. Emergency rooms are not scent free, even though they claim they are. I now have the sense of smell of a drug-sniffing-dog, I can tell. With 1/3 self reporting and 3% diagnosed, not having safe hospitals and schools feels like a very large class action suit. I can’t even use the subway because it’s 10x more polluted than the outside

Non-toxic cleaners like apple cider vinegar and water, baking soda and scent free non-toxic cleaners end up costing me less than the heavily toxic cleaners. I’m confident that if the cleaning products in all schools, community centres, libraries, government buildings and hospitals were switched out, there would be a large cost savings.

We need public facility reform, similar to no smoking laws. We need a salt water municipal public pool in Toronto. Employees should be able to go to work safely. Kids should be able to learn safely. There needs to be standards in housing development, especially socialized housing. There are obvious fixes that will have long term health and financial benefits. All the studies have been done and approved, why haven’t the changed been implemented?

Let’s not suffer in silence

To all the people not getting referred, or being told that it’s nothing — don’t wait. I know it takes a lot of energy you don’t have, but print the studies, bring them to your doctors. If the Canadian medical system will not do the outreach, you need to for your own sake. We’re all being too polite and Canadian about this. We don’t have to be patient, they have to fix it. We pay the government, and doctors with our taxes. They are our employees. Our employees are mismanaging our finances and health and it’s time for them to do something. Call your MPs, all your local representatives. We will save money and be healthier together.

Apocalypic ballerina – a cancer fundraiser

Erin and Linda at our show/ photo by steffen matt

After my friend Linda was diagnosed with a type of breast cancer that was was only treatable by chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, we decided to do a photo series of an Apocalyptic Ballerina together. We had always wanted to do this, but suddenly it became more poignant. After some chatting, we thought it would be great to make it a fundraiser for a local breast cancer charity. We partnered with Breast Cancer Action, a group that researches and educates on environmental causes for cancer, and embarked on our first charity event. It was Linda’s first ballet photo series, my first solo photo show, my first composite photo/Photoshop-heavy picture attempts, and a hell of a lot of fun. We also learned some things.

Charity is harder than it should be

One of the first things we discovered is that if you want to make money for charity and not have it taxed as income, it is not easy (we did this in San Francisco). You either have to find a charity to work with you (which we did), or you have to fill out a seemingly endless stack of paperwork to get full-time or temporary charity status. Also, the charity itself has to do a huge amount of work for you, to allow you to help them, as they are subjected to the pile of bureaucratic mess that you are trying to avoid. So not all charities are willing to partner with someone who wants to do their own event — though they will all just take straight up donations. Marie Bautista of BC Action was our charity superhero sponsor. As we wanted to provide tax receipts for people who purchased art, there were many stipulations we had to follow. Also, we found out that you can only give tax receipts for physical purchases for the amount above the cost of the physical item. Charity, it seems, is in the paperwork.

Most businesses don’t donate a lot to charity

We had started out thinking that we would be getting all our locations, outfits, hair, makeup and prints donated to us. We had figured out a way, via Breast Cancer Action, that people who donated time or physical items could get a tax receipt for the goods or services they provided. We thought this was awesome and everyone would totally go for it. Good cause? Giant smiles? Cancer-ridden ballerina? Who isn’t going to help out with that?

It was a harder sell then we thought it would be — but we did have successes. Diva International did Linda’s hair for the Pier Shoot. They are super rad people. They were not open during the times we needed to shoot the other scenes, but they did offer to help as much as we needed. The background for the Coal Mural shoot was lent to us by Zeph Fishlyn and the Beehive Collective, and we shot that scene in the Obvious offices. eBay was the only business we found that actually has a charity policy, wherein they wave their fee entirely and let you use their service for free. They also had amazing customer service, who helped us out when we accidentally got ourselves banned by testing our auction with insane numbers that set off their fraud detector. Our mannequins and easels for the show were donated by Leslie Wong of Blueprint Studios. We got charity discount rates from our other vendors TCHO (thanks Tyler!) and Photoworks, but we both still ended up having to shell out a reasonable amount of money to make it all happen.

Another discovery we made was that businesses tend to run out of their charitable donation budgets early in the year. So if you’re planning something, start in January.

DIY and have really good friends

Linda and I did her hair and makeup ourselves after the first location. Linda was also largely outfitted with my personal clothes, as I tend to own a lot of puffy, gothy dresses. My old rave gear and Burning Man accessories were also heavily featured. This cut costs and justified a lifetime of playing dress-up. We did have to buy a cheap cat suit online, but I later re-purposed it. You can always use a cat suit at some point in your life, at any rate, so it’s never a bad investment.

Our friends: Ashley, John, Juan, Ally, Ramiro; Linda’s husband Steffen; and my then-husband, all volunteered at a few shoots each. We kept to free public locations mostly, but Ashley and John let us use the rooftop of their building as well. My friend Dan DJ’d at the event, providing great apocalyptic accompaniment.It’s amazing to have real friends to help out when you really need them, and ours stepped up to the challenge.

Special shout-out to the Chronicle building security guard for not kicking us out of the Minna Street bridge tunnel for throwing garbage around and blocking the street temporarily (giant smiles did come in handy there — and yes, we did clean it up).

You can get a disease ironically

Maybe it’s because I live in the Mission in San Francisco and am constantly surrounded by hipsters who love irony, but near the end of our shoots, I found out that I had cervical cancer. Oh well, at least I was already raising money for someone’s cancer, right? Our show was set for two weeks after I got my diagnosis and two weeks before my hysterectomy, so it was nice to have a distraction.

Apocalyptic Ballerina art is hard to sell…but cool as fuck

We did end up selling quite a few pieces and raised $4400, but we have some left. (Hint, hint!) Maybe a goth ballerina surrounded by toxic waste is not everyone’s cup of tea? Clearly we think it’s awesome, but we definitely have a target market. I don’t think we got enough visibility by word of mouth alone, but we tried, had fun and raised money for a good cause. So without further ado, I give you the Apocalyptic Ballerina!

The Apocalyptic Ballerina

The Toxic Pier

In a world of toxic turmoil, the Apocalyptic Ballerina stands guard on a pier, ready to warn nomads to stay away from San Francisco. It had recently been deemed a ‘dead zone’ by the government, but news, even official, was traveling slowly these days. She sees a war ship approaching a dock and quickly sets to writing a note, “Caution, quarantine area”, that she stuffs into a bottle and throws into the water. She hopes they get the message in time, and she wonders how much time she has left for herself.

Nomads on the move

A warning to send

Caution quarantine zone 

Message in a bottle

Fly away bottle

The Lookout

A month had passed since the last toxic cloud rolled in, but the Apocalyptic Ballerina insisted a sentinel be posted by Twin Peaks everyday. People needed to get the gas mask warning; no one was wearing them all of the time because of the blistering. Volunteers were waning, so she was on her 3rd shift in a row. She thought she saw something on the horizon, but she wasn’t certain. Straining, she almost wished they weren’t pumping anti-toxins from all the buildings, because then, she could smell it coming. It came over the hill so quickly she almost didn’t have time to put on her own gas mask, let alone sound the warning sirens. A wall of toxic cloud, they had created, and it was going to kill them.

The sentinel watches

Suspicion on the horizon

A toxic cloud approaches

Breathing in the anti-toxins

Gas mask warning sounded

The Clean Up

After the toxic cloud dissipated, there was still too much chemical debris everywhere to walk around without a gas mask. The Apocalyptic Ballerina was scouring the city for ‘garbage hot spots’ to bag up. When the acid rains came, they reacted with the plastics and metals in the garbage which created a localized fog that further poisoned the ground. She thought that if she contained the trash and stored the bags under bridges, it had less of a chance to get wet. It was too easy to get ambushed in the buildings, so she preferred to be outdoors. She was hopeful that she could try to grow food one day. Even with the reduced population, canned goods were not going to last forever.

New garbage hot spot to clean

The cleaning begins

Toes in toxic debris

Exhaustion will overtake me 

Until tomorrow 

The Nightmare

After days of cleaning up garbage from the streets, with little rest, the Apocalyptic Ballerina collapses from exhaustion. She tosses and turns as her mind fills with troublesome thoughts. She is a child’s toy, a ballerina doll, twisted from rough play and then tossed into the trash because she is no longer a perfect plaything. The garbage world she lands in is horrific and terrifying to the delicate ballerina doll. It echoes the history of the surface world of long ago, before the pollution reached critical mass. She tries to escape, through the darkness, but no matter how fast she runs, the world seems to travel around her, bringing her back to the beginning over and over. Weary, she pauses and wonders: at what point could we have stopped this?

Tossed into the trash

A horrified leap 

Being chased by darkness 

Stuck in a loop

A moment of reflection

The Path Forward

According to the rumour, that the electrical field from the old transformer station repelled the chemical clouds, so the air there was safe to breathe. However, all of the people who lived there — that the Apocalyptic Ballerina knew of, had died of massive organ failure. It seemed as though, without maintenance, the transformer station could cause widespread tumours. It was unfortunate that all the gas masks stopped functioning. There were no more replacement filters and it had just gone on too long. So, she didn’t really have much choice but to risk it. There was one precaution she could take though… aluminum foil. It shielded you from the electrical field, or so she hoped. With grace and speed, she was covered in a matter of minutes. Now all she could do was take a deep breath, and wait.

Close to the electrical field 

The foil will protect me

Keep holding on 

A gentle armor 

Only time will tell