One would think, when people affected with environmental sensitivities talk of their difficulties or request accommodation, that they are met with sympathy and understanding. After all, no one claims that their symptoms are not real, even though no consensus exists among researchers as to what most likely causes them.
Unfortunately, both anecdotal experiences from sufferers and scientific studies reveal that the opposite often occurs. People suffering from environmental sensitivities are frequent- ly not taken seriously or people simply don’t believe them. They are marginalized in the workplace and sometimes lose their jobs. Their request for accommodation could result in co- workers wearing more perfume, neighbours spraying more pesticides or janitors using more cleaning products – all of them making it clear that they will make no concessions. They may lose friends who are unwilling to believe that they are unable to go to a shopping centre or a movie theatre. They may even be ostracized by their families. In addition to being ill, sufferers are confronted with hostility from the people around them when they speak of their health or request an accommodation. Of course, this is not always the case. But it is clear that environmental sensitivities generally provoke a more negative reaction than better known chronic conditions such as respiratory difficulties or allergies.
Why do environmental sensitivities arouse such hostility in certain people? Although there is no one definitive answer, certain explanations can be given. First, the legitimacy of any invisible disability (back pain, heart condition, diabetes, etc.), is more likely to be called into question than disabilities that are easily visible (a person in a wheelchair or with a guide dog). Indeed, the physical appearance of people suffering from environmental sensitivities seems quite intact. Therefore, how could they possibly suffer from a serious illness caused by invisible molecules that don’t seem to affect others?
Furthermore, people express their identity and individuality not only through their clothes and hairstyle, but also with the perfumes that they wear. It is through these distinctive traits that they try to make themselves beautiful and desirable. To state that this intimate affirmation of identity poisons the bodies of others is often mistakenly per-
ceived as a personal attack. Moreover, chan- ging the way we wash, style our hair and dress represents more than a mere inconvenience. These rituals and behaviours have a symbolic value that is deeply entrenched in our habits. It is therefore easier to turn against the person with sensitivities than to question oneself and the majority of the population.
Finally, many people do not want to consider the possibility that chemical pollution, electro- magnetic radiation or mould in buildings could be affecting their body as well. By denying the harm to people suffering from environmental sensitivities, they can continue to believe that they are safe. In fact, many authors connect the negative response to environmental sensitivities with the long- term threat that they pose to both our economic system based on industrial development and to our current lax approach in managing the risks associated with the production of toxic chemical subs- tances and our use of modern technologies.
Regardless of the reasons for the hostility directed at people suffering from environmental sensitivities, it is nevertheless unacceptable. To fully understand what those affected go through, it is important to keep in mind that in addition to being ill, sufferers contend with their condition not being recognized and endure hostility aimed at them. As a result, their trust in the people close to them and in people in general, is often severely shaken.