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Awareness Of Environmental Sensitivities

First printed in E-Parent Magazine.
Flash Mob Project Creates Awareness Of Environmental Sensitivities.
Making Multiple Chemical Sensitivity a Household Word.
By:  Melva Gail Smith

Having severe Asthma and trying to maintain a social life isn't easy, but when you add the disability of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity to the combination, the challenges become even tougher.

As a dancer with both Asthma and MCS, I was forced to give up the sport for 15 years before finding a group of line dancers that were considerate enough to cut back on wearing chemically scented products which trigger reactions in both conditions.  Dance had always been a part of my healthy life style, and I often practiced Ballroom Dancing 4 or 5 days a week, participated in showcases, and had entertained at a nursing home and mall.

Just as my young life seemed to be taking off, illness struck; making  it impossible for me to be around scented products that were unfortunately heavily associated with the glamour of dancing.  Having to give it up entirely was emotionally devastating to me as it had always been my life's passion.

Anyone who has lost a significant part of their life's enjoyment due to disability barriers can certainly relate to the sudden traumatic impact it can have.  The experience was so gut wrenching that it was impossible to watch a movie with dancing in it without bursting into a flood of tears.

The next 15 years were lived with only memories of better times, as without dance; life suddenly lost it's spark. Knowing the uplifting emotional benefits dancing has, one of my doctors suggested that I search and keep on searching until I found a place I could dance at without having immediate major reactions.

It was during a time of trial that a friend persisted to suggest places I might go.  Despite the risks, I agreed to meet them at Dancin' Nuts, a local line dance group, where many of the dancers soon become considerate of my condition.  The day that I began to take classes again was so uplifting that it was like experiencing a rebirth, and I never quit going back.

It didn't take long for me to realize that there were other dancers there who had the same disability and had found it to be a somewhat more MCS friendly environment.  What I didn't know at the time was that there was going to be a silver lining to my story, as I was about to be given the unique opportunity to participate in a MCS awareness campaign that would span across the globe.

When I heard dance choreographer Ira Weisburd was collecting videos from around the world for The Flash Mob Project and would be splicing them together into one large documentary film, I wanted to participate. I had never been in a flash mob before and it sounded like a lot of fun.

A group called The Nuts and Honey's Dance Club, that also produces a TV show by the same name on Insight Channel 98; was going to record the Kentucky segment.  They were asking for dancers from the Louisville and Southern Indiana area to meet at a festival to perform Ira Weisburds line dance "Shuffle Boogie Soul," to the song "Honky Tonk," by Preston Shannon.

Everyone was learning the steps, and it was a really exciting time for me. Getting to the film site was a challenge in itself, as it was filmed near one of Louisville's more polluted industrial areas.  This fact almost kept me from going, but I managed to get to the site and through the dance despite having both immediate and delayed reactions that went unnoticed by others.

After the video was submitted, Ira asked dancers to share any special stories they had associated with the project, and these were posted on a website next to the video's.  When my story posted next to the Kentucky video, so many e-mails were received from around the world inquiring about the condition; that Ira created the Breathe Freely Campaign to create an awareness about MCS and perhaps promote a more breathe freely attitude.

An instructor in California e-mailed the story to his entire class, as one of his students also had it.  It was incredibally wonderful to see this information shared with others, and the seldom heard of MCS becoming a household word. Being in the Flash Mob Project is one of the most uplifting and significant high points of my life, and the MCS community is fortunate to have someone like Ira create the much needed campaign; which continues to generate an awareness of this disabling and often misunderstood condition.

For those who have never heard of MCS, it is the inability of the body to readily detoxify and eliminate chemicals found in the everyday environment.  These chemicals then go on to store in the liver, brain and fatty tissues of the body.  Patients often detect and react adversely to very small amounts of toxins that may go unnoticed by healthy people.  According to an article by Dr. Martin Pall that was published in the 3rd edition of "General and Applied Toxicology", pages 2303-2352: chemicals can actually start a biochemical vicious cycle that makes us something like 1000 times more sensitive to these same types of chemicals .

People carrying certain forms of genes that have roles in detoxifying these chemicals are often much more susceptible to this chemical sensitivity known as MCS.  Unfortunately, MCS is a socially isolating condition with symptoms that can be triggered by everyday products such as lawn spray, pesticides, cleaning products, chemically scented products and a polluted environment.

It can involve the respiratory and central nervous system, create musculoskeletal and digestive problems, as well as cause cognitive impairment just to name a few.  With reactions ranging from memory loss and confusion to muscle weakness and pain, it can become so severe that it makes it near impossible for the patient to participate in any meaningful activity.

Unlike Asthma, there are no medications to help prevent an attack.  In fact, many people with MCS become homebound and live on a daily basis with chronic fatigue and other disabling symptoms. Those with a severe case can become homeless and unable to tolorate standard building material and home furnishings.  Total avoidance of environmental triggers and wearing a face mask are the most common methods used to help manage it.

Pall, who is Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Basic Medical Sciences at Washington State University has given dozens of scientific talks on MCS in seven countries around the world.  He states that the diverse different types of chemicals implicated in MCS all appear to be able to produce a similar toxic response in the body, too much activity of certain receptors in the body known as NMDA receptors.

"We have, now a detailed mechanism for how this leads to the stunning chemical sensitivity known as MCS.  There have been many claims that MCS is a psychological response, but we know now that this is false.  It is a biochemical and physiological response of the body to chemical exposure" Pall states.

Asthma on the other hand is a different story in that there are medications on the market that can help prevent attacks, or stop one once it has started.  While Asthma can be exercise induced, an aerobic workout can also be beneficial as it enables the lung to receive oxygen that is then transported to the blood and circulated throughout the body.

One form of exercise that helps improve lung function in this manner is dance.  It doesn't matter if it is Ballroom, Zumba, or Line Dancing, as long as it is fast enough for one to reach an aerobic state. According to the National Lung and Blood Institute,

"Aerobic activity makes your heart beat faster than usual.  You also breathe harder during this type of activity.  Over time, regular aerobic activity makes your heart stronger and able to work better."

Strenuous dance can actually double blood volume and oxygen to the brain as well as strengthen bones in both the hips and legs. Everyone should be given the equal opportunity to participate in dance. The many benefits of dancing has been well documented and includes but is not limited to:  increased circulation, enhanced mood, improved range of motion, increased confidence, weight loss, lower risk of cornary disease, increased HDL, and the joy of social contact.

"Dancing is one of the healthiest hobbies you can have." Ira Weisburd said when asked about it's health benefits. "I have been teaching seniors for more than 30 years and I can tell you that it has added years to their lives.  I have several students in their 90's and they are living proof that dancing prolongs life," Ira said.

To read more about The Flash Mob Project and the Breathe Freely Campaign, go to hannaian.com/sbsvideos/breathefreely.html.

After the writing of this article I started a petition, asking the Olympic committee to make the Olympics and their affiliated organizations scent-free. This should include ballroom dancing and open up classrooms for many who find scented products a disability barrier. To view, sign and pass the petition on to others, visit  http://www.gopetition.com/petitions/ban-scented-products-in-the-olypmics-and-affiliated-org.html