Wednesday, October 21, 2009


As I have made only passing reference to in this blog, along with chronic Lyme comes chemical sensitivity. For those who don’t know, chemical sensitivity means you feel irritated, exhausted or choked for breath around chemicals, especially airborne ones. By chemicals I am referring to molecularly altered, toxic substances that for some reason we, as a human race, have decided are a good thing to incorporate into every dimension of our existence.

In the world outside my house people are wearing perfume and hair gel, spraying innocent apples with pesticides and antibiotics, and spewing exhaust fumes into the air as they idle their engines for the sole purpose of eating their lunches while sitting in their drivers’ seats, parked, on beautiful 70 degree days, often at public parks WHERE THERE HAPPEN TO BE PLENTY OF BENCHES! (They are no doubt enjoying their car air fresheners.)

I am member of NRDC and the Sierra Club who will someday rule the world and ban all such disgusting chemicals from our lives, but on an immediate level there is not a whole lot a person can do about these things. I once approached someone idling her engine in the parking lot of a city park and asked her, quite politely, if she would mind turning off her engine. I got the finger.

I have since taken up avoidance tactics. When I am out in the world and a wave of airborne chemicals comes toward me I hold my breath and get away as fast as I can.

The tiny apartment is my only real sanctuary. Here you will find no cleaning products besides Seventh Generation, nor is there new carpeting, nor mattresses laced with fire-retardant agents, nor sheets that were not fathered by pristinely organic cotton plants. The shampoo in the bathroom contains no phlalates or sodium benzates any other substance with names more than three syllables long.

And yet at times I must buy new furniture. In the past I have bought much of my furniture at the Soaring Heart Organic Futon and Mattress Store. This a store where an air filter is always running although no toxins could possibly be malingering, and whose primary means of advertisement is in the Seattle food co-op’s newsletter, in the form of a small-print 500-word diatribe about mindfulness, crowned by a cartoon of a heart with wings. Month after month, this thing, which they consider an ad, never changes. In other words, it’s the kind of store I love and wish I didn’t love so much, partly because it’s embarrassing to be associated with that mindfulness over-indulgence, and partly because their stuff is really quite expensive.

The other place I’ve come to rely on for furniture is IKEA. Because IKEA is a fairly enlightened company, it turns out. They have standards about child labor and sustainably harvested wood and recycling and so forth. This includes not putting too many chemicals in their furniture. For example their particle board is manufactured by European standards, meaning next to no formaldehyde or other toxic chemicals go into it. I have been told by an expert on chemical sensitivity never to hang around particle board that wasn’t made in Europe.

And so, on a budget yet desperate to organize an apartment slipping toward the appearance of a rodent’s lair, I turned to IKEA.

And when I say turned, I mean I spent hours pouring through the pages of the IKEA catalogue, and staring dazedly around the tiny apartment, relocating beds and book cases in my head. I bullied Ghusun into driving down to IKEA with me, twice, and we wore ourselves out in the maze, I with my tape measure and notepad and Ghusun, for reasons only she knows, determined to see everything there was to see and file it away meticulously in her head.

And now this: the furniture has been delivered, and all is assembled. The computer desk I put together myself, I’m proud to say in under four hours. On the bookcase and dresser I sprung for an assembly service. The cute college kid who puts these things together arrived today and did both in about five minutes. They look great, and the dresser, the MALM, has been giving off noxious fumes all afternoon.

I first noticed when I was taking my nap. “Oh it’s nothing, a little an initial smell since all the pieces just came out of the box,” I told myself. But when I woke up it bothered me more and more, so that while putting my clothes into the dresser I found myself fighting the urge to run out of the house. The thing was undeniably making me sick.

I went into the living room where I could relax and possibly brainstorm. I pawed through the IKEA catalogue once more, and reviewed the money I’d spent on this thing: MALM $140, delivery $100, assembly $66. I could never get that money back from a craigslist sale. I also checked out the pure, noble, virtuous maple dresser on the Soaring Heart website: $1,200 and change, and not as big as the MALM from the looks of it.

Then I put on my jacket and ran out of the house. Once I had some fresh air in my lungs I did what I always do when I am panicking: I called the Poet first, then my mom.

“Well, why don’t you try to cook the smell out?” my mom said. We had done this before in my first months in Seattle, when I had briefly rented an apartment that turned out to be full of toxic fumes. Paint and other minor fumes can be cooked out by cranking up the heat and later airing things out, we learned. More substantive outgassers, i.e. new carpets made from petroleum derivatives, will keep letting off fumes for months, no matter how high you get the heat or how many fans you run.

So I got back home and turned up the heat in the bedroom. The Poet called me back and before I could get into full panic said why didn’t I just meet him at the bar and then we’d go out to dinner. “We’ll work it out,” he kept cutting in before I had a chance to get the details across about the heater running simultaneously with the air filter, the clothes piled all over my bed, the old dresser fighting for floor space with my yet-to-be-stashed file boxes and the reason why I had to sleep on the living room sofa tonight.

Once we were home he deliberately remained oblivious, then toddled off to bed where I found him already quilted and drifting off amidst the chaos, murmuring to me “this is fine, baby, don’t worry, it’s all fine.”

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