Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Linda and Penny


One of the silver linings of chemical illness is that I've met some wonderful and inspiring people who share the condition and model for me how to face it with grace and faith. One of them is Linda Baker. Linda sometimes shares interesting stories from her past on Facebook and she recently shared this one. She gave me permission to reprint it here and I hope you'll take time to read it.  

*****
I found her huddled under a clear plastic tarp in a downtown alley. Fearing the worst for my friend Penny (not her real name), I had driven to Joplin with some supplies that might help keep her safe from the approaching winter storm. She was not in her usual place on the sidewalk outside the newspaper office, so I had begun to search the alleys. Finally, I saw her wedged between the two carts that held all her belongings. She had rigged the plastic tarp over the carts to form a sort of tent, with her back against a concrete block building.

Calling her name, I got out of my truck. There was no reply and the figure under the tarp did not move. The sharp wind took my breath away as sleet began to pound a path to the ground. I called Penny’s name again. Nothing. Fearing I might be too late to help her, I lifted a corner of the tarp. There sat Penny, wearing a thick scarf and earmuffs. She had not heard me calling.

Penny broke into a big grin and said, “I’m so glad you came! Can you get me some coffee?” Sure, I could do that. I also offered to bring her a sack of plain Wendy’s hamburgers, which I knew was one of her favorite meals. She clapped her hands in delight. I gave her the thick wool socks and gloves I had brought along for her, as well as some homemade high energy snacks. I wished I could do more. I offered to take her to a shelter. She explained that she had tried every shelter in town and that her body just couldn’t tolerate the pesticides and cleaners and disinfectants used in them. She had become severely ill from those exposures. I understood that. She was in a really tough situation.

Penny had been a straight A student in High School and had a typical upbringing. She married and had a son. She worked as a waitress at a little cafe on Main Street and was living a happy life until the day the restaurant was sprayed with pesticide. She became violently ill and passed out. Other employees carried her next door to the clinic. She was having great difficulty breathing and almost died. When she finally began to recover, the doctor told her she could not go back to work and would have to avoid further exposure to pesticide.

She had a difficult choice to make. Her family needed the income from her job, yet she was risking her life to go back into that toxic environment. She decided to try working again, but became seriously ill. In time, she lost her job, her family, her home, and her health. No longer able to tolerate any environment that had been sprayed with pesticide, she tried living in first one apartment, then another, but they had all been treated with pesticide. Finally, in desperation, she had begun living outdoors where she could breathe easier.

That is how I met her. People in town just called her “The Bag Lady”, but Mom and I knew she had a story. We used to take her hot meals on cold days. It took a long time before she fully trusted us, but when she finally did, her whole face would light up when she saw us coming. Various agencies tried to help her, but her body would not tolerate indoor environments. One day she shared her story of how she had ended up on the street and showed us a little duffel bag nestled among her other supplies on one of her carts. That bag was stuffed full of articles about allergies, chemical sensitivity, reactive airways disease, and other medical issues. The articles were organized into categories and her filing system would put mine to shame. She spent many of her days in the library and had carefully cut out articles about her illness from magazines that people were giving away. She knew what was wrong. She just didn’t know what to do about it.

Then came the day that we couldn’t find Penny. We had searched around town and even asked the librarian if she knew where Penny had gone. No one knew. By chance (although I know it was really God’s timing) I was driving through downtown Joplin one day and thought I saw Penny’s carts outside the library. I parked and went in. There sat Penny, who was thrilled to see me. She had caught a ride to Joplin, in hopes that they had more resources to help her.

When the library closed, I walked with her back to the spot where she was living. A couple of guys from a church down the street wandered by handing out Bible tracts. While one of them talked to her, I asked the other one if Penny could possibly come into their lobby long enough to warm up on the coldest days. That man looked like I had just asked him to pay off the national debt! Why, NO, she couldn’t come into their church building. Well, not unless she planned to come to church regularly and tithe! I tried to explain why they could not count on her attending church. The man looked very uncomfortable and you could tell he just wanted to be anywhere but standing there talking to someone who was asking him to help a homeless person. I frankly was appalled at his lack of compassion.

It wasn’t long before Mom and Dad went to Joplin for a medical appointment. It was bitterly cold and they had a sleeping bag and warm boots and gloves for Penny. They were disappointed when they couldn’t find her. Suddenly, Mom spotted her carts outside a downtown bar. Now, my mom had never been in a bar in her life, but she marched right in. Penny was seated by a front picture window. She explained that she had gone to the downtown church and asked if she could come in to warm up. They told her NO and turned her away. Meanwhile, the owner of the bar saw her suffering in the cold wind and had gone to invite her in. He told her she was welcome to stay until the bar closed at 2 AM and he brought her a hot meal. I will let you draw your own conclusion about who showed her Christian compassion.

These thoughts were going through my head as I started to go get hamburgers and coffee for Penny on that stormy winter night. A mixture of snow and sleet was coming down and I knew it wouldn’t be long before the roads became hazardous. As I got in my truck she hollered, “Could you get me one more thing?” I said, “Sure” and came back to see what she needed. Well, she asked for cigarettes. I hesitated and said, “I don’t think I can get you cigarettes.” She looked puzzled and said, “You’re over 21, aren’t you? Of course you can buy me cigarettes. You would be surprised how much a lit cigarette can warm up your hands on nights like this.”

Hmmm…. now I had a dilemma. I had never purchased cigarettes and really didn’t want to get them for her. I debated about what to do. Then, somewhere in my spirit, I heard a little voice say, “Who are you to judge her? You are going home to your nice warm house. She is spending the night .. and the next … and the next under a tarp in freezing cold weather. Help her any way you can.” She got her hamburgers and coffee -- and cigarettes.

With this current cold weather, Penny has been on my mind. There are countless people homeless, just trying to survive the day. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to donate your time or money to help them. Perhaps you can say an extra prayer for all those who are homeless. Perhaps God will lead you to meet your own “Penny”. Jesus cared about those people that society ridiculed or forgot. May we all follow His example.

“You will be judged on whether or not you are doing what Christ wants you to. So watch what you do and what you think; for there will be no mercy to those who have shown no mercy. But if you have been merciful, then God’s mercy toward you will win out over his judgment against you. Dear brothers, what’s the use of saying that you have faith and are Christians if you aren’t proving it by helping others? Will that kind of faith save anyone? If you have a friend who is in need of food and clothing, and you say to him, ‘Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat hearty.’ and then don’t give him clothes or food, what good does that do?”
James 2:12-16

Thursday, December 21, 2017

No Place for Them

I’ve identified with Mary and Joseph in a variety of ways throughout the years. Four times in my life I moved during the Christmas season, and in one late December I gave birth to a ten pound baby. (I was GREAT with child.) More recently, the part of the nativity story that resonates most deeply with me is the fact that the couple were shut out of their desired place of rest. Luke 2:7 tells us that “there was no place for them.” (ESV)

There was no place for them. There doesn’t appear to be a place for me, either, or for others like me, who suffer with chemical illness. Where do we shop?  How do we access medical care?  How can we be part of a church community?  We knock on doors and are turned away again and again.

Earlier this year, an online friend put together a survey about church experiences. Although it was open to anyone, it was widely circulated among people with chemical sensitivities, and many of the responses reflect that. Of the people who said it was difficult for them to attend church, 78% mentioned fragrance and chemical exposures as significant barriers. Many people also mentioned mold, and some mentioned electromagnetic fields. There’s plenty to say about the survey, but I think I’ll just let people speak for themselves.

Encouragingly, the news wasn’t all bad. There were a few notable and hopeful success stories. Respondents said this about their churches:

They avoid cleaning the room where our low fragrance Bible study meets on our meeting day.

They made a section designated for people who are sensitive to fragrances. Although, it did not work for everyone since people have different levels of sensitivity.

They have posted a notice in the bulletin.

The congregation uses fragrance-free soaps and cleaning products. So glad I can attend. Had to quit for three years when our former church was too perfumy.

My favorite two responses, by far, were these:

We are made to feel welcome and treated like all the other members. We know we are very blessed to attend such a kind and caring church! Our church board wanted to know about our chemical sensitivities and asked what they could do to help us be able to attend. Then they did it!

Our church, though poor, renovated the building to provide a safe room with MCS safe materials and filtration that will allow any MCS folk to attend.

As hopeful as those responses are, they don’t reflect the experience of the majority of respondents. The person who shared one of the success stories added this:

P. S. Our former church did NOT treat us with respect. They always treated us like we were a bother and sprayed the church with pesticide behind our back. (Of course, our bodies knew.)  This church cared more about its "public image" than it did the health of its members.

Here’s a sampling of typical experiences.

I have requested a roped off area where it would be a perfume free zone. The pastor promised to look into it, but after that wouldn't return my calls.

I asked for help several times, and got poor response.

I was brought communion twice, but since then nothing.

They don't return my emails or phone calls. Nobody ever called to see why we stopped coming or offered to visit me at home either.

The church as an entity has been rather unaccommodating, refusing to change cleaning products or ask members to forego fragrance for services.

They put me on a prayer list in the bulletin. Then after learning of my details, they forgot me.

A few people pray for me when asked. I have no access to fellowship or bible study of any kind.           

Since I got sick and cannot attend we cannot get them to return emails or phone calls.

The church for a while had "fragrance free" labels for the first two rows. They didn't continue it for long.

Virtually no access is provided to me from any local churches.

Many people mentioned how involved they had once been.

The isolation after being a very active volunteer is bizarre. To think I once participated in volunteer services 4-6 days a week, tithed 10% and promised 10% for church development costs, to be forgotten. My children question my faith. The church never hesitated to ask for my service but once I became disabled, I'm out. I will continue to remind my kids that the Lord has not forgotten me. That he is not the church.

Others mentioned how much they would still like to be involved.

My best fellowship in the past has been in home Bible studies, meeting in someone else's relatively low toxic home. In the past I have taught those, and I really miss that now. But how am I supposed to find other women who need a fragrance free Bible study/prayer group when neither they nor I can come to church?

Anger and hurt came through in many of the responses. 

I have never come to terms with not being able to attend church or the total lack of understanding or concern. I was taught you should never do anything that would prevent someone else from coming to church and I feel that wearing fragrance falls into this category.

I'm disheartened that the only thing keeping me out of church are the fragrances of people and cleaners. There are so many fragrance-free cleaners and soaps on the market. And I don't understand why people can't leave off their scents just one day a week so another believer could have access to church. It seems so selfish and uncaring that folks would rather keep me from church than to give up fragrance for three hours a week.

There is a huge population group that is unchurched simply because the people in the church deem their right to wear perfume/cologne more important than for others to be able to fellowship. It's very sad how selfish the church can be.

I'd like my beloved (now former) church board to encourage listening and learning about things they don't understand rather than dismissing them as "unbelievable" or "made up." Chemical injury is real. And it's not that rare.

Sometimes people just give up.

We know we're a challenge so generally we just disappear.

I am no longer interested in church.

Others still long to be part of a church and long to see churches take leadership on toxicity issues. Here’s what people have to say:

[We] desperately want church access and fellowship.

Fragrance and cleaning chemicals are everywhere. There must be a better way.

The church could do a wonderful service by educating their members.

I would ask that churches all over the world would educate members about chemical sensitivities so that people with MCS could attend without suffering consequences.

The MCS life is hard. We need support and Christian fellowship. Please hear us.  Please see us. Please make a place for us.  


Monday, October 30, 2017

Millennials, Chemicals, and Church Attendance

I’m not a millennial and I don’t play one on TV. (The fact that I used that reference and actually remember where it came from is proof, if you needed any.)  I often read articles about millennials, though, partly just out of general curiosity and partly because I have a couple of sons in that age group. Lately there seem to be a lot of articles about things millennials aren’t buying or using. If you type “millennials don’t use” into the Google search bar, suggested endings to the sentence include “doorbells,” “credit cards,” “napkins,” “email” and “fabric softener.” 

In part I read what I can about millennials because I’ve been trying to figure out whether our society is making progress in understanding the enormous problem of toxins in common products. Is the younger generation more aware of the issue and more likely to make changes?  Sometimes I think so and sometimes I don’t. The decline in the use of fabric softeners, for instance, has been seen by some as a sign that millennials prefer to use fewer chemicals. Others say it’s simply related to economics and lifestyle. There are confusing trends. While fabric softener use is declining, the use of “scent beads” in the laundry is increasing, which is certainly unfortunate.

One widely publicized fact about millennials is that they’re much less likely than previous generations to attend church. There are certainly plenty of theories about why that is. I tend to pay most attention to the articles written by millennials themselves, and one in particular got my attention.

It’s titled "12 Reasons Millennials Are Over Church” and what made me sit up and take notice is reason number nine. The author writes,  "We want you to talk to us about controversial issues (because no one is). People in their 20’s and 30’s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image. We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.”  Did you catch that?  “Chemicals” was on the list. The author says, in essence, that one of the reasons people from his generation are leaving the church is because no one is speaking truth to them about chemicals. Wow.

There's a truth about chemicals that needs to be spoken. The truth is that there aren’t sufficient regulations in the United States to keep unsafe products off the market or to remove those already being sold, and the implications for human health are staggering. Health advocates continue to wage a David and Goliath battle against well-funded industry interests in an attempt to introduce meaningful legislative change, but as it now stands, we must each take responsibility for educating ourselves and acting on what we learn. I believe with all my heart that the people of God have a responsibility to confront this issue and to be the ones who demonstrate that we value human beings enough to be counter-cultural in the products we buy and use.

How about it, friends?  Can we open our eyes to the importance of this?  Can our churches start with easy steps like removing synthetically scented air fresheners, switching to fragrance-free soaps, and using less toxic cleaning products?  Can we get to the point where we think about toxicity when we build or renovate?  This is an issue of health — not just the physical health of humans made in the image of God, but the spiritual health of a generation that is watching us for signs of leadership and courage. We can do it. Let’s start now.



Saturday, July 15, 2017

Justified and Vindicated

I’ve been studying the book of Romans with some friends, which has brought to mind the word “justify” and its various definitions. Theologically, the word means to be declared righteous before God. The mnemonic device I learned growing up was that being justified made it “just as if I” never sinned. I remember once looking at the keyboard on a digital typewriter (in pre-computer days) and seeing the “right justify” key, which would line up the text with the margin of the page. It struck me that what Jesus did for me was similar. My own righteousness couldn’t reach God’s standard, like unjustified text couldn’t reach the margin. I realized that Jesus was my “justify” key and that he could take what I offered him and fill in the gaps, so to speak, to make it line up with the standard of holiness I could never reach on my own. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it helped me appreciate being justified.

Ironically, the common usage of the word “justify” is almost the opposite of the theological one. Theologically speaking, justification starts with the truth that no one is fully righteous. In everyday usage, however, being justified involves a person being unjustly accused or doubted, then being shown to be in the right.

I find I need both kinds of justification. I’m certainly a sinner in need of great grace. I also find, however, that in specific situations, I long for someone to step in and defend me. In my last post, I asked God to vindicate me, which is a similar concept. Someone asked what I meant and I had trouble articulating it well. This is my attempt at a fuller answer.

I've learned that I feel beaten down, not only by things that people say directly to me, but things that people say about others with whom I identify. I suspect that we all have this tendency to some extent, but maybe some of us are more sensitive to it than others. Take, for example, what people say about other widows. Recently, within the span of a few days, I heard two different people make offhanded comments about widows they knew. The first commented that one seemed to be having a hard time. (Note to self – don’t share with anyone when you’re grieving). The second person commented that she was afraid another widow was too stoic and not allowing herself to mourn. (Note to self – make sure to share with everyone when you’re grieving.) 

A few days after I heard those comments I ran across a blog post by a widow defending a widower who had recently announced his engagement. (Don’t read it if it will bother you that the post contains both a Bible verse and the phrase “dear ignorant, judgmental a**holes.”)  The writer’s palpable anger, which was echoed in hundreds and hundreds of comments, reinforced the truth that when you attack one of us in this widowhood club, it feels like an attack on all of us.

The chronic illness club is another one I find myself a member of, and negative judgments about people who are ill pour down like rain. The list of accusations feels almost endless: people have made themselves sick, they remain sick because they are afraid or don’t really want to get well, they use their illnesses to manipulate people, they exaggerate their symptoms, they aren’t trying hard enough to heal, they aren’t smart enough to know the right treatments, and on and on it goes. In the Christian world other messages get piled on: they aren’t praying enough, they don’t have enough faith, they’re being punished for sin, they’ve let Satan gain a foothold in their life. There are also accusations that are specific to given conditions. People with chemical sensitivities are often freely ridiculed and maligned for things like wearing masks to protect themselves or asking for accommodations. Yesterday I read an article that used the word “tyrants” when referring to us.

I feel very grateful to live in the digital age, when information and connection is so easy to access. There’s some information, however, that I’m not sure I want to know. Blog and social media posts, along with their associated comments, pull back the curtain of denial and paint a stark and depressing picture of how judgmental and accusatory we all tend to be. I’m not saying anything new when I note how easy it is to type things online we would never say to someone’s face or in the physical presence of bystanders who might be sensitive to the message. I read things every day that make me sad and angry, and I don’t know what to do with those emotions. Sometimes people do say accusatory things directly to me, which is painful, but at least gives me the option of response. But what do I do with the anger I feel at the accusations of countless unnamed fellow humans who all seem to have an opinion about widows, women, those with low incomes, Christians, people over 50 and the chronically ill?

It’s easy to say that it doesn’t matter what other people think. There’s certainly some truth in that. At the end of the day, only God’s opinion really counts. But caring what people think also serves a certain purpose in society, helping people understand norms and promoting cohesion. It’s a natural human behavior. Biblical writers, especially psalmists, asked for vindication or justification frequently. Here are a few examples, taken from a variety of translations:

Psalm 7:8b – “Declare me righteous, O LORD, for I am innocent, O Most High!”

Psalm 26:1 – “Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the LORD without wavering.”

Psalm 35:24 – “Declare me not guilty, O LORD my God, for you give justice. Don't let my enemies laugh about me in my troubles.”

Psalm 43:1 – “Declare me innocent, O God! Defend me against these ungodly people. Rescue me from these unjust liars.”

Psalm 82:3b – “Vindicate the oppressed and suffering.” (Another translation says “Justify the poor and the meek.”)

I believe that my anger is justified (there’s that word again), but it doesn’t feel especially helpful. As I work through this issue and try to process my feelings, I’ve found solace not only in realizing that Biblical writers shared the same desire to be defended from unfair judgments, but that God promises to do just that. This is my hope:

Isaiah 50:7-9a – Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore, I have set my face like a stone, determined to do his will. And I know that I will not be put to shame. He who gives me justice is near. Who will dare to bring charges against me now? Where are my accusers? Let them appear! See, the Sovereign Lord is on my side! Who will declare me guilty?

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Psalm of Lament

I've tried to hold the world for countless years
Assume its pain and take its blows
Punched, bruised, knocked face down
I spit out rocks and teeth
Mud caked and bleeding, I crawl back to you, my God

You ask much
From your servants
You ask much
I've been faithful
Pouring myself out
Until only drops remain

Isn't enough enough?
Hasn't the time arrived for healing and relief?
I wait
I wait
I wait

I wait my turn as those who've never tasted suffering skip around me
They glance my direction, fling accusations
Then dart away

Vindicate your child, my Lord
Vindicate and heal
Pull me from the dirt into your lap
Let me rest there as you set the world in order

I cannot hold the world
Not even my own
My hands are far too small
Teach me what to hold and what to free
Help me be faithful in a world that's just too big
A world that, like a child in pain, fights back

You, oh Mighty Creator, dwarf the world you made
Your majesty envelops and overwhelms
You hold it all
Nothing will slip away

You hold me and I am secure
You encourage and teach
Comfort and restore
You see the blows, wash my wounds, and share my tears

The waiting will one day be forgotten
You will set the world in order
You will vindicate and heal

Until that day
I will always crawl back to you

-MM

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Progress, or Lack Thereof

Some blog posts are definitely more fun to write than others are. This one isn't fun at all. I find, however, that I can't keep ignoring a news story that someone recently posted to Facebook. I've tried, but it won't leave my brain.  

It's a very sad story. Something heartbreaking happened to a family and a 12 year old girl. What happened to her isn't new, however, but has happened before to other young people. In fact, I've written about it. In 2012 I wrote a post I called "Death by Deodorant" about two boys who died ten years apart, both from the toxicity of deodorant fumes. I wrote, "What improved between 1998, when the 16-year-old died and 2008, when the 12-year-old met the same fate? Did the products get safer or did society become more aware of the dangers? It doesn’t appear so. How about 2018? Will things be different then?"

We haven't reached 2018, but the answer to whether things are different in 2017 is apparently "no." A news story from March reports on the sudden death of 12-year-old Paige Daughtry.  A pathologist found that she died from the inhalation of chemicals found in the deodorant she had been using. He stated, "There was no natural disease that has contributed to her death. There was no evidence of heavy use and no direct evidence that there was chronic use." In other words, it appears that she was a healthy girl who died from using a common product for its intended purpose.

It should be noted that the deodorant deaths took place in Europe, where spray formulations are more common than they are in the United States. However, "body sprays" are very common in the United States, and the popularity of spray deodorants is rising. The propellants implicated in Paige's death (butane and isobutane) are the same ones found in Axe and other body sprays.

There are a number of issues raised by these stories, but if nothing else, surely they serve as a stark reminder that the great majority of personal care products in use have never been tested for safety. We can't trust that simply because a product is on the market or is widely used guarantees that it isn't harmful, either to ourselves or those around us. Many, many products may, in fact, be deadly, but tend to kill slowly, by contributing to cancer, heart disease, or other illness.

This story saddens me deeply, in part because it highlights the lack of progress we seem to be making on this vital issue. I can, however, think of at least one way in which things have improved. It's much easier than it used to be to determine the safety of a product by using websites such as EWG (Environmental Working Group)  or by simply doing an internet search. The caveat, however, is that sites are only helpful if people use them. We have to care enough to look for the information, and when we have the information, we have to act on it, by voting with our dollars, purchasing the kind of products we want to see more of on our store shelves.

This is what I wrote in my post about the boys. It still reflects my thoughts. "If anything is going to change, I suspect you and I are going to have to be part of changing it. I believe there are things worth dying for. Deodorant isn't one of them."

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

From my Heart to Yours

On this date three years ago, my husband's heart stopped beating. He was in his 50s, seemingly healthy and robust, and most people were genuinely shocked at his death. I didn't wake up that March morning believing that my husband would die that day, but in a general sense I was less shocked than many others seemed to be. That was partly due to life experiences (my mother died when I was young, so I grew up understanding the unpredictability of death) and partly due to understanding some of his risk factors. 

I'm going to mark this anniversary by writing about heart disease and talking about some lesser known causes. At some point I'm going to talk about a risk factor or two that I wish Dan would have taken more seriously. I imagine that last sentence put some of you on edge. Believe me, I spent a lot of time debating whether or not to write this post, but I decided to do so for multiple reasons, including that I'd like to think that Dan would want me to. 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control notes that it causes one out of every four American deaths. Risk factors listed by the CDC include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes, excess weight, poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive alcohol use. I believe these are fairly well known by the general population. There are many other risk factors, however, that are less understood.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the lesser known contributors to heart disease include the following: 
Air pollution - Air pollution is a broad term, but in general, fine particulates in the air, such as from industrial and traffic fumes, are associated with higher rates of heart disease. The American Heart Association reports research showing increases in death and hospitalizations when there are higher rates of smog. ABC News reports on a study finding that being stuck in traffic more than triples the risk of having a heart attack. 
Non-stick chemicals - As I've noted many times, chemicals in our consumer products are generally not tested for safety, so the health effects often remain unknown. Some, however, have been linked to heart disease, including a family of chemicals used in products such as non-stick pans and stain resistant coatings. A 2012 study found that people who had the highest rates of the chemical PFOA in their blood were twice as likely to experience heart disease, heart attack, or stroke as those with the lowest levels. Because of the bad press, PFOA is being replaced by other similar chemicals, but many health experts warn that there is no reason to believe that the newer versions are any less problematic.
Chemicals found in food and beverage containers - A 2014 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that the chemical BPA, found in many places, including plastic bottles and in the lining of food cans, was associated with heart disease in both acute and chronic low-dose exposure situations. As with PFOA, the bad press about BPA has led to some changes, but a 2016 study found it present in 67% of cans tested. 
Heavy metalsUniversity Health News reports that researchers have implicated at least four heavy metals associated with clogging arteries: lead, mercury, cadmium, and arsenic.  
Mold and other toxins found in water damaged buildings - Water damaged buildings, or those with high indoor humidity levels, tend to be breeding grounds for a multitude of  organisms, including a wide variety of fungi and bacteria.  Exposure can lead to chronic inflammation, which can contribute to heart disease. A study in the Internet Journal of Toxicology found an association between exposure to molds in damp buildings and high cholesterol levels.
Sleep apnea - The American Heart Association notes that sleep apnea is associated with high blood pressure, arrhythmia, stroke, and heart failure. I'm almost certain that Dan had sleep apnea, and I wish I had been successful at convincing him to get tested.
Sugar consumption - This is the big one that I worried about for years. Dr. Mark Hyman's summary of the research notes that people with the highest sugar consumption have a 400% higher risk of experiencing a heart attack than those who consume the least. Sugar (in all its various forms) is not just a problem because of its "empty calories," adding to weight without contributing nutrition, but because it is inflammatory and dangerous in and of itself.  
Americans eat a lot of sugar, and the amount continues to climb. A Huffington Post article reports that the American Heart Association recommends that women cap their consumption at six teaspoons a day and men at nine, but that the average American consumes 30 teaspoons daily. There are a number of reasons for this. One is simply that American food manufacturers sweeten almost everything. I remember returning to the United States after living overseas and being astonished to find sugar in canned kidney beans. Dr. Hyman notes, "Most of us don’t know that a serving of tomato sauce has more sugar than a serving of Oreo cookies, or that fruit yogurt has more sugar than a Coke, or that most breakfast cereals — even those made with whole grain — are 75% sugar. That’s not breakfast, it’s dessert!"
Americans also eat a lot of sugar because we're addicted to it. I don't use that term lightly. Sugar affects the same reward centers of the brain that other drugs do, and produces tolerance in the same manner. People find themselves needing more and more of it to satisfy their sweet tooth and may experience withdrawal symptoms when they don't consume it at regular intervals. To quote Dr. Hyman again, " Recent and mounting scientific evidence clearly proves that sugar — and flour, which raises blood sugar even more than table sugar — is biologically addictive. In fact, it’s as much as eight times more addictive than cocaine."  A 2007 rodent study reported that 94% of the animals chose sugar (or an artificial sweetener) over cocaine when given the choice.  
Drug abuse is a serious and growing personal and societal problem that I don't want to trivialize in any way.  An Associated Press article reports that almost 13,000 people died of a heroin overdose in 2015 and prescription painkillers killed over 17,500 people.  A  2015 LA Times story reports another serious statistic: sugary drinks are linked to 25,000 deaths in the United States each year.  
It seems likely that many, if not most Americans are addicted to sugar to some degree. I believe I was, until my health forced me to radically change my diet. I believe Dan was. We talked about it some through the years, and he never quite denied it, but he never quite addressed it, either. About a year before he died, he developed a persistent itchy rash that doctors had trouble diagnosing. At some point I sent him an article which suggested giving up sugar for two weeks in the case of mystery skin ailments. Not long afterwards, he remarked to me that he had decided that he wouldn't cut sugar out completely, but that maybe he would try to cut down.
I remember that conversation clearly. Dan was itchy and miserable, but not fully willing, for a a brief two weeks, to trade sugar for the  possibility of relief. The basic definition of addiction is continuing to engage in a behavior despite negative consequences, and I remember feeling a wave of deep sadness and thinking, "This is a strong addiction. It could kill him."  I thought there was a good possibility that his heart would cause him major problems some day, but I didn't know how soon the day would come. I think my vague thought of what might happen was that he might have a heart attack in his 60s, and that, if we were lucky, he would live through it and then maybe get serious about changing his diet. 
Obviously, I don't know that sugar consumption had anything to do with Dan's sudden death. He had plenty of other risk factors, including genetic ones, and had a period of high work stress in the time period before he died, which could well have been the final straw. I'm also certainly not unaware that my own health limitations added a significant degree of stress to Dan's life. (On the flip side, I think my need to live a low-toxicity life was protective for him in some ways, as well.)  I can't point to sugar and say that I know it killed my husband, but the research is clear that it is, in fact, a killer.

I'm very sensitive to "blame the victim" messages and absolutely don't want this to come across that way. This isn't blaming, but warning. It's remembering the events of this day three years ago and deeply and sincerely wanting to spare other people a similar experience. Sometimes people take things more seriously when they know people who have been affected, which is my sole motivation for sharing personal stories.

As I was debating whether or not to write this post, I ran across Leviticus 5:1which says  "If you are called to testify about something you have seen or that you know about, it is sinful to refuse to testify." Yes, it's Old Testament and no, it wasn't written about blog posts, but it convinced me. What I can offer the world these days is limited, but I can testify about things I have seen and know about.

I imagine I've made a lot of people mad by this point. To those who are mad because they loved Dan and are angry that I wrote some negative things about him, I'll simply say that I loved him, too, and miss him greatly. I've cried every day this month so far. I'll also remind you that I wrote a very different sort of post about him three years ago.

To those who are mad because in addition to harping about chemicals, I'm now harping about a very prevalent food choice which is a source of comfort and pleasure, I'll simply say that I get it. Those of us who became addicted to sugar were simply eating the standard American diet or found ourselves eating more sugar because we were avoiding fat and dietary cholesterol like the experts recommended. The sugar industry manipulated studies and public policy just like the chemical industry does today.  It's easy to understand how we ended up in this place, but now that we're here, it's time to accept that there are real consequences.

I write because I care about you. Whether I know you personally or not, you matter to me simply because you've taken the time to read this post. I know other people care about you, too, and we all want your heart to keep beating for a very long time.