Monday, January 21, 2013

People Say Ridiculous Things

Last week I wrote about the concerted effort by chemical manufacturers to discredit MCS as a physical condition and label it a psychological disorder. A recent article entitled Taking Refuge from Modernity; 21st Century Hermits illustrates the point.

The first clue that this is going to be an anti-MCS writing is that the condition is referred to as "idiopathic environmental intolerance." That's the designation the chemical lobby chooses to use. Idiopathic means "arising from an unknown cause" so by adding that term and removing the word "chemical" they can distance themselves from the condition. In other words, "We don't know why people get sick around the products we make, but it certainly has nothing to do with the toxic chemicals we put in them." The second line of the abstract states that

"A proportion of severely affected patients remove themselves from modern society, to live in isolation away from the purported causal agent of their ill health."

The significant words in this sentence are "purported causal agent." Purported means assumed or alleged and often carries the connotation of deceit. Google defines it as "appear or claim to be or do something, especially falsely." The message is that "These people are confused or lying about what causes their distress." The abstract goes on:

"This is not a new phenomenon; reports of hermits extend back to the 3rd century AD. We conducted a literature review of case reports relating to ancient hermits and modern day reclusion resulting from idiopathic environmental intolerance, in order to explore whether there are similarities between these two groups and whether the symptoms of these 'illnesses of modernity' are simply a present-day way of reaching the end-point of reclusion.

The end-point of reclusion? What? The intended message is that "This is not a new illness. It's a psychological condition that has been around a long time. People who claim to have MCS are just hermits in disguise." The authors continue:

Whilst there were some differences between the cases, recurring themes in ancient and modern cases included: dissatisfaction with society, a compulsion to flee, reports of a constant struggle and a feeling of fighting against the establishment.

OK, let's clear this up. We're dissatisfied with society because we can't live in it without becoming very ill. We have a compulsion to flee because we desire to stay alive and live as symptom-free as possible. We report constant struggle because chemicals are everywhere. We feel like we're fighting the establishment because the establishment comes up with articles like this one. The abstract concludes this way:

The similarities which exist between the modern-day cases and the historical hermits may provide some insight into the extreme behaviours exhibited by this population. The desire to retreat from society in order to escape from harm has existed for many centuries, but in different guises.

In other words, "People with MCS exhibit extreme behavior, but they are motivated by whatever motivated 3rd century hermits. Whatever it is, it's not the chemicals. Nope, certainly not the chemicals."

In her book Casualties of ProgressAlison Johnson states that people with chemical sensitivities sometimes get diagnosed with agoraphobia, or having a fear of crowds or public places. Johnson notes that diagnosis is “tantamount to saying to a paraplegic in a wheelchair, ‘Too bad you don’t like to walk.”  She notes that MCS sufferers are often accused of acting as they do for some sort of "secondary gain." Johnson states that “one does not have to read too many of the stories [of chemically sensitive people] before it is apparent that this suggestion is at best made in ignorance, and at worst represents an exceedingly cruel attitude toward people whose illness has in all too many cases cost them their job, their home, their friends, or their spouse.”

The "hermit" article is so ludicrous it almost makes me laugh. When I read it, I suddenly had a memory of tobacco executives testifying before congress that they didn't believe that cigarettes were addictive or contributed to cancer. Many Americans began to see in that moment that sometimes people in power will say ridiculous things in order to protect their financial interests.

A 2007 report in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention notes that tobacco companies knew of the evidence linking smoking to cancer as far back as the 1950s. The authors state:

"The documents also reveal that the tobacco companies helped manufacture the smoking controversy by funding scientific research that was intended to obfuscate and prolong the debate about smoking and health. Today, the tobacco companies acknowledge that smoking is a cause of disease, but they have not materially altered the way they do business. In our opinion, it is not sufficient for the tobacco industry to merely concede the obvious point that smoking is a cause of disease when it is evident that decades of misinformation has resulted in a public that is massively ignorant about [all of] the risks. Public education efforts are still needed to correct these misperceptions along with government oversight to ensure that the industry is not permitted to mislead the public further. If the past 50 years have taught us anything, it is that the tobacco industry cannot be trusted to put the public's interest above their profits no matter what they say."

Sound familiar? Substitute the word "chemical" for "tobacco" and "chemical exposure" for "smoking" and the paragraph almost works. What doesn't work is that chemical companies have not yet "concede[d] the obvious point" that their products cause MCS and other health problems. Nope, it's not the chemicals. We're just hermits seeking the end-point of reclusion.


DebraSY said...

That word "idiopathic" works on so many levels. Not only does it obscure the origin of the problem, but it seems to accuse those who suffer of being, well, idiopaths, whatever that may be but, boy, it sure sounds bad! I certainly wouldn't want to meet one in a dark alley.

Martha McLaughlin said...

A lot of the designations for those with toxic illness (my new favorite term for MCS) have semi-negative overtones. We're known as chemically sensitive, hypersensitive or intolerant, and none of those words have especially positive connotations in our society. I once had a lab test that determined I was a "pathological detoxifier." That definitely sounds like something you don't want to meet in a dark alley. I can imagine the voice-over for a low-budget movie: "In a world where nothing is as it seems, not even her closest friends knew Martha was a pathological detoxifier."

Linda said...

Martha, I had no idea you were a pathological detoxifier! But then, I guess I'm one too. :-) Joking aside, this deliberate cover-up of the chemical roots of toxic illness is simply "pathological obfuscation."