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Meet The Team: England - UK

John Lea: Regional Representative for Shropshire

John Lea, MCS International Regional Representative, Shropshire, England, UK. The Chemical Connection:  I am hypersensitive to phenolic and quaternary ammonium biocides, cationic surfactants (which are also quaternary ammonium compounds) and to artificial fragrances. Since almost all cosmetic, washing and cleaning products contain at least one of these I have had to completely cut myself off from society.

A growing number of both men and women wear deodorants, perfume or after-shave containing these fragrances. Any contact with them, or the air they have moved through, makes me very ill with severe asthma, rhinitis, muscle fatigue and other flu-like symptoms lasting for days after each exposure. Even those who don't deliberately wear fragrances wash their clothes in modern detergents and use fabric conditioners (cationic surfactants). These linger on their clothing for weeks. Public buildings and transport are contaminated by the air polluted by these people's presence and they are cleansed using products containing surfactants, biocides and fragrances. Most houses are either cleaned with products containing these chemicals, or have structures, furniture, carpets, curtains, etc which exude chemicals I am sensitive to. Hospitals are the worst of all. I worked in them for 30 years and I know this is where my sensitivities came from. I dare not think what will happen when I inevitably need to go into one for treatment.

I first started suffering symptoms around 25 years ago and remained undiagnosed for 10 years after that, with various wrong diagnoses of ME, depression, asthma and MS - you know the score. However, an occupational health physician proved I was hypersensitive to benzalkonium chloride and even published a paper on the subject. So I am in the enviable posession of an actual diagnosis of chemical sensitivity!! My GP believes I have genuine symptoms but can't offer any treatment. I visit him once a year mainly for his benefit. I stand outside until he can see me. The waiting room is full of fragrances from the receptionists and other patients. Who else becomes more ill after visiting their GP? When my mother was dying I couldn't visit her in hospital and I didn't go to her funeral. How cruel is that? One of my daughters lives on a housing estate. Visiting her and my grandchildren makes me ill. I may have to accept that I will need to stop seeing them soon. Thankfully my other daughter has moved into an old house in the country which can be reached without driving through towns or on busy roads.

Background Information:  I was born in 1943 and am a retired hospital pharmacist. Apart from my pharmacy degree I also studied for a degree in Maths and Computing at the Open University. Since taking early retirement on the grounds of ill health in 1996 I now work part time designing and programming specialist bespoke software for use in hospital pharmacy. This I can do without any personal contact with my clients - I communicate by telephone or e-mail and send the software on CDs or over the Internet. My main program 'DataComp' calculates the nutritional requirements of very ill patients being fed intravenously, assembles a list of ingredients to supply these requirements, prints documentation and records their treatment and progress. It is used in over 80 hospitals in the UK and Ireland.

I'm currently staying with family and my symptoms have decreased massively whilst I've stayed away from my toxic house. I feel a great deal better on the whole, although my health is still up and down. I continue to be dogged by a high degree of sensitivity that I had not experienced before living at the renovated house, most noticeably to traffic fumes. I often wear a carbon filter mask in the car or when I spend time at my house.

I live in a very old house full of very old furniture. It may be a fire hazard but it doesn't exude chemicals. The house is 200 yards from our nearest neighbour on one side and 500 yards on the other side. Any chemicals from their washing lines are well diluted by the wind. We bought this house very cheaply 30 years ago when no-one wanted country properties. It is the perfect place for an MCS sufferer. I feel terribly sorry for those of you who can't escape your 'triggers'. We grow nearly all our fruit and vegetables organically ourselves.

In my youth I was a long distance runner and continued to cycle 30 miles a day (to and from work) well into my late forties. I still am pretty fit and go for a cycle ride every day round the back lanes away from pollution. Exercise, if you can manage it, is the best treatment. I am very lucky to live in such a good fairly unpolluted environment. My wife believes in my problems even more than I do. She is very supportive and deals with the outside world and the shopping. She would never use chemicals without consulting me first. Houses can be kept clean and fresh with just white vinegar and bicarbonate. We use Ecover products for clothes and dish-washing (Caution - some of these contain formaldehyde which I am fortunately not sensitive to - yet). We can't go out to a restaurant, pub, cinema or theatre and we can't go on holiday. But this saves us lots of money which I can spend on making our nearly one acre garden in the wonderful under-populated North Shropshire countryside a place to be on holiday all the time.

I sometimes feel hypocritical in my criticism of modern consumerism and its effect on the environment (see below). Without the technical advances in the last 50 years I wouldn't have a computer to help me earn my living. On the other hand maybe I would not have become ill in the first place and wouldn't need to live the way I do. If only we could have the good parts without the bad.

The Wider Context:  When I was a child in West Yorkshire during the 1940s and 50s the petro-chemical industries were still in their infancy. I remember there were smogs in the winter which lasted for days and it was nearly impossible to travel because of them. There were a lot of old people, already with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases, who because worse when these blankets of pollution descended but I only recall one child with asthma all the time I was at both junior and grammar school.

There were many people who suffered from industrial diseases, working in the heavy industries of that time; wool, mining, steel, engineering and chemicals. The cause of most of these diseases was well-known and, up till that time, the industrial bosses ignored the fact they were making their employees ill and the workers put up with the risk as a price for their continued employment. Many working people did not even survive to retirement.

Slowly legislation was passed to protect workers from the effects of inhaling coal dust, asbestos, wool and cotton fibres and many different chemicals, and to reduce the risk of industrial accidents. This, together with the decline of heavy industries, lead to an improvement in the health of most people in this country. I believe that the British people were at their healthiest between 1960 and 1975.

Over the last 30 years the number of people suffering from respiratory diseases has increased. There has not been a return to millions of older people suffering from emphysema and chronic bronchitis. This time the main disease is asthma, particularly in children and young adults. In some parts of the developed world the incidence of asthma has increased to over 15% of the population, what can only be described as an epidemic. Doctors explain this asthma epidemic as mainly 1. The criteria for diagnosis have widened so more people are included in this diagnosis. 2. It is caused by an increase in air pollution, particularly traffic pollution. 3. Central heating has lead to an increase in house-dust mite.

The first of these explanations could have some substance in truth if the number of diagnoses had doubled or even trebled but asthma has increased from being a fairly rare disease affecting maybe 1 in 50 children and very few adults to 1 in 6 children and 1 in 10 adults. It can't all be put down to better diagnosis.

The second of these explanations is partly true. It may be caused by an increase in air pollution but not traffic pollution. Going back to the smogs of the 1950s a lot of the pollution in these was fine particulates from vehicles and the inefficient burning of coal, both domestically and by industry. The traffic and industrial pollution nowadays is nothing compared to this. No, the more probable explanation is the hundreds of thousands of chemicals released into the environment by the petro-chemical industries, most of them untested for their effect on the human respiratory system. Yes, exposure to traffic fumes makes most asthmatics worse but the asthma was probably not caused by these fumes in the first place.

Every day we are encouraged to use more and more of these poisons, spraying cocktails of 100s of different ones as deodorant, perfume, after-shave and 'air freshener'. We try and cover all unpleasant, but in most cases harmless, odours with these mixtures. Not only that, but parents worry about their children catching infections because their houses are not clean. They are full of 'germs' so they use more and more chemicals to kill them, when plain soap and water is all that is needed. Children live in an almost sterile environment and their immune systems never get a chance to develop properly. Instead of worrying about germs mothers should be concerned about the thousands of untested chemicals to which they are exposing their children every day.

This is where the doctors explanation three comes in. Central heating has contributed to an increase in house-dust mites and maybe this has increased the incidence of asthma somewhat. But, with central heating and the rise of energy prices people don't open windows any more. The chemicals they use in the home continue to circulate for days on end. Our house doesn't have central heating. I don't consider our climate is cold enough to require it.

There probably isn't much I, as an individual virtually under house arrest because of these chemicals, can do to stop the inexorable march of 'progress' in modern consumerism destroying the health of the people of this world but maybe together our voice may be heard before it is too late. We saw the threat of industrial pollution on the health of our workers in the middle of the last century and did something about it. Will we see the threat of chemical pollution and prevent it in the same way?

I really do believe that the threat to this century is not global warming but chemical pollution of the environment. Both threats are related. It is the burning of oil and coal which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Without the existence of cheap oil and coal the petro-chemical industry would not exist and they wouldn't try to peddle their noxious wares in the pursuit of profit at the expense of our health.

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