Those of us severely affected by multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) often have no option but to resort to wearing face masks containing carbon filters to protect us from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the form of perfume, fragranced products, tobacco smoke, diesel fumes and many other sources.
For me wearing such a mask was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because for the first time since developing severe chemical sensitivities I could once again be around people and venture out from the safe haven of my chemical-free home. A curse because clearly, a carbon filter face mask is not the height of fashion and draws much unwanted attention when out in public. A hard thing to deal with when you are a touch on the shy and self-concious side as I am!
Me in the summer of 2003 in Bishop Monkton, near Harrogate, England.
When I first developed MCS I was living at home with my parents and sister. Having first become sensitive to perfume I quickly found that exposure to any VOC triggered my symptoms which became severe. These symptoms included dizziness, weakness, headache, racing/pounding heart, fatigue and flu-like feelings. I was often left feeling like I had flu for days after an exposure. Luckily my dad owned an apartment out in the countryside about 45 minutes away from the family home and allowed me to live there while the authorities found me a place to live (I was on full sickness benefits due to also suffering from ME/CFS). The picture above shows me wearing a carbon filter face mask as I walked my dog through the fields in Bishop Monkton. I felt loads better living by myself and being able to avoid all triggers for my symptoms while in the apartment but outside I required the mask. Even as little as the exhaust from a single passing vehicle or the slightest exposure to a fellow dog walker's deodorant would trigger my symptoms and often leave me suffering for days.
Me with family, Christmas 2003
Wearing a carbon filter face mask can be a big hindrence. You lose virtuall all sense of smell, it gets very hot and sweaty in there, and you have to raise the volume of your voice a good few notches to enable people to hear you. Me being me however I was not going to let the issue of the mask prevent me from enjoying Christmas Dinner with the works prepared by my grandma. For that I was prepared to drop the mask and suffer the consequences!
Playing Playstation with friends, Christmas 2003
I count myself very lucky to have a bunch of friends who despite not having seen a lot of me for a number of years had no problem accepting 'the mask'. They were not embarrassed to be seen with me or anything like that and it was basically a non-issue to them. They did however derive much pleasure from the opportunity it gave them to bless me with new nicknames! A few that spring to mind are 'the surgeon', 'Shredder' (villian from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), and 'Sub-Zero' (from the video game Mortal Kombat).
I am not a person to cause a fuss and certainly aren't that keen on drawing attention to myself so wearing a face mask was a real struggle for me but I had no option. I was not delusional or attention seeking, the simple fact is I was made very ill by exposure to chemicals in the air. I would not have worn a mask unless it was absolutely necessary. I even wore the mask to doctors appointments knowing full well they would assume I was not all there, mentally speaking. First to my anger, and then amusement, this turned out to be the case as my official medical records repeatedly state "has beliefs about chemical sensitivity". I like to think however that I made them reconsider things a little by coming across as reasonably eloquent and intelligent while maintaining my position that MCS is a real, physical illness (with research studies to back me up!)
So although wearing a face mask was certainly not easy for me it meant I could have some kind of social life again and leave my home whenever I wished. Without them I would have remained trapped at home with no physical contact with anybody and would no doubt have been a lot more depressed and despairing than I already was! I consider avoiding triggering chemicals strictly to be a major factor in my recovery from MCS. I have now not had a reaction to chemicals for 3 years (touch wood) apart from the odd twinge and no longer need a mask. I still maintain my home as chemical-free as possible but can tolerate anything when out and about. Research conducted my Professor Pamela Gibson also reveals that the majority of MCS patients have found the same. Strict avoidance of triggers for an extended period allows them to recover tolerance at least to some degree.
For those reading this and suffering badly from chemical sensitivities I purchased my masks from http://www.icanbreathe.com/ and would certainly recommend them. I'm sure there are others that are as effective but this was the first place I tried and the masks worked great.
I would love to hear from others who have used face masks. If you have please leave a comment letting us know whether they helped and the responses you received from people.
Best of health to all.
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.