One of my fondest childhood memories is being the star of a Chanukah play at my religious school. The director was the principal’s daughter and also my dance teacher. I was given the starring role: the shamash candle. Eight children stood with their backs to the audience. As the shamash, I danced up to each “candle” and tapped them gently on the head, and each candle turned to face the audience, now “lit” with fiery-red makeup on their faces. After all eight were lit, I turned, pale-faced. Even as a 6-year-old child, I would not let anyone near me with face paint or cosmetics.
I didn’t know it then, but this physical sensitivity I exhibited as a child was an early sign of an environmental illness called multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS. MCS, also known as idiopathic environmental intolerance, is a condition characterized by heightened reactions to low levels of commonly used chemicals. Symptoms vary widely; common symptoms include headaches, dizziness, rashes, and nausea.
MCS does not have clear diagnostic criteria, and many major medical bodies, such as the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association, do not recognize it as a diagnosable condition, yet research on MCS continues. In February 2018, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine published an article titled “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Review of the State of the Art in Epidemiology, Diagnosis, and Future Perspectives.” According to the federal government, MCS can sometimes be considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), depending on the situation.
As I grew older, I lived in a community where people dressed simply and did not wear cosmetics. I joined a chavurah (small group that meets for prayer services) that met in people’s homes, which was similarly fragrance-free. When I became a special needs tutor at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, there was a sign on the door that read: “Please do not enter the building with fragrances. Some people are allergic.” Because of this sign, I was able to work at the school for more than 20 years without a problem.
There is no cure for MCS. The choice is to either stay at home and remain isolated, or to find places where people by habit or agreement have kept an environment fragrance free.
This becomes problematic, even in small communities like the one I am part of. When I asked for a policy that required Shabbat services to be frangrance free, I was met by objections. Some synagogues and schools do recognize and ask people to considerate of this issue. But to others, it is an imposition; in my view, it is similar to asking people not to smoke 30-40 years ago.
The Torah speaks to the situation in metaphors: “You shall not curse the deaf, and you shall not place a stumbling block before the blind, but shall fear the Lord, your G-d” (Leviticus 19:14). MCS is now recognized in the world of medicine, and there is a national organization that publishes studies and suggestions for coping. It’s time for synagogues and prayer groups to join the effort.
By Betsy Combs
Betsy Combs grew up in Newton, Massachusetts, and earned a master’s degree in social work at Catholic University. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968 to teach in a suburban high school. She is the mother of five children and a tutor and advocate for special needs children and people with disabilities. Her current interests lie in utilizing her skills to partner with doctors in researching medical dilemmas.