Like any number of people, Oliver Broudy for years was generally aware of the large number of dangerous chemicals awash in the environment: in the air and water, in our food, in homes, offices, forests and just about anywhere you go. And if on one hand he didn’t worry outright about the issue — he felt fine himself — he also had the sense the situation was getting worse.
And then came a day, he writes, when “I reached a point where my unease finally prevailed over my desperate wish to remain ignorant.”
Broudy, a veteran magazine writer who lives in Amherst, ended up making an extended examination of the modern world of toxins in “The Sensitives,” his first nonfiction book. It’s a look at the challenges faced by people who in fact call themselves “sensitives” because they suffer from Environmental Illness (EI), a mysterious aliment that makes them allergic to various elements of modern life, from carpets to mattresses to car exhaust, electronics and canned food.
Broudy frames “The Sensitives,” by Simon & Schuster, around a Southwestern road trip with an EI patient names James, a real estate entrepreneur who moves restlessly between his various homes because he never feels healthy for long in any of them. But he also explores the history of EI and the research involved in it, and he offers portraits of seminal figures behind the development of chemicals, such as the German chemist Fritz Haber, who introduced the world to poison gas during World War I.
The author also weaves his own observations and fears into the story, noting that some 85,000 synthetic chemicals are present in the environment — the vast majority never tested for potential effects on humans, he notes — while in the past 40-odd years, rates of thyroid and liver cancer have increased 300%, autism has increased in children, and male sperm counts in the U.S. have declined.
In a recent phone call, Broudy said he’d gotten interested in the subject about 4½ years ago in part out of his concerns as a parent — he has two sons, today ages 9 and 10 — and because of a sense that government can’t do a proper job of overseeing and testing potentially harmful substances, especially under President Donald Trump, whose administration has been systematically dismantling environmental regulations.
“It really feels like we’re on our own here,” he said. “No one’s watching Wall Street, no one’s watching consumer goods or private industry … There’s a sense that government doesn’t have our backs.”
Broudy began contacting people in the EI community through social media, email and phone calls, and though he initially considered writing a magazine article, he decided a book would be needed to give the story proper depth and perspective. He says he especially wanted to feel he was being fair to people with EI, who in many cases have been dismissed as complainers whose problems are psychological, not physical.
“I was struck by the level of suffering so many of these people have experienced,” he said. “They usually have no idea what’s happening to them, and their lives get completely upended. Doctors can’t help them, they lose their jobs, their marriages fail … It became important to me that I not betray my subjects, because they felt betrayed by the medical and scientific worlds.”
One sensitive, David Reeves, likens EI (also sometimes referred to as multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS), to a permanent case of pregnancy.
“A pregnant woman has all these crazy symptoms and she’s always kinda sick, and that’s what it’s like,” he tells Broudy. “Except, after nine months, man, it just keeps going.”
Reeves, who’d worked in publishing in New York City and had been “perfectly healthy” until age 45, got sick and stayed sick after his apartment building was sprayed for bedbugs.
“Oliver, you don’t want to get sick, man,” he says. “It’s just a pain in the ass.”
Broudy says as many as 30% of Americans are believed to suffer some degree of EI, which was first recognized in 1962 and can take a wide variety of forms: rashes, headaches, extreme fatigue, memory problems, muscle aches, intolerance to different kinds of food.
Much like afflictions such as Lyme Disease and fibromyalgia, it remains difficult to diagnose, and it tends to affect more women than men, Broudy says, which might be why some doctors dismiss the symptoms.
“Women tend to get the short end of the stick from some doctors,” he said.
Broudy says he had his own degree of skepticism as he approached the story, but after meeting James and other sensitives during his road trip, and talking to a number of doctors who treat EI patients, he got a sense of the extent of people’s problems.
James, for instance, first got sick in Hawaii some years ago when he was exposed to mold while doing renovation on a real estate property. Experiencing a strange range of problems — a racing heart, shortness of breath, extreme exhaustion — he saw a few doctors who couldn’t pinpoint specific causes. He finally went to Denver to visit an allergy center and also began doing online research on EI.
Broudy’s trip with James — from Colorado to Utah to Arizona and then to California — also has its comic moments. When the two get motel rooms one night in southern Utah, James, afraid of using the motel bed, tries to jury-rig his own. He puts an inflatable mattress and sleeping bag on top of a small table and luggage rack that he’s pulled next to an open window (for the fresh air), but he succeeds only in puncturing the inflatable mattress.
“For James, there was no escape [from EI], not even in sleep,” Broudy writes.
The two are traveling though the Southwest to meet other sensitives, including David Reeves, and a few doctors who specialize in its treatment. The small town of Snowflake, in northern Arizona on the high plateau south of the Grand Canyon, has become a particular go-to spot for affected people; they’re drawn by the sparse population, low cost of living and dry air, much as tubercular patients came to the Southwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries hoping the desert’s warmth and dry air could ease their suffering.
Some with EI are also leery of any contact with people without the problem — “normals” — and after much previous negotiation over the ground rules for a meeting, two EI patients in Snowflake, Liz and Scott, agree to talk to Broudy. Both had been white-collar professionals who developed a litany of mysterious health problems before escaping to Arizona. Liz, when Broudy meets her, is living on a diet of bone broth and sardines.
“The Sensitives” also looks at the history of risk assessment, from the beginnings of the insurance industry to the advent of heavy industry and nuclear weapons. Broudy notes that the short-term benefits offered by consumer products and our modern lifestyle have almost always won out over their potential long-term costs to our health and the environment.
Broudy says EI will remain an issue for many people, given that it affects people very differently and that our medical system, in which insurance companies push doctors to minimize time spent with individual patients, does not encourage the kind of extensive testing that might bring more understanding to EI.
“We all know this stuff is happening,” he said. “I think [the problem] is just going to grow.”
More information about “The Sensitives” and Oliver Broudy’s writing can be found at oliverbroudy.com.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.