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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity


Brighton author describes life in chemical-free ‘cave’

Face mask elicits ‘strange looks’ from public.

Aug 19, 2009 - 04:29 AM
By Moya Dillon

BRIGHTON -- Unlike reclusive writers such as J.D. Salinger, Brighton author Franny Armstrong had no choice about her life as a “shut-in.

“It’s a lot like living in a cave,” Ms. Armstrong said of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), which causes her to have severe reactions to nearly all chemical substances. She first noticed symptoms of the disorder in 1995, but it wasn’t until about 2001 that it became so intense she couldn’t leave her house without becoming ill.

“You have to change so many things in your life,” she said, displaying the carbon-filtered face mask she wears to go out in public. “Most people don’t like change, but with this it’s change or die.”

MCS is a fairly new disease that is still being studied. It is characterized by extreme reactions to chemicals found in the environment, such as petrochemicals from manufacturing and vehicle exhaust, as well as those found in average household products such as fragrances, deodorants, detergents, household cleaners and many hair care products.

Since most sufferers don’t test positive for any allergies, some doctors have concluded the mysterious disorder is neurological or psychological, but as yet there is no strict definition, which makes treatment frustrating for many sufferers.

“Most doctors tell you to just avoid chemicals, which is much easier said than done,” Ms. Armstrong said, describing symptoms such as coughing fits, flu-like illness, lack of focus and concentration, trouble speaking and skin rashes.

“I can’t go out in the environment without getting sick,” she said, explaining how staying in the house for so long has made her “a bit of an eccentric.”

Her family life has also suffered. At one point her husband admitted most people thought he didn’t even have a wife, because she could never accompany him to other peoples houses for fear of a reaction.

“I felt like such a failure, like I couldn’t do anything,” she said. “That’s a big part of having this illness, it limits you so much that you feel useless.”

To counteract these feelings and take back some control in her life, Ms. Armstrong turned her passion for writing into a career. She recently sold her second romance novel, which is the first in a nine-part series, is in the midst of a non-fiction book about living with MCS titled “The Toxic Tango,” and is a regular contributor to The Canary Report, a web site about living with MCS.

“All these negatives that hit you, you have to turn it around into something positive,” Ms. Armstrong said. “The fact that I can’t go out in the workforce made me focus on my passion for writing. And somehow, someway, I hope my writing can help someone else.”

Ms. Armstrong recently began going out in public regularly for the first time in nearly eight years, venturing out almost once a week to run errands and visit family, always while wearing her carbon-filter mask.

She decided to speak out about MCS because of the “strange looks” she gets wearing her mask in public. She hopes to raise more awareness about the disease so that doctors, governments and even the public will realize the amount of chemicals they encounter everyday.

“We’re killing ourselves,” she said. “I hope the government will acknowledge the fact that people like me are becoming so sensitive to the environment and they’ll batten down the hatches against these chemicals. We think we’re so progressive, but we’re progressing ourselves into an early grave.”

For more information on MCS or to read Ms. Armstrong’s blog, visit

SINCERE THANKS to Brighton Independent Photographer Bill Tremblay and Reporter Moya Dillon for this wonderful article. I truly hope that with it people like me can find answers and help for this debilitating illness. You are not alone!



© by Franny Armstrong
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