This past First Day morning, I attended a discussion about how to make the meetinghouse accessible to people who have asthma, allergies, multiple chemical sensitivity, or an otherwise compromised immune system as a result of disease or chemotherapy. Even people with migraines have symptoms that point to these same concerns, about certain environmental triggers that can provoke a physical, physiological, or even neurological reaction.
It was one of the most interesting discussion groups I've attended among Friends!
The Friends who presented the topic and helped facilitate the discussion participate in a support committee for a Friend who has moderate to severe chemical sensitivities. They are severe enough that if certain cleaning agents are used--say, to wipe down tables as potluck is wrapping up--the Friend has only a few seconds to clear out of the building or risk getting something akin to hand tremors as a result of neurological damage.
In many ways, it's been an uphill journey to educate the meeting and so success is measured in small-but-significant accomplishments, like changing out the whiteboard and dry-erase markers for flipchart paper and non-toxic markers; and converting the run-of-the-mill cleaning products in the kitchen and bathrooms from heavily fragranced (due to chemicals) to fragrance-free. Even items with ingredients such as "natural fragrances" and "essential oils" have to be avoided... for reasons I didn't quite grasp at the time.
It's a steep learning curve for many of us because our lives are unknowingly intertwined with chemical products and because those who experience reactions to environmental triggers are often invisible to us: they stay away from places and events that they know will be problematic.
It's a big task for a meeting with 200 households to go fragrance-free. It's even a bigger task for FGC to go fragrance-free. And this year, FGC's 2007 Gathering intends to take significant steps towards just that.
For more than 1,500 Quakers.
It's a big task. Understatement. But some big strides have been undertaken too.
For years, a very small handful of Friends have been doing a lot of behind-the-scenes advocacy and education. The result? This year, there is a housing cluster that is designated as fragrance free.
Also, a statement about avoiding scents and fragrances is likely to go out, either in a pre-Gathering correspondence or in the onsite registration packets. And free samples of fragrance-free toiletries are likely to be available to attenders, at least in some significant amount. What that "amount" is remains to be seen.
Another thing that I've heard is that the cleaning staff of the university where the Gathering will take place is being instructed to use certain cleaning agents in the fragrance-free housing. It's unclear to me if FGC is providing those products or if the university is. In the meantime, the university staff will be learning about these concerns, too.
Here are some resources and tips that I found worthwhile that came out of the discussion session:
One last thing I should mention:
Website for the Toxics Information Project, which is directed by a Friend. Downloadable handout about the myths of chemical sensitivity. FACTOID: Products marked as "unscented" may in fact have a "masking fragrance" that causes difficulties for people with chemical sensitivites. FACTOID: Chemicals that are banned in the U.S. by OSHA for use in the industrial field are found in certain perfumes and other products--because those same chemicals aren't banned in the U.S. in cosmetics. FACTOID: Dry-erase markers and Sharpies are terrible for folks with environmental triggers! And chalk dust is bad for people with asthma. FACTOID: Crayola makes a set of non-toxic (fragrance free?) markers, which seem to be informally endorsed by a few Friends who are facing these concerns. FACTOID: Good ventilation and open spaces can help alleviate or minimize some of the toxins in the air. FACTOID: A pinch of baking soda for some people is a fine replacement for store-bought deodorant. I like this product myself; Arm & Hammer doesn't quite cut it for me.
I think FGC staff and the Friends who have been doing this education and advocacy seem to have realistic expectations. I don't think there's anyone who expects ALL 1,500 Friends to change their habits and their awareness overnight. Some might not even receive or look at the statement that goes out about using fragrance-free products.
As for me... Am I going to remember to seek out a new shampoo or get new sunscreen before Gathering? Will I avoid using bug spray if the mosquitos are particularly bad? Will I remember that "unscented" doesn't necessarily mean fragrance-free???
I may not remember everything I learned in a one-hour session, but I might remember--and put into practice--one or two new ideas... And tending to the small things will help with tending to the big things over time.