Jack Rossi’s memoir of his experience with MCS, being forced outdoors and his insight into the Vermont landscape, health and healing and the fragile planet we inhabit
Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
~ John Milton, Paradise Lost
The house we rented in South Strafford was designed and built in the early 1970’s. Richard, the owner, was living in New York City at the time and this was to be his family’s summer retreat. Prior to starting design he absorbed himself in the analysis process. He spent many weeks of two summers on the land observing the natural features. He watched the sun rise, marked its course across the sky and observed where it set. He studied the hilly topography, the patterns and flow of numerous streams and the mountain itself to determine where the house would be best located. He balanced the aesthetic appeal of views with the functional aspect of solar gain and summer breezes before ever putting a shovel in the ground. As a landscape architect I was immediately impressed when I heard about the care and time he invested ensuring the house was properly sited.
Richard, among other avocations, was a naval officer, boat enthusiast, inventor and admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture. The house manifested these characteristics. A long cedar sided timber-framed contemporary; it maintained a low one-story profile on the north side but expanded into a two-story multi-windowed facade on the south. A narrow railed deck, partially protected by the generous three-foot roof overhang, skirted the upper story where numerous sliding glass doors opened on to it. The deck’s narrow width and lofty height above the ground mimicked the feel of a large ship’s outer deck. The roof was laid with cedar shakes. Inside, the horizontal and vertical timber structure of the house was exposed. White stress-skin panels formed the walls and were also, at least in 1970, considered adequate insulation. The main door opened to a foyer at the center of the house. A set of railed stairs to the left led downstairs. Directly ahead was a large cathedral ceiling living room and small galley kitchen. A long, narrow outside walled hall led back through the house from the foyer. Ship-like with low narrow north facing windows and diminutive built-in shelves, it accessed a small bedroom and bath before terminating at the spacious master bedroom with cathedral ceilings and radiant light at the rear of the house.
After many years in the house, Richard’s wife passed on, his daughter left for college and age caught up with him. Sandi was providing home and office organizational services at the time and Richard contacted her seeking her services. He still came up to Vermont every spring and stayed in the house until the leaves peaked in the fall, before heading back to Florida, his new winter home. He saw an ad Sandi had placed on a local bulletin board, called and interviewed her and shortly after, hired her as his part-time attendant. He enjoyed Sandi’s companionship and conversation and they became good friends over the years they worked together. Ultimately, Richard suffered a mild stroke and his daughter felt it was time for him to stop making the summer visits. His mind remained sharp but his body was becoming fragile and she feared for his safety alone on the isolated, hilly property.
Sandi and I had recently moved to Strafford so our children could attend The Sharon Academy, a regional semi-private high school with an excellent academic and social reputation. Strafford was a so-called ‘sending town’. Because the town didn’t have its own high school, students had a choice of several schools to pick from and the tuition was paid for from your own town tax revenue. It was prohibitively expensive for us to send them to this school while living in Barnard. Living in Strafford, the Academy offered a private school education at public school expense.
Richard begrudgingly agreed with his daughter’s decision to have him leave the house. He held a strong desire to be able to return to the house he so loved so instead of selling it, he chose to put it up for rent. When he realized we might have an interest in living there he was very enthusiastic. He still had ‘projects’ he hoped to complete on the house and property. He knew Sandi’s work ethic and he knew from their many conversations that I was a landscape architect. He ultimately concluded that our combined talents could help him realize his dreams for the property.
He offered us a reduced rent with the understanding that we would help him coordinate and oversee these, ‘to be determined’, home projects. Of course he would fully finance the work. Prior to moving to Strafford we had purchased and upgraded an historic country schoolhouse in the town of Barnard. Over several years we completely transformed the neglected structure and overgrown scraggly woodland and field into a bucolic country property. This was soul-enriching work for us. In much the same way Richard’s property, while not our own, offered us an opportunity to enhance a building and site while helping a friend at the same time. We accepted his offer.
The entire progression of events from leaving our Barnard home to inhabiting Richard’s was a series of quality of life choices we were presented with and made. We wanted our kids to attend a quality high school that provided them a meaningful education. We chose the Sharon Academy. We wanted to live in a sending town to avoid paying the steep tuition. We chose Strafford. We were offered an opportunity to help Richard and at the same time save money on a reduced rent. We accepted.
But ultimately my ego got in the way of purposeful work. Never forgetting we rented the house, I nevertheless became attached to it. The house insidiously became an outer reflection of who I was. As I plied my talents to the property it quickly responded with improved aesthetics. It gradually took on a unified sense of design. The quirky qualities of the house and property began to have purpose, either as improvements overshadowed them or by drawing attention to them as unique characteristics.
The thirty-year old cedar shake roof had been deteriorating for years. The shakes, especially on the shaded north side, retained moisture and were rotting. The slow breakdown of wood provided nutrients to the lush crop of green and gray moss that cascaded over each warped shingle, reminding me of dense, third world city of small hobbit houses. It was a personal embarrassment and certainly decreased the value of the house.
When Richard, seemingly out of the blue, called to suggest we consider the need to replace the roof I was quick to the draw. I immediately scheduled site visits and gathered recommendations from several local contractors who, not surprisingly, reinforced the need to replace it. Then, wasting no time I collected cost proposals to do the job. We contacted our neighbor, Brian, a local builder, to provide a bid on the job as well. Initially he was very interested and appreciative of our request, but after spending considerable time analyzing the roof, he thought better of the idea. While the size of the job didn’t deter him, the likely possibility of ‘surprises’ did. Rot, water damage, failure or lack of insulation could all be lurking below the surface. This made it impossible for him to establish a realistic time schedule and posed the potential to turn this straightforward roofing project into a complicated puzzle of ‘one problem leading to another’. His apprehension got the best of him and he realized it was just too much for one sane man to take on.
A large roofing contractor, with a four-member crew immediately available for the project, was eventually selected. A contract was signed and work began in mid-April. When the crew removed the shingles they discovered what Brian had feared, the plywood sheathing was rotted and the roof had never been insulated. Their new proposal was to replace the plywood, add a two-inch layer of solid polyisocyanurate insulation and cap it with the metal roofing. In two weeks of nearly perfect weather, the job was complete. Two large dumpsters of furry cedar shingles and rotted plywood were removed, replaced with a beautiful dark beige standing seam metal roof.
Metal standing seam roofing is ubiquitous in northern New England. Initially used on barns, the slick surface of the silver-gray steel roofing shed snow instead of collected it. An incredible amount of snow can accumulate on a barn roof over the winter. Because the barn structure isn’t heated, the snow doesn’t melt and run off; it simply piles up, layer upon layer, storm upon storm. With an early spring thaw or occasional rain, the snow absorbs the water and its weight increases exponentially, placing an incredible load on the timber framing. The New England landscape is littered with collapsed barns because of this. This snow shedding advantage proved beneficial to New England houses as well, but the fact that the roof could last a lifetime propelled its popularity. Now available in any imaginable color, it’s the most prevalent roofing used on new homes in the area.
I’d purposely go for drives up and down the road admiring our new roof from various vantage points. The color blended well with the house’s natural siding and it had a clean slick presence compared to the previous shingles’ coarse irregular texture and mottled color pattern. It looked great.
At the same time the roof was being replaced I was making improvements to my lower level design office. I had just removed the water-stained drop ceiling panels, apparently installed to hide the two by six supports and electrical wiring. I’d tolerated occasional mice scampering between the narrow openings above the panels, but the fluttering of bat wings one night from a corner panel was more than I could tolerate. With a dust mask firmly secured over my nose and mouth and plastic tarps covering the floors I proceeded to remove the thirty something panels and the thin metal braces supporting them. As each panel fell it brought with it a gray hailstorm of desiccated mouse terds, nesting material and dust. It dismayed me to think I’d been working below an invisible mouse septic field for several months, but reinforced my conviction to improve the space. I had the small ‘animal gaps’ along the ceiling, where mice, bats and who knows what else were entering the building, sealed with a single piece of raw pine; added pressboard, a cork-like material, to two walls for pin up space; replaced a corner section of dry wall; and insulated an exterior wall. Thinking I’d made great strides in improving the space and could now function more efficiently, it actually turned out to be just the opposite.
Our neighbor, Aaron, a carpenter in his mid-thirties, did the office renovation work for us. He was local, familiar with the house, immediately available and reasonably priced. He had completed most of the work and was preparing to add the insulation when he noted the amount of material needed was minimal and he happened to have some residual fiberglass batting stored in his father’s barn across the road. To save money and time he suggested we use it and I couldn’t think of a reason not to.
Shortly after he installed it, in fact maybe as he was installing it, I noticed a peculiar, sickly sweet smell in the room. I attributed it to ‘new building’ smell and let it go at that. But the smell persisted and seemed to intensify daily. Then I began to notice that after spending an hour or two working at my desk I’d feel disoriented and mildly depressed. Something else unusual was happening. My skin, especially on my arms and face, would sting, almost like a mild sunburn. I’d go upstairs or outside for a couple hours and the sensation would subside. I complained to Sandi that something was bothering me in my office but we both presumed it would pass. It didn’t. The smell seemed to permeate the downstairs, while my reaction to it increased. The time I could spend at my desk symptom-free continued to decline until I could no longer work in the room. The smell had a surround sound quality; it was impossible to tell exactly where it came from and it became maddening trying to determine the source. I thought initially it was the pressboard paneling I’d put up to pin drawings to. I took it down, broke it into manageable pieces and contained them outside in a large black garbage bag.
Nothing improved with its removal. I was going backwards now. My original goal of improving the office was now relegated to getting it back to its original pre-construction state. I then wondered about the untreated pine. I’d read that the natural terpenes (the resin from which turpentine is made) in the wood can be bothersome for some people, but I’d been around new wood often and had never been affected by it. If it was the wood it was a secondary offender. Something else was the instigator. By a matter of elimination we determined the fiberglass batting was most likely the cause. I had Aaron finally remove that as well. My ‘improved’ office was now a stripped shell of what it had been and completely unusable to me. Removing the fiberglass seemed to reduce the smell but I still couldn’t use the room without reacting. The smell eventually built up again, though now Sandi indicated she could barely detect it. I was becoming more sensitive. Aaron had no explanation. It’s possible the fiberglass alone was the culprit or potentially it had been exposed to some other compound, possibly a pesticide, either before or while stored in the barn. Whatever it was it had set off a reaction in my body where I became more and more sensitive to my environment. I was acutely aware of smells I’d never noticed before and each one seemed to bring with it some bodily reaction.
There’s a progression that occurs in serious Multiple Chemical Sensitivity called the spreading phenomenon. It’s an unexplained development where the individual exposed and sensitized to one chemical suddenly becomes sensitive to numerous other, previously benign compounds. As it tends to develop early in the onset of the condition, when the sufferer is ignorant of the cause or how to control it, the sudden inability to tolerate previously safe spaces like your home, your car and your favorite stores can be frightening. From personal experience it is beyond frightening, it’s absolutely terrifying. At first my symptoms were a result of the chemical off gassing in my office. As the spreading phenomenon increased and I became more and more sensitive to my surroundings, it literally chased me from room to room. Suddenly the house, the interior of my car, stores, movie theaters became foreign environments I was unable to access.
To escape the irritants and reaction, I moved my drafting table, computer and a few books to the unfinished workshop at the other end of the house. Relief rippled through me the first day as I sat at my desk symptom free. My office now nestled snuggly among a paint spotted oak workbench, shelves full of boxed household items and tools of every size, shape and purpose, an electric water heater, two circuit breaker panels and a sump pump. But I could work again. Instead of all my attention diverted to my body reactions and the fear of how far it might go I could once again focus on my work and that brought me great joy. And while I love what I do, the joy I felt was purely from freedom of symptoms and worry.
But it didn’t last long. By mid-day my sense of wellbeing had deteriorated. While the reaction had similar qualities as before, like the disorientation, it wasn’t exactly the same set of symptoms I’d experienced in my office. I felt more light-headed, dizzy and slightly nauseated. It worsened the next day. It was a familiar feeling and it nagged at me.
It occurred to me that this was a reaction I’d had previously when I’d been around pesticides. In particularly, I’d noticed it on golf courses and in rare situations around a client’s garden. We hadn’t used any pesticides at all since living in the house and the basement had always been safe for me. I consulted with Aaron and this time he had more information. He’d been parging (applying a plaster material) to the outer foundation of the house the past week. When he began there were numerous wasps along the wall and on the underside of the deck, directly above him. As a common practice he used Raid Wasp Fog to ‘gas’ large areas he needed to be pest-free in order to work. The workshop I now inhabited had a series of end-to-end windows running along the south wall. Without checking with us he‘d fogged both the foundation below, and the deck above, these windows. Being single pane glass with thin, sun-warped wood framing, the seal between out and in was undependable at best. With increasing sensitivities, this was a devastating discovery. I had to move again.
Up until this time the upper level of the house had remained free of irritants. But now several changes had occurred. While watching television in the living room, I’d gradually develop heart palpitations and burning skin and a general feeling of uneasiness. The same thing was happening while sitting up in bed while reading at night. Each night I felt progressively worse. The symptoms coming on quicker and stronger, until instead of reading, turning out the light and harboring sleep was my only recourse. The rhythmical breathing of toxic air through the night took a toll on my health. Each morning I’d wake up more disoriented than the day before, like a fog had entered my head, clouding my perceptions and thinking. I was anxious and depressed.
Yet, once I was outdoors, breathing fresh air for a few hours, I gradually began to feel like myself again. Fortunately, it was summer. A time when several of my jobs were under construction and indoor design and drafting work took a secondary role to field work; meeting with contractors, surveying grades and laying out locations of terraces, walls and planting beds. If not for this seasonal shift in my business structure, I would have been nearly disabled trying to work indoors. Yet the fact was, it was a busy summer. I was securing new work at an unprecedented rate in only my third year of business. It was a paradox. My will thrived on the new work while my body became less and less productive.
Now I moved the office, or the few bare essentials that currently defined it, to my bedroom in the upper west quadrant of the house. My apprehension increased dramatically with this move. This room was proving daily to be intolerable for healthy sleep. Yet I was out of options. If this didn’t work, I had nowhere else to go in the house. My retreat could no longer follow a logical progression of room to room but would have to extend beyond the limits of this house and that was unknown territory I didn’t want to think about. I’d somehow make it work upstairs. My hope was that with a heavy infiltration of fresh outdoor air into the room, I’d have a chance.
The south wall of the bedroom had two screened, sliding glass doors. I placed my desk parallel with the doors and set the chair facing outward. I placed two large fans on the floor by the doors to circulate fresh air into the room. Most importantly, I fervently tried to convince myself that I would be OK. This had to work.
I sat at my sunlit desk, five feet from an open window. With the fans circulating fresh air and a gorgeous view of a wildflower meadow leading up to Morrill Mountain before me, I should have been in paradise. Instead I struggled. My symptoms became worse and more ingrained. Leaving the house for a few hours did little to relieve them anymore. Indoors, my throat, tongue, eyes and skin burned like I’d walked through a cloud of acid. I was chronically depressed. I couldn’t maintain steady concentration on anything. Daily, I attempted to work but had to leave the house so frequently to get away from the escalating barrage of symptoms, I soon fell behind on current work and was unable to pursue new work. I was in very serious trouble.
My worsening condition mystified and terrified me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I had been sensitized by the initial exposure from the building materials in my office but now I was reacting to an even greater threat: the roof. When the new insulation was installed it had been placed directly above the stress skin paneling of the ceiling, boxed in by plywood and the roof attached to that. In April and early May, the insulation sat inert in a cool cocoon. By late May though, the weather had progressed significantly to summer. The intense sun baked the metal roof, heating the air space below it and causing the new insulation to begin off gassing. Isocyanurate insulation is light blue, fine-textured rigid insulation resembling smooth styrofoam. Two chlorine-based chemicals are used to manufacture isocyanurate, phosgene and propylene chlorohydrin. Not exactly the components of healthy air, these are toxic volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). Without interior drywall at the ceiling, these invisible compounds poured into the living space. This was the second major attack on my compromised system. I fought leaving the house but ultimately I would lose the battle. I felt completely defeated.
The last confrontation came one evening, just weeks after the onset of symptoms. On my back in the dark I laid in bed feeling as bad as a human being could feel. I couldn’t rationalize how my relationship with my environment had deteriorated so rapidly and severely. I literally felt like an alien abandoned on a very hostile planet. My body was screaming to get out of this bed, out of this house, out of this situation; while mindless habit would have me stay where I was and go to sleep like so many times before.
Sandi and I talked regularly throughout my progression of symptoms. I needed to verbalize the physical and emotional pain I was experiencing. It was therapeutic; it gave the beast a face. Talking about it lessened the impact and stopped the escalating thoughts and fear. Her feedback and support kept me balanced, rational, fighting. At the same time, to maintain those same qualities in her, I was cautious about what and how much I said, to not overwhelm her.
She had fallen asleep now, without speaking I got up and walked aimlessly out of the bedroom and down the hall. I had no particular destination but moving helped. Yet wherever I went I could feel an invisible mist of poison falling on me. As I walked I instinctively sought shelter, as if seeking cover from the pouring rain. I eventually wandered into Jon’s room and surprisingly felt significant relief. His room, along with the bathroom, was the only room with a dry walled ceiling instead of stress skin paneling and it seemed to offer some protection from the infiltration of chemicals. He was asleep in the top bunk of his bed. By the soft glow of the nightlight I crawled like a wounded animal into the lower bunk and pulled the sheet up over my head. Sandi, realizing I’d left the room, followed me in and asked what I was doing. I tried to explain the unexplainable and she amazingly understood. Jon stirred and quizzically opened his eyes just enough to take in the activity. Sandi whispered, “daddy’s going to spend the night with you”. He smiled briefly as his eyelids, to heavy to hold open any longer, fell closed. As they did, I realized sleep was now my last refuge.
I slept fitfully, with lucid and disjointed dreams. I woke before dawn with my heart pounding as if I’d run a 100-meter sprint. My body was on fire, my eyesight blurry and I was so filled with fear and confusion, I was close to panic. My son sleeping peacefully above me: how could I ever explain to him what I was confronting? I didn’t know myself. All I knew was I had to leave the house, probably for good.
Suddenly and almost simultaneously, what I had feared could potentially manifest, though I tried desperately to keep the thought buried, was before me. I couldn’t sleep or function in the house without compromising my health and because I couldn’t work in my office, my livelihood, my family’s livelihood, our way of life, was gravely threatened.
Jack Rossi is principal and owner of Jack Rossi Landscape Architecture, Woodstock, VT, a landscape architectural firm, specializing in sustainable landscape design. He’s also an adjunct professor of landscape architecture and sustainable design at Vermont Technical College and author of the forthcoming book on multiple chemical sensitivity and the environment, InsideOut.