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
When it’s gone it’s gone,
But the echoes just go on and on and on.
We send it out like our breath,
And somebody takes it in, somebody takes it in.
~ Carrie Newcomer, When It’s Gone It’s Gone
I grew up in the 60’s and early 70’s. Television was mainstream media. Represented by the three major networks, ABC, NBC, CBS along with public television, my family was able to receive at best, four or five relatively clear channels, anything else was impossible to see through the distortion or hear over the static. It wasn’t uncommon for me to come home from school, grab a snack and perch in front of the small, portable black and white television in our den to watch a favorite program, or to sit down after dinner in the living room with my family to watch the news and ‘prime time’ broadcasting on the large wood veneered console.
Television, like radio before it, brought the world into our homes. The Kennedy assassinations, the civil rights riots, the Viet Nam war, the Apollo moon landing, Watergate; all brought to us personally by respected newsmen, Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, that many trusted like a venerable grandfather. Televised entertainment, unprecedented in history, introduced the Beatles to the United States on The Ed Sullivan Show. Long before MTV, Dick Clark highlighted top of the chart pop singers and rock bands on American Bandstand. Variety shows featuring Jackie Gleason, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, the Smothers Brothers and Carol Burnett were at their peak, as popular as the best sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Leave It To Beaver, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Get Smart and My Three Sons.
Accompanying the revered newscasters, the likeable variety show personalities and the fictional sitcom characters came the commercials. Honed to thirty and sixty-second perfection, they appeared like clockwork at fifteen-minute intervals. Advertising everything from automobiles to toilet paper, these ads ‘sponsored’ the shows we loved and if the hosts and personalities we trusted endorsed these products, why shouldn’t we?
Until 1970, when Congress passed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, banning cigarette ads on television and radio, these ads proliferated the airwaves. Catchy slogans, “Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch”, and mesmerizing jingles, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”, entered the minds and consciousness of the viewers. Sexual nuances, from the rugged Marlboro man to “Newport Pleasure”, infiltrated the ads. Virginia Slims even marketed to the feminist movement, comparing sepia toned imagery of ‘repressed’ women in the early 20th century to modern, tall, slim, brightly dressed women, casually puffing away while the announcer exclaims, “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Did we know cigarettes were unhealthy? Absolutely. The fact that almost forty years later these ads still obtain full page spreads in magazines and shout from billboards along the interstates and highways says a lot about powerful lobbies in the industry, Congress’s willingness to turn a blind eye and the myth that advertisers and manufacturers have our best interest in mind.
Before we understood the implications to the environment from phosphates in laundry detergents we had ads for Wisk, “ring around the collar”, Tide and Cheer. They cleaned your clothes well, that’s what the consumer demanded, that’s what they got. But did the manufacturers consider the consequences on human health: the chemical brew these products contained? Petroleum based chemicals, usually in the form of fragrances, remain in clothing and bedding, where they can be absorbed over and over again through your skin and lungs, long after the fabrics are removed from the dryer. The so-called ‘Green Movement’ of today is changing the focus of the marketing and subsequently, some of the ingredients in these products. But this is primarily due to consumer demand, not by any industry-led change for a healthier society.
There were also the countless personal care product commercials. I remember the inept martial artist swinging awkwardly to fend of the hordes of beautiful women supposedly attracted to the lemon-lime scent of his Hai Karate aftershave lotion. English Leather used seductive ads featuring beautiful female models with sultry voices claiming, “all of my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all.” In the early sixties a head of hair plastered in place with a chemical grease was every man’s goal and every woman’s desire. A popular product told us “a whistle and a wink and Wildroot” would get her every time.
Probably the worst offender was the series of kid-friendly cartoon ads for Raid pesticides. Whether it was an ant, roach or wasp the insect’s unfortunate end was always to be engulfed in a cloud of toxic gas while shouting in surprise and defeat, “RAID!!!” followed by the announcer’s baritone voice claiming it “kills bugs dead.” In fact I remember similar scenes in many early cartoons, whether it was a pesky rabbit, a pumped up mouse, or a pipe smoking sailor man, where some conflict develops between hero and foe and one of them reaches for an old pump sprayer while the other inevitably ends up with their head in a cloud of pesticide, eyes spinning and gurgling non-sensibly.
With the exception of a minority of environmentally and health oriented and aware individuals, ignorance still abounds, and the bombardment of toxic products on the general public has only increased. On one end we’re confronted with a pharmaceutical industry that has a chemical solution in pill form for every ailment. Never mind the underlying cause – take a pill to mask the symptoms and forget about it. Feeling a cold coming on? Take a pill. Can’t have an erection? Take a pill. Feeling depressed? Take a pill. Your kid a little hyper? Give her a pill. Not to say prescription drugs don’t have an extremely important value in many situations, including the above, but the problem is they’re over-prescribed. It’s the easy way out. Physicians are influenced and lobbied by the pharmaceutical companies, which proliferates the cycle, but the real problem is as a population we want the quick fix. Very few individuals seem to want to do the hard work to get to the root cause of their symptoms or illness. Simple life changes like eating a better diet, exercising, getting adequate rest and relaxation (‘no-brainers’, as my brother-in-law would say) would go a long way in preventing many of these problems in the first place. I’ve learned the hard way to trust my own instincts regarding my health and my environment.
Some estimates claim there are 85,000 synthetic chemicals in use today. We encounter 500-600 chemical agents daily in our food, our air and our water. Whether by the Food and Drug Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, very few of these chemicals have been evaluated and even fewer are regulated. Walk down the aisle of any grocery store, hardware store or department store and look at what’s offered for consumption: a litany of industrial and household cleaning products, personal care products, air fresheners, scented candles, perfumes, deodorants, formaldehyde-laden building products, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, paint, stain, thinners and solvents. Look at the ingredients in any of these. You probably can’t pronounce them but you can be sure your body’s absorbing them. And while the individual compounds go untested, we’re even farther from understanding the health implications of the inestimable combinations of these substances.
Growing up, I understood that these substances were potentially harmful. Unfortunately, as a teenager, I had a cavalier attitude about the need to protect myself from them, reinforced by advertising, availability, and general societal ignorance of the long-term effects of exposure.
My parents divorced when I was in my early teens. I lived with my mother and two younger siblings in our seven-room, suburban West Harford, Connecticut home. As the oldest I felt responsible for ‘keeping up the house’, both physically and emotionally; a task, at that age and level of maturity, I was destined to fail at on both counts. But before I could realize and ultimately accept that fact, I took on numerous home improvement projects. Thinking back on it, most of those projects involved using toxic, oil based products, whether it was repainting a room, sealing the asphalt driveway or re-staining kitchen cabinets.
I had observed my father pour gasoline from a one-gallon can to a rag on a few occasions to clean paint stains from surrounding objects and his hands. Whether turpentine or paint thinner would have been a better choice I can’t say, but I imitated his action and used gasoline in much the same way. Only I ‘improved’ on the process. Instead of putting a little gasoline on a rag then spot cleaning my hands, I would pour a couple tablespoons of the liquid into my palm and scrub my hands together to wash the paint off. While painting, including spray-painting at times, I never took precautions to avoid the fumes. Masks were fairly unheard of for that purpose then and it just didn’t occur to me to use one.
Demonstrating continued ignorance and adding to my careless disregard of toxic exposure I took a position as a groundskeeper at a local golf course for several summers while in college. Several other kids and I were in essence grunt laborers for the head superintendent and his full-time staff. That first summer I started by raking sand traps, doing small landscape improvement projects, and hand mowing tight lawn areas inaccessible to the tractors, but by mid-summer I had moved up to operating the large Ford tractors pulling seven-gang mowers over the fairways and rough. By the second summer I was mowing the tees and by my third summer I’d been promoted to the greens.
A golf course is the epitome of a manicured landscape. It has to be as close to perfect visually and functionally as a professional ball field. The club members demand it. To do this however requires an inordinate amount of time, energy and most of all, chemicals. While the fairways and rough are important components in the overall ‘look’ of the course, their presence is largely a factor of the initial design, layout and grading of the course. Sure they require regular maintenance, including mowing, aeration, fertilizing, crabgrass control, herbicides and the like, but it’s the greens, followed closely by the tees, that become the superintendent’s obsession.
The putting greens were comprised of bentgrass, a cool season, fine textured, low growing grass. This grass is ideal for the greens, offering minimal resistance to the ball, but requiring an exceptional amount of maintenance. Greens require mowing, watering, and cup relocation every morning. Yet on any given day they may also require aerating, either by spiking or coring, topdressing, reseeding, or fertilization. Also, because of their dominant focus in the function and prestige of any golf course, the superintendent can’t wait for a disease or pest to appear before treating it. Instead, herbicides, fungicides and pesticides are applied at specific times of the season to head off any potential problem. There were many mornings while my mower laid parallel dark stripes over the dew-covered lawn that I’d whiff the pungent aroma of some recently applied preventative. Worse, dismounting the mower to move the pin from the green or lift the markers from the tees required that I trod through the stuff with my boots and handle it with gloveless hands.
By this time I was well on my way to chemical overload and eventual intolerance. Add to this scenario, both my parents smoked when I was young. Whether in the car, at the breakfast table or with evening relaxation, I remember an all too intimate relationship with cigarette smoke, as well as perfumes, after shave, hair spray, and cleaners.
Research has shown that toxins are easily absorbed by the human body but are much more difficult to release. The toxins tend to settle deep in the fat cells until after years of exposure the body reaches a maximum load. Many researchers believe this toxic load can manifest in numerous ways. For some it’s multiple chemical sensitivity, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, asthma or severe allergies. For others it may be an autoimmune disease like lupus or multiple sclerosis. And for some it’s cancer.
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.