• There are over 35 million people in the world suffering from some form of environmental illness (EI) today, who experience mild to life-threatening physical reactions to extremely low levels of chemicals, mold, foods, electrical fields, and other environmental factors.1
  • Over 60% of people with environmental sensitivities studied2 are homeless, living in their cars, in a tent in the woods, in run-down trailers, or are prisoners in toxic apartments and homes across the country because they have no other housing options. That means that according to the findings with this sample, as many as 29 million Americans may be in need of safer housing at some point in their life.
  • Due to the nature of the illness, many people with environmental illness experience rejection, blame, abandonment, ridicule, anger, and even assault (from the intentional use of substances known to cause them bodily harm) from the people they know and love most. They often live in near isolation just to avoid exposure to the chemicals and other substances that cause them debilitating symptoms.
  • Because of the loss and separation from most everything and everyone they know and love, many EIs experience severe levels of stress, and the daily trauma that comes from the social isolation imposed by the illness can sometimes feel worse than the physical symptoms themselves.3
  • Many EIs lack access to medical care, food, and housing due to their environmental intolerance—physician/health practitioner offices are inaccessible due to the use of air fresheners, cleaning chemicals, and perfumed patients and health care workers; food in supermarkets and even health food stores is contaminated by fragrant product displays located near open food displays; standard housing is usually rife with triggers: from formaldehyde in building materials and toxic glues used in construction, to mold, faulty electrical wiring, and air fresheners used by former tenants.3

1 11.4% of geographically weighted, random samples of the continental U.S. (approximately 35 million people) reported a sensitivity to common chemical productsPrevalence of Fragrance Sensitivity in the American Population,” Stan Caress, PhD, Anne Steinemann, PhD

2 Participants reported spending a mean of $27,816 to redo their homes. Many had moved repeatedly in search of safe homes in which to reside. Some respondents reported being unable to tolerate any traditional housing due to chemicals used in construction, and they lived in very unusual conditions. For example, one respondent had lived in her horse trailer for a year. Others described being homeless or living in their cars, in RVs, in one purified room in their house, or in tents. Sixty-six percent of participants reported living in highly unusual conditions such as these at some point in order to avoid chemical exposure.Chemical Sensitivity/Chemical Injury and Life Disruption,” Pamela Reed Gibson, Jennifer Cheavens, and Margaret L. Warren, James Madison University

3 Many respondents reported on surveys and during telephone conversations that they had experienced severe stress and trauma due to the life changes and losses that occurred as a result of their chemical sensitivities. Many persons were living without necessities such as housing, medical care, and public access. Others had access to necessities, but reported other kinds of losses such as career advancement, education, travel, hobbies, and community involvement. Further personal distress was reported to occur as a result of the lack of attention and concern for this health problem by the medical profession and the public in general. For some, stresses had become overwhelming. One fifth of the sample of 305 had seriously considered suicide, 8.2% had made a plan, and 3.3% had attempted suicide.Chemical Sensitivity/Chemical Injury and Life Disruption,” Pamela Reed Gibson, Jennifer Cheavens, and Margaret L. Warren, James Madison University


In a report written by re|shelter Advisory Board member Pamela Reed Gibson, Ph.D. for the ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization), she says:

“Housing may be the single most crucial element in survival and possible improvement for someone with MCS. Yet it is almost impossible for people with MCS to find places to live that are truly safe for them. Housing may be their most difficult challenge, a challenge greater even than for people with other disabilities… Two-thirds of my respondents had lived in unusual conditions such as in RVs, tents, cars, or porches at some point since developing MCS. One respondent in my research had lived in her horse trailer for a year. The following woman’s experience is typical of the nomadic lifestyle that some people are forced to adopt:

I have slept outside summer and winter for about 12 years now-including 30 below-windows open, bundled up and using soapstone rocks to keep bed warm, unheated little building. Have slept under homemade mosquito netting under a pavilion-anchored around chairs for weeks-slept in borrowed tent, borrowed trailer-borrowed camper-have slept on relatives’ and friends’ porches outside for weeks when roadwork done at my house-have commuted for essentials.

I believe that MCS is an important and unrecognized contributor to homelessness. As people disappear from a visible lifestyle and adopt coping mechanisms such as living on porches and in RVs, they approach the divide between those with and without homes. When they slide over that divide there is no record of it and they disappear. Some go to live in tent communities in the Southwest, but for others it is even worse than that. One woman in my most current study sent me a drawing of her “home,” which consists of a wire mesh cage to sleep in. Because she must sleep outdoors, she has constructed this cage to protect herself from dogs and wild animals. Her home is literally a five-foot cage.

Gail McCormick, in her book, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Narratives of Coping, interviewed a young woman who must sleep outside under a tarp because of her inability to tolerate indoor environments. She lives a nomadic lifestyle moving from place to place in search of safe conditions. Her mother often travels and camps with her, but at times herself needs a break from the rugged lifestyle. Her daughter sleeps outside in the woods while she rents a hotel room. But if there is a wind that blows the tarp down, her mother must get up at night, drive to where her daughter is sleeping, and cover her up again with her tarp because her daughter is too weak from chronic fatigue to get up and retrieve her own tarp. Some would say that these are extreme living conditions even for the homeless. Yet these struggles are all too frequent among people with MCS and remain virtually invisible to the mainstream culture.”

For further information on the housing challenge for those with MCS, please see Chapter 4 in the following link: ilru.org/html/publications/bookshelf/MCS.html.