These Memories Never Go Away

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Months have now passed without an anxiety attack or any generalized anxiety. I’ve had a couple of nightmares, but they were not related to 9-11. One would think that for someone recovering from PTSD that this would mean the memories would not return. But this is not so. I have another physical impairment to remind me: chemical sensitivity.

It came up at work. We moved to a new office in December 2013 where the bathrooms are equipped with air deodorizers, unfortunately with synthetic fragrances. Shortly after moving, I started coughing — again. I don’t remember when I had a chronic cough before moving, except in 2002 when I lost my job after failing to recognize I had chronic bronchitis. When a cough is chronic, it’s easy to get used to it and forget you have it.

The property manager resisted removing the deodorizer and insisted on using a different scent. Like that helped. Finally, after going home again with phlegm building up in my lungs, my company once again made an effort to get them to remove it. To build a case, Human Resources asked for details on my reaction to the deodorant. This was my response:

I lived in the dust of the World Trade Center in New York City for 11 months after 9-11. It seeped into my apartment, even during the winter when the windows were closed. FEMA refused to give me an air purifier, and I got chronic bronchitis. This turned into what is known as “chemical sensitivity.” Exposure to synthetic perfumes or cigarette smoke causes phlegm to build up in my lungs. I’ve been avoiding second hand smoke as much as possible, but I can’t avoid the bathroom 🙂 .

It feels like bronchitis, like there is something in my chest. It’s hard to take deep breaths. Just walking up a hill a couple blocks makes it worse. I don’t have a cold; mucous is white. It always gets better when I leave town; that’s 4 times since we moved to Menlo Park. I didn’t have this problem when we were in Palo Alto.

Nor did I have a problem in Brooklyn after the dust settled and purchasing a couple of air purifiers.

Alison Johnson, Chair of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation, testified at the World Trade Center air quality hearing in Lower Manhattan on February 23, 2002 (source):

Dr. Steven Levin of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine noted the development of chemical sensitivity among some of the WTC disaster patients they have been seeing at their clinic: ‘Some of our patients once away from Lower Manhattan have noticed a general improvement in their symptoms but find that exposure to cigarette smoke, vehicle exhaust, cleaning solutions, perfume, or other airborne irritants provokes reoccurrence of their symptoms in ways they never experienced before 9/11.’

I bought a mask, designed for mold, to use while walking through the San Francisco streets where air seems to stand still or travel horizontally westward from ocean to bay. Cigarette smoke can be smelled from a block or more away. Do I have to use it to go to the bathroom now? It’s not as bad when people wear too much cologne or perfume. Every time I smell cigarettes or unnatural scents, I remember 9-11 and the dust.

I feel like I could be a poster child for synthetic fragrance awareness. Do people even know they are breathing plastics? Plastics. Plastic kills, albeit slowly.

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