Friday, February 21, 2014

Chemical Chronicle

After all the refinished furniture arrived and I got a whiff of the materials, I worried that the smell would become overwhelming and I’d have to go live at Tom’s for a few days—had I just made a catastrophic error?—but the smell never came to seem any stronger. I left a window cracked the first night, but there hasn’t been any real problem. My throat feels a little weird and there’s a little coughing, but nothing major.

My sense of smell, always acute, has strengthened considerably in the past year, which may be a hormonal thing, and going places where there are other people is increasingly problematic. There’s always someone in the crowd who has used a laundry detergent whose smell is utterly unbearable. When people walk past me now, sometimes I can smell their hair, which is never a good smell. Not their shampoo or conditioner, their hair. One recent day I could tell that someone in my building had used baby shampoo, also a terrible smell.

Around the holidays, I was sitting in my living room—I may have mentioned this—and was suddenly overwhelmed with strong fumes. My face turned red and I got a headache. I gave the building manager a call, and it turned out she had done a bit of spray painting in the basement, two floors below. Somehow, it piped straight in here, which explains why, in years past, I was sometimes suddenly engulfed in cigarette smoke in the same spot, not near a window: someone was sneaking a smoke in the basement.

When I discussed it with my father, he said it was “worrisome,” which of course threw me into a temporary but total panic. He agreed that if I had a carbon monoxide detector and a radon detector and also didn’t smell anything, all was probably well, but then added that it might not be a bad idea to see if the place can be inspected for obvious holes. Maybe it’s simply the electrical wiring and insulating the outlets would fix it.

Lisa M. advised getting an air filter, which is also a possibility. But the place is so drafty, it seems all that expensively processed air would just blow back out, the same way the repulsive smell of dryer sheets blows in—alas, two different dryers vent into the area below my kitchen window, which wasn’t a problem at all for the first many years I lived here. Maybe those two people didn’t have their washers and dryers yet, or my nose wasn’t as sensitive, or everyone wasn’t using scented dryer sheets yet, which are full of cancer-causing chemicals.

But I think the draftiness is for the most part good: the yucky stuff comes in, and it goes back out. If there is a harmful substance in the air that comes with a scent, it’s not like I’m not going to smell it, and I can get detectors for the known harmful things that don’t come with scents, so everything is probably fine? Once I get this all figured out, I’ll also talk to the building manager and ask her to be sure any chemicals in the basement are tightly sealed, but I want to do the other research first, so I don’t have to have more than one conversation about it.

You, like me, may be startled to learn that “Since the mid-seventies, the E.P.A. has issued regulations restricting the use of only five industrial chemicals out of more than eighty thousand in the environment.” This is not to put down the E.P.A., which I know for a fact employs smart, dedicated people who care very much about their work, but rather has to do with the very strong influence of business.

That’s from Rachel Aviv’s story
in the February 10, 2014, issue of The New Yorker about Tyrone Hayes’s research on atrazine. Hayes, at Berkeley, become convinced that the Syngenta corporation was tracking him, intercepting his emails and devising ways to discredit him. “Uh oh, paranoid,” you think, but it eventually turned out that they were doing all of those things and he was exactly correct. He was indeed paranoid, and they were out to get him. And that’s the toxic news for today.
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