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This Desert Town Is Full of People With a Mysterious Disease

Snowflake, Arizona has become an oasis for the afflicted.
July 13, 2016, 12:00pm
Image: YouTube/The Guardian

For people afflicted with multiple chemical sensitivity, MCS for short, every day can be an exercise in agony.

Some of the condition's symptoms are merely annoying, and range from "brain fog" to tiredness and muscle pain. Yet, others are reportedly crippling, leaving their victims in a miserable haze of nausea, migraines, sudden panic, and even vertigo. Almost all MCS sufferers say that prolonged, low-level exposure to chemicals is to blame for their perpetual sickness.

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There's no cure for MCS, except for a life of trigger avoidance and spartan simplicity—that is, according to people who have self-diagnosed themselves with the rare disorder. Outside of the MCS community, you'll find little mention of it in medical textbooks. Most physicians are hesitant to categorize it as anything other than a psycho-social condition with acute physical symptoms. Because of its lack of scientific evidence, doctors generally refer to MCS as a "chronic, recurring disease caused by a person's inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals." Essentially, your symptoms are real, but their causes are all in your head.

Snowflake, Arizona resident. Image: YouTube/The Guardian

So, in 1988, one sufferer—a former aircraft factory-worker named Bruce McCreary—picked up and moved to the tiny desert town of Snowflake, Arizona. As of 2005, nearly two dozen other MCS victims had joined him, according to a report in the New York Times. To McCreary and his new neighbors, Snowflake became an oasis where they could be free of judgment, nonbelievers, and most importantly, noxious chemical substances.

But as a new documentary from The Guardian reveals, there are few luxuries in Snowflake, and most of its inhabitants live alone. For those who reside in houses, every single building material and furnishing must be "non-toxic." One man only reads books through a glove-box. And a woman who currently lives in her truck was forced to throw away a sleeping bag coated in waterproofing solution, due to her fear that its fumes would be deadly. McCreary told interviewers that only one in five people with MCS are able to contract custom-made homes, and even then, building times can take up to three years before. Because of this, he added, many have gone bankrupt, and some died by suicide.

Those who endure MCS are discouraged, and even angry, that modern medicine has distanced itself from their condition. Critics have accused MCS victims of "seeking special accommodations" and unlawfully applying for disability benefits. Yet, it's hard to dismiss that blinded clinical trials have shown MCS patients are unable to distinguish between their triggers and placebos, reacting just as strongly to chemicals as other benign substances. Approximately one half of sufferers fulfill the criteria for depression and anxiety disorders. Some researchers have even suggested that smells elicit psychosomatic reactions, deployed by a dysfunction in the odor-processing part of the brain.

If one thing is certain, however, it's that many people with MCS aren't giving up on life—they're simply finding new, and sometimes novel, ways to exist in a world that excludes them. At face value, their resilience is commendable, if not admirable.

"The world is becoming more and more polluted," said one of Snowflake's residents. "We're all being affected on a cellular level. We are the warning signal."