Last Thursday, around 4 pm, at my desk, the phone rings.
My wife: (voice tinged with panic) “We’ve got a problem.”
I ask her what’s wrong (my own voice trembling a bit, now).
My wife: (More panic – can’t get words out fast enough) Mike and Melanie (our neighbors three doors down - names changed) are blow torching the paint off their house.
I know these calls. They happen often. Not blow torches specifically. But some other panic-strewn response to chemical exposure. And yet, after nine blissful years of this, I still have no idea how to handle it.
My wife has an extremely rare disorder. So rare that no doctor has yet to diagnose it properly. We’ve heard everything from fibromyalgia to your common clinical anxiety case. The best we can ascertain is that it’s something akin to what’s known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).
In lay terms, the woman runs screaming at the sight of a Sharpee.
She smells things you and I would never smell. Paint smells. Glue smells. Gas smells. Plastic smells. Cleaning supply smells. If it doesn’t come from the earth, my wife doesn’t like the way it smells.
The way she describes it, these smells cause her throat and tongue to swell up and she feels shooting pains in her chest.
You could say one of two things in response.
1. That’s awful, god, I feel horrible for her.
2. That woman is bat shit crazy. Run, man. Run.
I’ll admit, the first time she complained of the duct tape in the house bothering her and asked me to take it out to the garage, I thought she was out of her goddamned mind. I resisted the urge to just say “no” – actually force her to consume all that rich, silvery plastic and adhesive to prove there’s nothing wrong with it.
But I went the other route. I decided to stick it out for the woman I love. Through thick and thin as they say. And it’s been pretty thin.
We’ve considered moving three separate times because of smells in our house, including our current one.
We’ve purchased new furniture that needed to “off-gas” at a friend’s house for a few months before we could take it in. Because of the smells.
We leave restaurants and friends houses that have been painted or remodeled in previous months. Because of the smells.
Since having a kid, the severity of this disorder increased monumentally. Part of that was chalked up to weird hormonal shit that happens during pregnancy. The other part is absolutely her fierce lioness-like protection of our daughter from all that is evil in the world (sic. chemicals).
So there’s your background. I'd like to break up this ridiculously long post with a glimpse into my life - this awesome trailer for the movie Safe.
Based on this trailer, the subject matter and the talent, I should have loved this movie. But it sucked.
So back to that phone call last week from my wife about the blow torches. My only viable response at that point was, "Are you sure?"
My wife: (More panic. More rushed speech) I just drove by. There are guys in haz-mat suits doing the work! We’re heading to Sellwood (the neighborhood farthest from our home, while still in Portland, where friends will provide a safe house).
Blow torching paint? Haz mat suits? What?
I actually knew exactly what. We once looked at a house that had been stripped down to the foundation and rebuilt with all natural materials – even the soil was replaced around the home – because their painters had used blow torches to remove old paint from their home and it was lead-based paint. Subsequently, at least one of their three kids, maybe two, has developed autism, thought to be caused by the lead paint that was burned off. Meanwhile, it was happening three doors down from my house.
Needless to say, we really did have a problem.
I started by trying to call the home owners, people we really like, and ask them if we could stop the blow torching and find another way. No answer.
Next the CDC. Gone for the day. The DEQ. Nothing.
FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK!
If I didn’t get those blow torches turned off, my wife would never go back to that house. I had no choice. I called the cops. I pleaded with them to send a car over and try to stop the madness while I biked home to meet them.
They passed me off to the fire department. The fire department said they would send a truck, but I could tell from her voice, the dispatcher clearly thought I was out of my mind.
I hopped on my bike and raced home, fully prepared to throw myself in front of the blow torches, ala Mel Gibson taking a bullet for Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon style. The wind was blowing south. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK! We live south of Mike and Melanie.
When I got there, the blow torches were thankfully off. I got Mike on the phone who was thankfully open to idea of not blowtorching anymore (he later decided to continue). Even more thankfully, he told me that they had the boards on their home stripped down to the wood and repainted 15 years ago, which would suggest there wasn’t any lead in the paint – or at least not much.
And the fire truck never showed up. Thankfully.
My wife and kid stayed at the safe house one more night while the last of the blow torching of the lead-free paint took place. I stood there watching the process from a safe distance, and I couldn’t help but look at these guys, still in their haz-mat suits, blow torching latex (still a chemical) off of a house, with kids, right across the street, riding their bikes not wearing haz-mat suits, and thought to myself "why is this all perfectly normal?"
Maybe my wife is right. Beware of the chemicals.
***UPDATE*** I just got a call from an environmental health specialist with the State of Oregon, Dept. of Human Services, who tells me that according to the EPA, it is in fact illegal to blow torch paint off a house in Oregon. I provided the name of the outfit responsible for the blow torching, Ed Bell & Sons, and apparently, there is a mounting case against them. Our story was added to the mounting.
(Ed. note: I've wanted to write all this about my wife's disorder each time another one of these ridiculous situations come up. I worried about how I would capture it all without throwing my dear sweet wife under the proverbial bus. But with fodder this good, my wife knew she couldn't deny me the pleasure of sharing, and if you have any information about this disorder, we're always looking for a new perspective. All subsequent posts about our chemical run-ins will be much shorter, with links to this post serving as the subtext).