Bend resident Joanna Malaczynski was introduced to the issue of toxic chemicals in consumer products during her career as an attorney doing antitrust law and work involving toxins in products.
“I had both a knowledge of how slow and unmotivated the industries were (and) the gravity of the problem,” she said. “But a lot of it was still abstract. For example, I was familiar with terms such as neurotoxin, which are chemicals that are toxic to the brain and neurological system, but I didn’t really know what that meant.”
Then she became sick from chemical exposure herself.
Malaczynski has written a 180-page book on the subject titled “Silent Winter: Our Chemical World and Chronic Illness.” Published in March by Algora Publishing, “Silent Winter” explores the link between toxic chemicals in our environment and asthma, cancer, depression, chronic fatigue, dementia and other illnesses, many of which are often ascribed to people’s lifestyles or genes.
According to a 2016 survey published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, more than 25% of people report chemical sensitivity, and 12.8% of people are formally diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities.
“There’s definitely a substantial amount of people that are sensitive,” she said. “It’s a huge problem,” and one that doesn’t get much attention in the wider world.
An ardent swimmer, Malaczynski’s chemical sensitivity was triggered by swimming in urban bodies of water, including the Willamette and Columbia rivers when she lived in Portland prior to moving to Bend in 2017.
“I’ve spent a lot of time swimming in … urban waters, even though I knew that they have some issues. I just really love the water and kind of looked the other way and justified things, as we kind of all do,” she said.
Oregon Superfund sites in the region include Portland Harbor, Scappoose Bay and Columbia Slough. The waters can have agriculture runoff, the toxic compound dioxin and polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), a toxic, manmade chemical banned in 1979.
These long-lived chemicals can live on in silt, which can be churned up by, say, a swimmer entering the water, or boats, whose diesel fuels can also pollute the water.
Malaczynski developed headaches, exhaustion that caused her to sleep up to 16 hours a day, as well as flu symptoms.
She writes in “Silent Winter”: “Flu-like symptoms resulting from chemical exposure are well-known to the industry. For example, employees who worked with toxic PFAS chemicals at DuPont referred to having the ‘Teflon flu.’ Fatigue, joint/muscle pain, cough and fever are known to be caused by ‘metal fume fever’ in industrial workers. Occupational exposure to formaldehyde is known to induce flu-like symptoms. A flu-like epidemic has been induced in workers exposed to vinyl-based plastic fumes. The list goes on.”
Doctors tested her for parasites, Lyme disease and various infections. Malaczynski found little help from conventional medicine. “It’s just not a problem they understand,” she said, adding that she found more efficacy in acupuncture and Chinese medicine.
“We are, all of us, exposed all the time,” she said. “Sometimes we feel sick and we don’t know why. … We have so many exposures that it’s hard to even tell what’s going on unless you’re kind of a detective and sleuth around. Microplastics, yes, are a huge problem. Some studies show that we’re ingesting on average a credit card’s worth on a weekly basis.”
But microplastics are just one example of enduring toxins in our environment, Malaczynski said. Long-lasting fragrances can cause congestion problems for our kidneys, liver and heart, she said.
“We’re also taking in chemicals that are very persistent, meaning they’re very hard to break down,” she said. “The stuff in fragrance — that really strong fragrance that seems to last and last — it lasts because it’s comprised of chemicals that are added to the fragrance. Those chemicals get in our bodies and are also very hard to get rid of.”
Malaczynski’s chemical sensitivity endures, her body unable to process toxins at the rate a healthy person’s would, she said.
“They affect me much more quickly and much more profoundly,” she said. “I kind of have to live in a world of avoidance.”