This is from an review of The Sensitives by Oliver Broudy in the January 29 TLS:
Brian Welsh is the sort of American who, in his previous life, could have stood in for a great many people. Growing up in the American Midwest, he was a well-liked extrovert in high school. He worked in a lumber yard, and then as a medical technician. He married. He lived in a modest house. He was full of easy raillery. Later, he would say that he hadn't been a particularly empathetic sort of person – other people's suffering didn't touch him – but at the time it didn't much matter. His life worked – until it didn't. From one day to the next, or so it seemed in retrospect, he was blown out of that life by the onset of incomprehensible symptoms. It started with paint fumes fogging his brain and perfume setting his heart racing. Soon after, he could no longer tolerate certain foods and the list kept getting longer. He was perpetually fatigued, and he felt himself disappearing into a rabbit hole full of invisible toxic threats. He had, in a sense, become allergic to the flesh of the modern world – to its solvents, powders, solutions, fuels, and fumes. he became fearful, even eccentric. His wife divorced him.
In his new book, Oliver Broudy describes Brian's "merciless humbling." Sensitivity to synthetic chemicals "stripped away everything" . . . now Brian lives alone in a high-altitude forest in Arizona, which as the most unadulterated air he could find.
According to surveys, millions of people suffer from similar complaints, although mostly not as extreme as Brian's.
What are we to make of this?
These people are suffering, some of them horribly; many have lost their jobs, their marriages, their friends. But of what are they suffering?
"Synthetic chemicals" is just two words, not a real category. There is no conceivable mechanism that could make our immune systems respond to all human-made organic molecules, or even all complex hydrocarbons. The actual molecules have too little in common with each other for our exquisitely sensitive immune systems to be fooled in that way. Whatever is going on, I don't see how it could be what some of these people think it is.
And yet here we have people whose lives have been overthrown. Some of them seem like flakey hypochondriacs, but many do not. Many seem like ordinary enough people, no crazier than the rest of us, except for the debilitating reactions that are ruining their lives.
It seems to me that this has to have a psychological component; I can't imagine any biochemistry that could explain such a wide range of allergic responses. But I wonder if there is some sort of physical reaction that underlies many cases. Maybe some people become allergic to one chemical, or one class of chemicals, and since they can't pin down the exact cause they become suspicious of all chemicals, and so on in a self-destructive spiral.
I fear this sort of problem is becoming one of the hard realities of the modern world. We suffer much less from bacteria and viruses than our ancestors, and we can keep our hearts healthy enough that most of us live into our 80s. But millions of people suffer from vague immune-related complaints that we can't explain or treat, and thousands of lives have been ruined in ways that leave us baffled.