When I was a kid, my mom took us on a tour of a historic coalmine in West Virginia. Near the entrance, there was a small black and white picture of the mine back in the 1920’s that I had to stand on tiptoes to see. Staring back at me were twenty sooty faces and one tiny bird in a cage. I asked my mom what a bird was doing in the middle of the earth. She explained that in those days, mining shafts were unventilated. Because canaries are particularly sensitive to toxic gasses like carbon monoxide and methane, miners brought them down into new seams to serve as warning signals. As long as the canary kept singing, the workers knew they were safe. The death of the canary signaled an immediate evacuation.

A friend of mine, Suzanne, is sensitive to just about every manufactured chemical under the sun. Chemicals in bleach, perfume, laundry detergent, deodorant, paint, gasoline and a host of building materials give her headaches, muscle spasms, and nausea. Once, while we were walking through a new office building, she winced and covered her nose and mouth with her shirt. She rattled off a list of chemicals, used to manufacture the carpets, which were currently outgassing into the room,: formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, benzene, bromine – all potent neurotoxins or carcinogens. She calls herself “the canary in the coalmine,” noting that in reality all of us are negatively affected by these chemicals, but because our bodies don’t react as violently, we often don’t notice the damage being done until it’s irreversible.

Even though all of us have toxic reactions to these chemicals to one degree or another, we’ve become habituated to the diseases and disorders that accompany them. Cancer is currently the leading cause of death in the United States. One in two men, and one in three women, will develop cancer in their lifetime. These staggering statistics should cause us to radically re-evaluate our priorities. Why do we consistently choose convenience over health? Do we really need mildew and stain resistant carpets? Do we really need disposable diaper wipes? Instead of recognizing the inherent pathology of inundating our homes, our food and our cleaning products with toxins, we label “multiple chemical sensitivity” as a syndrome!

Ironically, having Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome has made Suzanne one of the healthiest people I know. Eating organic food isn’t a preference for her, it’s a necessity. She grows much of her own vegetables in window boxes and raised beds in her backyard. High concentrations of stress and growth hormones in meat made her long ago adopt a plant based diet. Her house looks like a nursery, because she surrounds herself with plants that naturally filter the air. She makes many of her own cleaning solutions out of vinegar, lemon juice and other cheap, non-toxic substances.

Suzanne doesn’t see chemical sensitivity as a disease, she sees it as a lifesaver. I call it biological sanity. Her body is like an advanced warning system that alerts her immediately to poisons in her environment. Sometimes, when I see the sprawl of strip malls, superhighways and fast food chains that have begun to creep across these once sleepy islands, I wonder what the world would look like if everyone had Suzanne’s sixth sense. I hear the haunting strains of that Tom Wait’s song drifting through my mind, and I wonder – would all the world be green?