Fred A. Bernstein

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An oasis in a toxic world

A haven for "multiple chemical sensitivity" sufferers is threatened

Published in The New York Times, July 9, 2005

Published: July 10, 2005

Snowflake, Ariz.

IN this town 150 miles northeast of Phoenix, "for sale" signs have become as commonplace as sagebrush. "Real estate has gone crazy around here," said Bruce Wachter, an agent with the local Century 21 franchise.

But one "for sale" sign has a group of residents worried. They suffer from multiple chemical sensitivities, an illness that led them to flee cities for this remote high desert town.

An electrical engineer from Mesa, a broker from Chicago, a software executive from Santa Cruz, Calif. - all settled in Snowflake to escape pesticides and paints that they say caused them devastating health effects.

Now they fear that a nearby house could be bought by a family that wants to use chemicals on its lawn, or install a blacktop driveway, rendering the fragile haven a haven no longer. "We might have to evacuate some people," said Susan Molloy, who has lived in the area since 1994.

The listing broker, Mr. Wachter of Century 21 Sunshine Realty, said it isn't his job to find a buyer who will avoid pesticides and paints. "I'll sell the house to anybody," he said. "I can't distinguish between a buyer who would use chemicals and a buyer who would not."

Snowflake (a town named for early settlers named Erastus Snow and William Flake) became a home for those suffering from chemical sensitivities in 1988, when Bruce McCreary, the electrical engineer, arrived here from Mesa. The year before, he said, chemicals in the aircraft factory where he worked had left him almost totally disabled.

About two dozen other people with multiple chemical sensitivities (M.C.S., or "environmental illness") have joined him, and Mr. McCreary helps them construct houses without the plastics and glues that are the mainstays of modern home building. They bought their home sites for $500 to $1,000 an acre.

The newest arrival is Gary Gumbel, until recently a floor broker on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. After exposure to pesticides in a Chicago suburb, he said, he became so ill that he had to sleep with an oxygen tank every night. A few weeks after coming to Snowflake, he said, he was able to return the tank to Chicago.

"Out here, you don't need a prescription for air," said Ms. Molloy, a perky 56-year-old who is the unofficial spokeswoman for the community. "I'm lucky - I'm healthier than some people," she explained, "so I can interact with the world more."

Some of her neighbors can't tolerate stores - where chemicals are ever-present - so she sometimes shops for them. Others can't be on computers - many of the chemically sensitive are also sensitive to electromagnetic fields - so Ms. Molloy handles their correspondence.

The house for sale, on 37 acres, was built by a family without chemical sensitivities. Still, they were nice people who took the community's needs into consideration, Ms. Molloy said. Whoever buys the house, "I hope they're kind to us," she said.

The best outcome, the residents say, would be for a family with chemical sensitivities to buy the house. But that isn't likely, they say. For one thing, the asking price of $359,000 is far beyond the reach of most sufferers, who are generally unable to work. (Some receive disability benefits.)

For another thing, most of them don't have a use for five bedrooms. "Mostly, our spouses leave us," Dawn Grenier, a refugee from Florida, said wryly.

Some real estate agents are conscious of the group's concerns. Kevin Dunn of Forest Properties in Snowflake, said he wouldn't sell the house on Hansa Trail without telling the buyer about the neighbors' sensitivities.

Mr. Dunn said he didn't think he was obligated, under the state's seller disclosure law, to do so. But he said he has other reasons. "For one thing," he said, "I like everybody in the M.C.S. neighborhood."

Mr. Dunn recently helped to arrange for the state to buy a property that is going to be converted into temporary housing for four to six chemical sensitivity sufferers.

Right now, people who arrive without a place to live often end up staying in a trailer in Ms. Molloy's driveway. "I'm always happy to have new people come, as long as they have friends or relatives to take care of them," she said.

On a recent morning, Mr. Gumbel oversaw progress on his new house, set on a 60-acre plot. Here, in Snowflake, he said, "you have elbow room, and nobody can spray you down." Mr. Gumbel found out about Snowflake from the Web site of the Chemical Injury Information Network,

A New York City firefighter named Bill who moved to Snowflake in 1990, after his wife developed M.C.S., is helping Mr. Gumbel build his house. He would not agree to publication of his last name, he said, for fear of being inundated with phone calls seeking advice.

Ms. Molloy's house has bare concrete floors. Walls, of foil-coated Sheetrock, are unpainted. Her fixtures and furniture are metal. Ms. Molloy asks visitors to shower with unscented soaps that she provides, then change into clothes that have been washed with a special detergent.

Because she is also sensitive to electromagnetic fields, Ms. Molloy has few electrical devices. Her computer is contained in a metal-lined room, with the screen in another part of the house (an arrangement devised by Mr. McCreary).

Kathy Hemenway, a former executive from Silicon Valley, Calif., is also sensitive to electrical currents. Ms. Hemenway's house, which is one of the grandest in the neighborhood, comes with a switch on every outlet, so she can turn off the current when she doesn't need it. Her refrigerator is connected to a motion detector - it turns itself off whenever she approaches.

Her television set is in a metal-coated room; it projects through a long metal funnel onto the back of a screen, so that when Ms. Hemenway watches, she is as far as possible from the electronic components. Computer equipment is in a separate part of the house, with several thick walls between it and her living spaces. Bedroom walls are tile, not plaster or wallboard.

Ms. Molloy is always looking for housing options for those who share her ailment.

For the last few years, she has been trying to purchase a group of metal houses on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va. The so-called Lustron houses, built shortly after World War II, have walls and ceilings of porcelainized metal. Considered important relics of the postwar era, the buildings are slated to be replaced with newer housing, and the Marine Corps has asked the contractor to try to find a use for them.

"They're perfect for people with M.C.S.," Ms. Molloy said. But, she said, she has been unable to find a way to move the houses to Snowflake.

"The standing joke," she said, surveying the rugged terrain outside her house, "is that we'll all pack up and move to Quantico."