Homesick: Multiple Chemical Sensitivites

Homesick_PosterCoal miners used to send canaries into the mines ahead of them to check the level of lethal gases. If the canaries died, website like this the gasses had reached deadly levels. If they lived, it was safe to mine.

Today, we find ourselves facing an insidious, growing public health problem – we are being made sick by our environment. More and more of us are becoming allergic to common, everyday surroundings at work, at home and in public places. About 10 million people are afflicted with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) in the United States alone. According to a national survey, 11.2% of the population report varying degrees of “ hypersensitivity to common chemicals” (Caress & Steinemann, National Prevalence of Asthma & Chemical Hypersensitivity JOEM Vol 47. No. 5 May 2005). According to an article in Business Week (May 2000), the population that is allergic to chemicals will grow to 60% by 2020.

MCS is a chronic condition marked by greatly increased sensitivity to many different chemicals, such as new paint, carpeting, cosmetics, tobacco smoke, pesticides, automobile exhaust, gas stoves, and many commercial household cleaning products, among other things.

Although women are affected more often than men, MCS occurs in people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds.

People who live with MCS commonly suffer from debilitating symptoms provoked by chemical exposures. These symptoms include shortness of breath, migraines, gastrointestinal problems, aching joints and muscles, weakness, memory loss, impaired balance and concentration problems and even seizures and anaphylactic shock. There is no known cure for MCS.

The biggest issue for those with MCS is creating a safe home environment where chemical exposures are minimal.

Homesick08In Homesick, Susan takes viewers on a road trip to experience how drastically MCS has altered the lives of its victims. Through her extensive research, which includes over thirty interviews, Susan explores the lives of doctors, architects, teachers, housewives and students living with this disease. She takes us into these brave survivors’ non-toxic homes, which include tents, a house on stilts and a teepee. Susan is the connecting thread between these stories as she narrates the journey from her MCS-accessible van.

Its almost inevitable that anyone with significant chemical sensitivities will sometimes be homeless or live in substandard housing. Typically, people with MCS are forced to move from one place to the next because their homes become unsafe by the use of chemicals by neighbors, landlords and others. All too often they may find themselves homeless or are forced to live in toxic spaces where their health deteriorates. Tragically, the overwhelming nature of this illness and the difficulty of locating safe housing has resulted in a number of suicides.

Homesick01Homesick explores the daily struggle of people with MCS. It takes us into their homes to show just how debilitating this disease is and how difficult and imperative it is for chemically sensitive people to find and keep safe housing. Because Susan herself has extensive chemical sensitivities, the film is a thoughtful, compassionate and sometimes even humorous look at life with MCS.

Perhaps because its ramifications are so frightening, MCS continues to be denied by society. The advances of industrialized civilization have brought us to an age in which our daily lives are dominated by the use of plastics and other synthetic chemicals in our food, water, shelter, heath care and transportation. People suffering with MCS serve to make us aware of the dire consequences of living in a society where chemicals are used in virtually every area of our lives.

The importance of this film is not limited to those who suffer from MCS, because unhealthy housing affects us all.

One of the foremost questions of the 21st century has become: How do we create a sustainable environment? We can begin by taking heed of the plight these human canaries.



Homesick07After watching the film ‘Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter’ (HBO, July, 1993), the Academy Award nominated feature documentary I was inspired to make my own film about my experiences living and coping with CFIDS and MCS. Three years later, Funny You Don’t Look Sick, An Autobiography of an Illness premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts and won a Merit Award at the 2005 International Disability Film Festival and distributed nationally by the Cinema Guild. I have been coping with this illness and have been documenting it for over a two decades. In the follow up, Homesick  I venture out to the Southwest to find others with MCS.

During the final editing of Funny You Don’t Look Sick, I began to ask myself how many others were going through this nightmare, too? How did they get sick? Were they having as much trouble as I was finding and keeping a safe place to live? How were they coping with such an overwhelming and often isolating condition? Did safer housing improve their health? Was one area of the country safer to live in than another, such as the Southwest where many people with MCS have migrated?

I felt compelled to make a second film in which I explored these questions, exposed the widespread and fast-growing impact of this illness, and examined the critical importance of safe housing as both prevention and treatment for MCS, using my own search for a safe home as the central narrative thread.

Homesick10Homesick follows my literal journey with MCS, as I go on a road trip to find others coping with this disability and discover if and how they have created safe housing.  Through personal portraits, the film reveals the human face of this devastating condition, helping to raise awareness, increase compassion and challenge the misinformation and stigma that surrounds it.

I go on the road to find people around the country who are coping with MCS. I travel to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Texas, where many people with MCS have migrated in search of less industrialized environments.  I visit their homes and witness their daily struggles. I meet architects, teachers, housewives, social workers, lawyers, nurses, doctors, artists and students. The similarity of each person’s story is staggering.  Their homes include tents, a house on stilts, a straw bale house and a teepee.  I have also revisited these people nine years after the original filming to find out how they are managing now. My findings are disturbing, inspiring and I hope, useful.


Before she became ill, Susan was a professional singer, songwriter, recording artist, teacher and performer.

Susan has been documenting CFIDS and MCS for close to two decades.

Her first film, “Funny, You Don’t Look Sick: An Autobiography of an Illness” painted an intimate portrait of her struggle to live with these debilitating conditions. Funny You Don’t Look Sick premiered at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1995, and was a Merit Award winner at the 2005 SUPERFEST International Disability Film Festival. It has been screened internationally and can be found in doctor’s and lawyer’s offices, university and public libraries, medical classrooms, centers for independent living, support groups and in peoples’ homes all over the world.