I was a commercial printer for twenty years.
I started running a small multi in my early twenties, went on to production
and estimating, and then sales—almost all while in manufacturing locations.
One printing company I worked for eight
or nine years ago did the application of fragrance to those cello-wrapped
inserts that used to come in department store bills. The smells went all
over the plant. At the time, I came down with what was diagnosed as mononucleosis
(even though I was in my early thirties) because I became so fatigued that
I slept my lunch hours in the back seat of my car. I also developed an
impossible rash on the inside of my hands that my doctor could not explain.
(I tested negative for syphilis, the only disease he could think of).
I could not drive, work, even think, the itch was so severe. The only thing
that helped was very strong anti-histamines, which also put me to sleep.
At the time, I didn’t make the connection to the chemicals.
Most recently, I was an employee of a sheetfed
lithographer with 2 6/C; 15/C, 1 4/C and 1 2/C 40” presses (and two had
in-line aqueous coaters). The Material Safety Data Sheets I collected showed
exposure to benzene, toluene, styrene, ammonia, methyl chloride and many
other substances masquerading as various trade products, including MRC
Special, (Metering Roller Cleanser), Federoid, etc. I did press OKs on
all my work, all forms, and also my office was directly above the pressroom.
There was no ventilation, window or air-conditioning in my office. The
fumes were all through the floor where I worked.
When I started there (as an estimator,
in a ventilated windowed office, with no significant time in the pressroom)
I was a dancer and a size 12. After two years, I noticed that my allergic
reactions were returning, having abated since my early twenties. One day,
I was spraying hair spray and noticed I was wheezing. I went to the
Doctor, he gave me my first asthma inhaler ever,Maxair, and the race was
After four years there, I couldn’t walk
three blocks, had fibromylagia, muscle cramps, joint pain, heart palpitations,
severe asthma (was on four inhalers a day), and gained 100 pounds. I could
not concentrate, would lose my train of thought and was constantly compensating
for the overwhelming fatigue and lack of productivity by sneaking home
for naps and working on weekends, when there were less fumes about. I remember
one instance when a coworker asked me repeatedly for some work to be completed,
and as much as I wanted to comply, I could not. He came in asking me again,
and I just started crying, “It’s so hot in here. There’s no air. I can’t
think! I can’t do the work if I can’t think!” The next day, he brought
me a little fan, and put it over my desk. Unfortunately, it didn’t
My son complained that I “smelled like
ink” when I came home from a press OK, and I couldn’t lose the smell. My
skin was yellow. A few months before I saw an EI doctor, another worker
on my floor came down with a sudden case of incurable brain cancer. And
he looked just like me: distended belly, serious food sensitivities, and
the sickly yellow oily film on his skin soon after coming into the shop.
After six years, in July 1997, I was diagnosed with chemical toxicity.
My world turned on end. I walked away from
a good business that I loved. My skills were such that clients and colleagues
said I was gifted at my work, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Having
finally overcome the odds of being a woman in a man’s world, I was sunk
by my body’s reaction to substances the bosses told me COULDN’T HURT ME.
The process of detox was no picnic: I did
saunas, IV’s, rotation diet, organic foods, avoidance of exposure, antigen
therapy. It cost me a fortune, and if anyone out there suffers under the
delusion (as I did) that you are covered by workers’ compensation, Social
Security Disability or health insurance, get a grip!
I was amazingly lucky that I had some (retirement)
savings, which went to medical bills, and a private disability policy that
saved me from losing my home. I also moved out to the beach about 20 miles
from New York, and I’m doing much better here. I have just won the medical
portion of my workers’ comp claim, after a year. The insurer’s doctor found
for a permanent partial disability, based on occupational asthma. I had
to take a methacholine challenge test to qualify for that, and I wouldn’t
recommend that to anyone.
It’s been really tough, and a year later
I’m just starting on the road to recovery. But I am grateful for every
bit of my life now—grateful for good days when I don’t require a nap. Grateful
for the strength to excercise and move, for the sense of peace that comes
from managing and preparing my own food, water—and knowing where it all
comes from. I’m grateful for the experience of my doctor and the others
at the Center where I go, for the community on the Listservs. I’ve weeded
out a lot in my life: alcohol, a lot of stresses, negative influences,
etc. I’m still in the process, still “in recovery”. But I see my
purpose now as more than a “cog in the wheel”. Hoping to embark on a new
career, hoping to find value and contribution.
My friends say I’m saner than I’ve ever
been. I let go of my shrink in the first months of detox, because she was
unwilling to accept that my emotional lability might have had it’s roots
in a physiological response. I’m calmer, and after a year, my lover is
finally starting to accept that I won’t tear his head off (the way I used
to after a long day in the chemically laden workplace followed by a meal
I could not tolerate).
I am especially interested in hearing from
and sharing experiences with other printers, as I am concerned about the
future of a business that I always believed is connected to pleasure, freedom
and expression. I worry for the health of my former co-workers. I
understand (and regret) that I can never go back, but I am certain that
my Divining rod is strong. I can feel it, and there is hope if we can translate
our suffering into action on behalf of our beleaguered Planet Earth.