Helping women with chronic illnesses

Canary In Troubled Water: MCS Adventure

This past weekend, we had relatives in from out of state and one of the first activities we decided to do was take a ride across a lake in a paddlewheel boat. Given the options available for recreational activities and factoring in for what I am/am not physically capable of doing, taking a ride on a lovely paddlewheel boat sounded like a relatively low-risk activity.

The last time (prior to this past weekend) I had ridden in such a boat, about 80% of the time was thoroughly enjoyable. The remainder of the time on that prior ride was spent dodging fumes from the boat itself (as it made the turn to head back across the lake to where it had started). So, I knew going in that I was taking some risk as far as potential reactions with multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

However, quite frankly, I am weighing MCS risks every minute of every day that I’m not safely at home… and even at home I sometimes encounter unexpected/unavoidable chemical exposures. So, the potential for risk of any significant exposure seemed relatively low to me. I knew it wasn’t risk-free. However, since nothing is risk-free for me regarding chemical sensitivity exposures, I went into the boat ride comfortable that the risks were about as low as with any activity we might pick. Little did I know then what I quickly figured out.

After we boarded the boat last weekend, it quickly became apparent that I was in for an unexpected exposure. By the way, I should mention that it was officially pre-season. So, the things that were open were just ramping up. We were informed when we boarded the boat, for example, that it was only the second time it had been out this year. What quickly became obvious was that the boat had just been painted. Trust me when I tell you that they had clearly not used
low-VOC (low volatile-organic compounds) paint

My fight or flight response kicked in once we had boarded and gotten situated. Since chemical exposures make it much more difficult for me to think, it took me a few minutes to fully register the situation. (In other words, the boat had left shore by the time my brain registered what chemical exposure I was facing):

FRESH PAINT = fear for me!

I had no idea how long the boat ride was scheduled for. I did know that I was feeling very ill within the first five minutes or less. I was downright scared because I felt faint mere minutes into the boat ride. Unlike MCS reactions on land (where there is usually some way to get away from the source of the reaction), I was on a boat with no way to get away from it. I think this part scared me more than anything as time went on and I realized just how concentrated the fumes were. An MCS reaction is bad enough on land. I discovered that to have a reaction while trapped on a boat is far more nerve-wracking. (The previous paddlewheel boat ride where I had a reaction to the boat’s fumes (which wasn’t pleasant) was extremely minor compared to this. I had never had a reaction of this severity while in a place I couldn’t physically escape).

I felt dizzy, I was having trouble breathing, my head hurt (which progressed over time into a migraine), I was having neurological symptoms (when I attempted to walk, I was falling down and must have looked like I was drunk or something), I was nauseous and I felt like I was going to faint. (A couple of people asked me if I was seasick. I don’t ever get seasick. That was not the issue at all).

Initially, I sat on a deck chair and hoped to ride it out by sitting still. It quickly became apparent that this approach was not going to work. Since this was pre-season and the temperatures were quite chilly, the boat had transparent flaps hanging down all around the boat rather than having them up like they’d be in the summertime when it’s hot out. As I sat in the chair, I noticed an opening at the base corner of the flaps. I decided to try getting some fresh air by putting my head out the small bottom corner of one of the flaps.

Fresh air never felt so good! I had found where I would spend the remainder of the boat ride. I was so, so grateful for fresh air. By sticking my head out of that flap, I was able to get deep breaths of fresh air. As the boat moved along, I took great gulps of air that had no paint fumes at all.

While I normally don’t stand on my feet anywhere near that long because of various medical conditions (including peripheral neuropathy and venous insufficiency), there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that my need for fresh air far super-ceded any other health needs.

So, sore feet (no matter how painful) had to take a backseat because if I didn’t get that fresh air, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have fainted. My feet would have to wait. Since I suspected the boat’s deck was the source of the paint fumes, fainting would have given me an “up close and personal” meeting that I most definitely did not want. I have fainted due to new carpet fumes many times over the years. Coming back to consciousness on the very surface that caused me to faint was never a good thing. Fainting on the boat would have been even worse because the odds of me hitting my head on a hard surface would be greater… among other reasons.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that boats require maintenance. No one wants their boat looking like this…

Knowing that the chemicals that make me as an MCS patient sick are not healthy for anyone, I found myself worrying about those around me (whether I knew them or not). After all, I was getting fresh air but they were not and the ride was approximately two hours long. I fully understand that people who are not chemically sensitive are not bothered, on an immediate level, the way I was but I found myself concerned at what this paint inhalation was doing to them. The long-term effects could be another story. The fumes were extremely intense for me. While it amazed me (as always) that some people didn’t smell it at all, I know that the health effects can affect more than just MCS patients.

In a perfect world, I just wish that the boat company had used
low-VOC (low volatile-organic compounds) paint
and had properly ventilated the area before taking passengers out for rides.

It should (and would have) have been a pleasant, fun boat ride without the overpowering paint fumes. Instead, I spent the boat ride with my head literally sticking out the side of the boat. My husband tells me that people who saw me with my head stick out the small hole in the boat’s side flaps assumed I was seasick. Well, I was sick alright but I wasn’t seasick! “Paint-sick” would be a more accurate description. I am grateful that I was able to find a way to get fresh air. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that, otherwise, this boat ride would have joined the ranks of public places where I have fainted.

This post was written by Jeanne at Copyright © Jeanne — All rights reserved.

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Reading: Canary In Troubled Water: MCS Adventure


1 JeannetteNo Gravatar { 06.17.11 at 3:29 pm }

What a shame that a potential pleasant experience was destroyed for you. I don’t have any sensitivity issues so I can only imagine how horrible it must have been. Moreover, reading your fear-filled words made me realize just how much of a challenge people with MCS must have. There must be virtually thousands of possible triggers in so many different environments. It must be so hard to cope with. I’m sorry it was such a terrible experience. XO

2 JennNo Gravatar { 06.28.11 at 3:01 pm }

So sorry your boat adventure took such a scary turn!

3 JeanneNo Gravatar { 06.29.11 at 5:59 pm }


I was just so grateful for that flap that let me access fresh air!


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