Human canaries are what Lynn Lawson called herself and other victims of environmental illness (EI) and/or multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). These debilitating ailments — manifested in myriad symptoms including headaches, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, cramping, diarrhea, ear aches, muscle aches and extreme fatigue — result from toxic man-made chemicals in products all around us, from paint to perfume, detergent to medications. EI/MCS victims, Ms. Lawson said, serve as the early warning system of chemical use run amok, much like canaries in coal mines warn of impending doom.
A farm girl from Lime Ridge, Wis., and later a teacher, writer, editor and long-time champion of EI/MCS victims, Joan Carolyn “Lynn” Prouty Lawson (1925-2016) passed away in her sleep January 30 at age 90. Forty of those years she spent suffering from EI/MCS, primarily excruciating headaches.
She is survived by her daughter Helen and three grandchildren. Her husband of 56 years, Courtney Lawson (1920-2015), passed away last year. Close to a hundred family members and friends attended Sunday’s memorial at the Unitarian Church of Evanston.
Lynn Lawson was finally diagnosed with EI/MCS in 1986, soon after she had retired due to its debilitating effects. She then went back to work, launching a 30-year second career writing about “staying well in a toxic world.” Once she learned how her health had been compromised by toxic chemicals in her everyday environment and then found ways to reduce the risk of exposure to these poisonous substances inhaled, eaten or touched, she set about sharing the news.
Her landmark book — “Staying Well in a Toxic World: Understanding Environmental Illness, Multiple-Chemical Sensitivities, Chemical Injuries and Sick Building Syndrome” (1994) — has become a staple for environmental health workers and agencies as well as for patients dealing with EI/MCS. Its 488 pages are packed with helpful information, personal anecdotes, guidelines, references and resources. Anne Jackson, director of the Los Angeles Environmental Health Association, said simply, “It’s the ‘Silent Spring’ of the 90s.”
Ms. Lawson said she wrote the book “to try to validate the illness for people who know they have it, and to warn the people who don’t know they have it.” In 2000, she followed it up with “Staying Well in a Toxic World, A New Millennium Update.”
Ms. Lawson didn’t only write about EI/MCS. She gave lectures. She led workshops. She compiled and distributed lists of toxic products to avoid, foods to strike from the diet, ways to rid homes, clothes, cars and carpets of toxic traces.
She co-edited the NOHA (Nutrition for Optimal Health Association) newsletter and edited the newsletter of an Illinois support group that she helped turn into a national organization called MCS: Health & Environment. She joined the Human Ecology Action League (HEAL), taking on public relations. That’s when she wrote Dear Abby; her 1990 letter about synthetic fragrances prompted more than 5,000 readers to respond.
She was still on that trail in 1999 when she enlisted Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to push for perfume legislation. Ms. Schakowsky remembered this “powerful, no-nonsense” woman bringing the fragrance “issue straight to my doorstep and she didn’t come just to chat.” Together they drafted what became known as the SNIFF act (Safe Notification and Information for Fragrances), that would have required cosmetic manufacturers to label products containing allergens or toxins.
That legislation didn’t pass, the Congresswoman acknowledged, but other iterations are still alive, she said and vowed, “In her memory, I pledge to you, we’ve only just begun.”
As a member of the Unitarian Church since 1961, Ms. Lawson wrote an Eco Tip column for its newsletter. She also served on the green sanctuary committee, which altered the church with environmental safety in mind, by reducing its carbon footprint, designating a fragrance-free seating section, changing to non-toxic products in soap dispensers and janitorial cleaning materials and reworking the kitchen into an eco-space.
Ms. Lawson’s academic and business credentials prepared her well to become a passionate crusader for EI/MCS victims. She was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in chemistry from Beloit College in 1946 and in 1956 moved to Evanston to earn a master’s in English from Northwestern University. In “Staying Well,” she described the ways she had been exposed to all sorts of toxins at home and at work, including her jobs as a technical editor at Argonne National Laboratories surrounded by a chemistry lab, at the Art Institute of Chicago exposed to paint toxins and at a pharmaceutical company where “clouds of chemicals” hung over the campus. By the 1970s she was no longer amidst obvious chemical toxins as she was teaching English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and then working as an editor at the Northwestern University Press but, she pointed out, she was working in offices “housed in new, tightly constructed buildings, with nearby copy machines, wall-to-wall carpeting, and sealed windows” and she began experiencing more frequent and worse headaches that finally caused her to retire.
She also recounted personal habits that she learned had been contributing to her EI/MCS, from smoking to washing clothes in “miracle-white detergents.” Before and after she got married in 1959, she recalled refinishing furniture in inadequately ventilated areas and moving into their home at 1404 Judson the summer of 1961 at the height of the city’s pesticide spraying to prevent Dutch elm disease. She found dead robins in the back yard but didn’t understand why until the next year when she read “Silent Spring” and author Rachel Carson became her hero.
Ms. Lawson had been to doctors, but like other EI/MCS sufferers had been given medication that made her symptoms worse or was dismissed, being told she was fine, the problem was all in her head. In 1986 she sought help from Dr. Theron G. Randolph, the founder of modern environmental medicine. He was a maverick allergist who founded the Human Ecology Research Foundation. Dr. Randolph diagnosed her ailments as EI/MCS. In “Staying Well,” Ms. Lawson wrote that her blood test came back with “high percentiles for two chemical solvents, toluene and tetrachloroethelene, and five pesticides.” Some of these pesticides had been restricted since the early 1970s by the EPA, she wrote, yet they were in her blood. Tests revealed other toxins in her body fat.
Under Dr. Randolph’s guidance, she began to heal herself. First she “cleaned up” her diet and home, and the headaches began disappearing. Then she attended a detox clinic in Los Angeles. She figured it took about a year to “get well,” but acknowledged that it would take a lifetime to stay well in a culture that relied on “runaway chemical technology.”
In fact, EI/MCS is sometimes called the 20th-century disease because it has come on primarily since World War II. In “Staying Well,” she cited the exploding growth of petrochemical production in the U.S. over a 30-year period: from an annual output in the early 1950s of “about one billion pounds” to “over four hundred billion pounds” a year in the 1980s. Worse yet, she wrote, most of those industrial chemicals were never tested for short- or long-term human health effects.
In September of 2015, the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies awarded Ms. Lawson the first annual EI Pioneer award in recognition of her leadership and unstinting service to EI/MCS sufferers, for standing up to the naysayers who didn’t believe environmental disease existed, and for helping victims learn how to deal with it by avoiding exposure to toxins. Rep. Schakowsky presented Ms. Lawson with the award in December.
Memorial speakers repeatedly mentioned how Ms. Lawson loved to laugh, to read, to dance, especially folk dancing, to listen to music and to play the recorder, both in a women’s group and in duets with her husband on the piano. She was also remembered as a formidable Scrabble player, who almost always won, “not that I’m bitter,” allowed friend, eulogist and Scrabbler Steven L. Bates.
Congresswoman Schakowsky recalled Ms. Lawson’s great sense of humor and her joy in life, particularly remembering her own 65th birthday party a few years back when Lynn danced to Sister Sledge and “We Are Family.” “Lynn was not just a brilliant person,” she said, “but a full person of this world as we all aspire to be.”