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In The News

On this page are news items related to less-toxic travel destinations. If you are interested in more places to stay, check out the printed Safer Travel Directory, a 51 page guide featuring almost 350 less-toxic vacation and relocation spots in the USA and around the world - 63 new locations in 2006 edition.

Order your copy of the 2006 Safer Travel Directory now!


Sense and Sensitivity

by Erica Brough
Star-Banner (Ocala, Florida)
Published: December 13, 2005

What if your clothes made you sick? Not your style, but your actual clothes - what if you woke up one day and your sheets made you ill or your furniture caused a rash? What if your world turned toxic? Nancy Westrom's did. Decades ago she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) while living in Illinois. After joining a chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) support group in Florida, she discovered many of the symptoms of FMS overlapped with CFS. She knew she was tired, she knew she had what was called brain fog and she knew she ached for no apparent reason. She wasn't sure what caused her symptoms. Then her research led her to something called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). A light went on, and her problems had a name. Sadly, they did not have a cure, just a treatment: avoid chemicals that trigger reactions. "That means no scents, no aftershave, no perfumes, no scented soaps, cooking certain foods like green peppers are out, no pesticides, bug killers, weed killers or lawn sprays, no burning wood, no plants . . ." That's Nancy Westrom, author of the Safer Travel Directory, talking about what had to go from her life. The guide, a listing of environmentally "safe" destinations for travelers with mild cases of MCS, was born of Westrom's efforts to avoid chemicals that inflamed her illness. Today her home is "as 'safe' as we can afford," she says. Her kitchen is filled with preservative-free foods, soy milk and diet supplements; her laundry room is clean and stark, the shelves lined with perfume- and scent-free detergents and soaps. Her floors - tile. Her furniture - used objects that have less toxic outgassing. Outgassing? "Outgassing is the release of chemicals from objects," Westrom says. "Everything outgasses. Having to buy something new is a nightmare because it outgasses. Wood furniture sealed with glue, plastics, fibers, all of it." For Westrom, choosing the right piece of furniture isn't just a matter of taste, it's a matter of health. Having left Port St. Lucie seven months ago to escape the orange grove pesticides, the Westroms settled in Ocala. The isolation that comes with living in "safe" conditions is trying, and the Westroms like to travel. Finding a place to stay - a safe place to stay - is a challenge. Which is how Nancy Westrom began the "Safer Travel Directory."

Safer Travel Made Easy

In 1997, the "Safer Travel Directory: A Guide for the Chemically Sensitive Person" was born. Westrom sought safe places to stay for people like her, who need chemical-, spore- and allergen-free lodgings. The result was a short guide listing campgrounds, inns, hotels and "safe" home builders. Listed by state, the guide provides locations, contacts and room details. A star-rating system indicates not how swanky a room is, but how eco-friendly and non-toxic the amenities are. Among the listings are a pair of Enviro-Rooms in the Hilton at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. The rooms are full more often than not. "According to Hilton they're above the 80 percent occupancy rate," says Nick Nardello, CEO of Hilton O'Hare and member of Environmental Technology Solutions Inc. "But that's just two rooms. This is a new concept, and everyone wants to see someone else do it before they commit." ETS transformed two rooms into friendlier, "safer" rooms by rethinking everything from the floors to the ceilings. "We addressed the glues in furniture, the adhesives in wallpaper, the stains in furniture and flooring, the cleaners used in rooms. We got rid of everything that we thought held or collected dust. We got rid of the carpets and drapes, and replaced them with hardwood floors . . . We tried to change the philosophy about how the room is put together." The renovations ran between $8,000 and $9,000 per room; that cost gets passed on to the customer from $20 to $100 beyond the base rate, depending on length of stay and time of year. But does Hilton consider the new rooms a success? "They've ordered a dozen more rooms for this location," Nardello says, "and hotels from Seattle to Ohio are interested in adding Enviro-Rooms."

Permanent Guests

Sometimes, finding a "safe" place means finding a home. That's what Val Gaccione, owner and proprietor of the Pride & Joy Resort discovered. Seeking a place for relief from her MCS, Gaccione plunked down her life savings on two hotels in Melbourne. She gutted the hotels, making them "safe" and let word spread that a vacation spot for sensitives was available. Only, once visitors arrived, they didn't leave. "I tried to find a place where I could feel OK and where people with MCS could come," Gaccione says. "We were full all the time. I hoped the Pride & Joy would provide a vacation for people who had gotten a little better, but immediately people came and then decided to stay." Moving in led to a few nasty fights with "residents" and recently, Gaccione decided to sell the resort after seven years. Such is the nature of entries in the "Safer Travel Guide," some years they exist, other years they are gone. After eight years the guide now stretches about 50 pages, takes advertising and has extended its coverage globally - the new subheading reads "An international guide for the health conscious person." Campgrounds, books and support groups and newsletters receive entries. As do eco-villages and environmental home builders.

Living with Kryptonite

MCS does not have a case definition, meaning it's not recognized by the American Medical Association (AMA), meaning insurance doesn't cover a diagnosis or attempts to live chemical-free. Dr. Albert Robbins, an osteopathic physician practicing in Deerfield Beach, has researched MCS for the bulk of his medical career. Many doctors, he says, still consider MCS a psychological problem, and he blames the interests of powerful chemical companies from keeping recognition of the illness official, despite increasing indications it is a growing problem. "If you go to the organic grocery stores and health food stores, what are you seeing? Perfume-free detergent. Why? Why make foods without preservatives, why make makeup without scents?" he asks. "This is not a minority. There's a minority of people diagnosed with MCS, but the people who suffer its symptoms are not a minority. "There isn't a house in this country that isn't loaded with perfume products. If you're chemically sensitized it's like Superman living with kryptonite." Dr. Robbins says asthma, allergies and toxic shock syndrome are all precursors to MCS, which is the more severe illness involving breakdowns in a person's immune system, nervous system and eventually the alteration of someone's genetic makeup. Avoiding chemicals can only go so far, he says - leaving many people with severe cases of MCS to suffer alone. Yet for those with less severe cases of MCS, the possibility of leading a close-to-normal life still exists. On good days they can shop, spend time outdoors and even attend a movie or play. The more adventurous ones can pick up Nancy Westrom's "Safer Travel Directory" and take a trip - and that can be a welcome break. "Travel makes you happy," Westrom says. "It brings you out of your rut, it reminds you that you're a human being."


When Everyday Chemicals Cause Illness

By Fred A. Bernstein
Published: November 6, 2005
The New York Times

Last year, Mary Lamielle, of Voorhees, N.J., traveled to Washington for a business meeting. Her room, at the Grand Hyatt, "was perfect," she recalled. But when she ventured into the conference area, she experienced vertigo and breathing problems, which she believed were caused by chlorinated water in the hotel's decorative pools. Within a day, she was so sick, she said, that she couldn't attend the session she had organized on healthy housing for people with disabilities.

Ms. Lamielle, the executive director of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, an advocacy group, suffers from what doctors variously label multiple chemical sensitivities or environmental illness, an elusive malady that can make exposure to household and industrial chemicals debilitating. Sufferers tend to purge their environments of products that cause them distress. But it's almost impossible to do that in hotels. For those with the symptoms, Ms. Lamielle said, traveling for pleasure is an oxymoron.

But there are resources that can help.

Nancy Westrom of Ocala, Fla., publishes the Safer Travel Directory - $17, on the Web at www.safertraveldirectory.com - a booklet meant to help the chemically sensitive find lodging in 40 states and a dozen foreign countries promising relative safety from pesticides and other chemicals. But the needs of such travelers vary widely, and Ms. Westrom warns in the front of the book that all lodgings pose "unforeseen risks."

Some of the hotels in the book are run by people with the disease, like Joyce Charney, who, with her husband, Alan, owns the Natural Place, in Deerfield Beach, Fla., www.thenaturalplace.com. The Natural Place offers apartment-style units with organic bedding and filtered water, a block and a half from the ocean. The owners depend on the cooperation of guests, who are "asked to sign a 'quality assurance form' when they check in," said Ms. Charney. On the form, guests promise not to use "cologne, perfume or any scented make-up, soaps, lotions, sun tan products, shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, deodorant, etc."

Kim Bowen, who with her husband, John, owns the Crow Wing Crest Lodge, www.crowwing.com, in Akeley, Minn., said she makes her own organic cleaning products and insect repellants from herbs and essential oils. One of her recent, chemically sensitive guests, Zane Madsen, of Dennison, Minn., said that she was attracted to the hotel's no-pet and no-smoking policies, and its avoidance of products with artificial scents.

A number of hotels in the Safer Travel Directory use air- and water-filtering devices offered by EverGreen Rooms, www.evergreenrooms.com, based in Wilmington, N.C. Other hotels buy cleaning products from Green Suites International, www.greensuites.com, of Upland, Calif.

One focus of Green Suites is sustainability - energy efficiency and use of recycled materials. But some of those materials, Ms. Lamielle said, may harm chemically sensitive people. For example, flooring may be made of recycled rubber bound with chemical adhesives. "They're doing things that are environmentally more sound, but not necessarily more healthy," she said.

Ms. Westrom, who began publishing the Safer Travel guide in 1998, said, "I'm surprised by how many new listings come my way all the time." On her Web site, environmental illness sufferers leave comments that would never appear in a conventional travel guide. "As nontoxic as my own bedroom, " wrote a traveler of the Arbor House, a bed-and-breakfast in Madison, Wis.

But there are also complaints. A hotel guest who believed that her mattress was making her sick demanded to have it covered in heavy foil. And a hotelier, Ms. Westrom said, complained that a guest with multiple chemical sensitivities "was so comfortable in the hotel that she refused to leave."

Ms. Lamielle said that sufferers are best off finding a hotel that they can tolerate, and sticking with it. In Washington, she said, she generally chooses the Capital Hilton, where her linens and towels are washed in baking soda before her arrival. She asks for a room away from renovation work (which often involves chemical compounds) and on a corner, where there are more windows: "Not that the D.C. air is so great, but sometimes it's best to let the inside air dissipate," she said.

Ms. Lamielle said she reserves far in advance whenever possible, and sends multiple e-mails confirming that various measures have been taken. The Capital Hilton doesn't charge for the services she requests, but Ms. Lamielle said she leaves generous tips for the housekeepers.

She added that with a couple of exceptions, hotels have been willing to answer her questions about their use of chemicals. But those instances of a lack of cooperation, she said, illustrate a need to educate the hospitality industry to the requirements of chemically sensitive travelers.

It helps, she added, that those needs overlap the preferences of millions of Americans who don't have the disease. "There are plenty of other people who, when they open the door to a hotel room, don't want to smell perfume," she said.


An Oasis in a Toxic World

A haven for "multiple chemical sensitivity" sufferers is threatened

Fred A. Bernstein
Published: July 10, 2005
THE NEW YORK TIMES

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, www.ciin.org.

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."


Two "Enviro-Rooms" Now available at the Hilton O'Hare, Chicago, IL; - see story below for details. Contact info: Hilton Chicago O'Hare Airport, O’Hare Intl Airport, P.O. Box 66414, Chicago, IL, 60666, USA, Tel: 773-686-8000, Fax: 773-601-2873

There's Clean And Then There's Room 8077

April 28, 2005
BY Gary Wisby
Environment Reporter
e-mail: gwisby@suntimes.com

Walk into Room 8077 at the Hilton O'Hare and sniff a whiff of -- nothing. To J. Peter Lynn, it's the sweet non-smell of success.

"Clean has no odor," he said.

Room 8077 and 8079 next door are what the Hilton general manager claims are the first truly environmentally friendly hotel rooms in the nation. The idea is aimed at the many travelers who have asthma or allergies.

"In the old days, 70 percent of hotels were smoking," Lynn said. "Today it's 20 percent."

Add the fact that 20.3 million Americans are asthmatic and 60 percent of that number have allergies, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it's time for the hospitality industry to try something new.

So Lynn -- whose wife and two kids suffer from asthma -- hired Environmental Technology Systems, a Glen Ellyn firm, to gut the two rooms of anything that might cause a problem.

ETS, whose president, Nicholas Nardella, has two asthmatic kids himself, spent three years researching the assignment. His firm replaced carpets -- "Invented to hide dirt," he said -- with hardwood flooring. Down came vinyl wallpaper, up went paper with thousands of invisible pinpricks to release moisture and prevent mold. Adhesives containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) gave way to potato-starch glue.

Company monitors air for you

Filters in air ducts keep out 95 percent of dust or other particles, and an air purifier makes it 99 percent. Wood furniture stains are VOC-free, as are cleaners, furniture polish and the soap, shampoo, conditioner and lotion you find in the bathroom and maybe take home. All bedding is laundered at 150 degrees with detergents that are free of ammonia and bleach.

A wall monitor records temperature, carbon dioxide and monoxide, humidity and VOCs. It sends an e-mail to a company in Minnesota that immediately lets the Hilton know if readings are troublesome. All traces of cologne, hair spray or cat hair are banished before the next guest arrives.

Lynn and Nardella wouldn't say what it cost. "I don't want the other guys -- the Marriotts, the Hyatts -- to know too much," Lynn said.

The rooms opened a week ago. Customers will be asked how much more they would pay to stay in them. If reception is good after a month, Lynn will talk to corporate headquarters about expanding. He'd like to convert 300 of his Hilton's 858 rooms by next spring, and want the practice to spread systemwide, including the Embassy Suites, Doubletree and Hampton Inn chains that Hilton owns.

"I'm hopeful we've wakened a sleeping giant," Lynn said. And he's not talking about room service.

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