Cassandras Rather than Canaries

As a metaphor explaining the far-reaching consequences for those of us with environmental health conditions, the Canary in the Coal Mine works: Miners used to take caged canaries along with them down into the coal mines because, when exposed to toxic and noxious gases from the coal, canaries are guaranteed to suffer ill health effects, dying far sooner than their human carers ever would. If a canary carked it or became sick or distressed, it was a sign to be heeded—a prophetic warning: the miners needed to get the hell out. (We who’re sensitive to chemicals are the canaries; the rest of you who’re reading this are the miners. Welcome.)


More from the Grammarist on actual canaries in coal mines:

The practice was phased out, at least in the U.S. and the U.K., by the late 20th century, but the phrase canary in the coal mine lives as a metaphor for any warning of serious danger to come. The canary is not prophetic until it is brought in the coalmine, so the metaphor works especially well if the prophetic thing is small, innocent, and not prophetic under normal circumstances.

The metaphor weaves for us a rich tapestry clearly showing the predicament our world is in with more and more people becoming chemically sensitive. A yellow canary is often used symbolically for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) (also known, in some parts of the world, as Environmental Illness (EI)). As much as I like these birds, I’d much rather share a comparison to an eagle or a phoenix, a cockatiel even, because symbolically, canaries carry connotations of fragility and weakness. But that’s the point; isn’t it? And, often, these birds are kept locked up in cages: there are many chemically sensitive people who are forced to imprison themselves to avoid—or cut back on—chemical exposures. As I write this, housebound, it’s uncomfortable having a bird that’s often kept in a cage represent me (and my chemically sensitive brothers and sisters). Paradoxically, at the same time, it’s kinship I feel whenever I see an image of a canary on someone’s website or social media page.

On the whole, the canary, as a symbol, and the Canary in the Coalmine, as a metaphor, work well together to get people to understand our predicament. But does this metaphor actually fit the reality of our situation?

In 2001, Gillian McCarthy, who has experienced an extremely serious case of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and, therefore, is someone who should absolutely be listened to, authored a piece titled, Canaries or Cassandras?, published over at MCS Aware. She points out the missing element in this Canary in the Coalmine caper: the canaries’ warnings were headed! 

Often/sometimes, ours (the people who are chemically sensitive) are ignored or we can be told we are mentally ill/being difficult/or neurotic.


What? My Illness is Psychogenic?


More from McCarthy:

It is my contention that MCS victims are not the “Canaries‟; they are the “Cassandras‟ of the 20th/21st Century. When coal miners‟ canaries reacted to carbon monoxide, the miners didn’t abuse them, tell them they were psychiatrically ill or refuse them proper food and shelter; they took notice and acted accordingly!

Cassandra, on the other hand, was the daughter of King Priam of Troy. She was endowed by the god Apollo with the true gift of prophesy, but because she would not let him have his “wicked way‟ with her, he then condemned her prophesies to eternal disbelief. She correctly predicted the Wooden Horse of Troy and was “stoned‟ by the people of Troy for her trouble. This “shoot the messenger” trait is much in evidence amongst the medical*, scientific* “flat earthers” as well as the vested interests* who gleefully fuel and manipulate their ill-informed and out-dated misinformation* in an attempt to discredit MCS as a diagnosis, the doctors who diagnose and treat it and, disgracefully, the often very poorly patients whose lives have been devastated by the condition.

Personally, I’ve had my own experiences where I’ve not been believed. By someone who I was close to. I guess it was just too inconvenient to accommodate my illness… ? Even just this year, I had a visit to a doctor, an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist, who told me that he doesn’t believe my condition exists, “Those people who say they have MCS… it’s all psychogenic”, he said while gesturing across the room as if talking about a group of invisible people sitting there. Talk about people having screwed up belief systems!(You know, I didn’t say to this doctor that I had MCS, as my diagnosis is inhalant allergies with chemical sensitivities, however, due to needing to undergo a medical procedure, I did give him the MCS Hospital Guidelines!)

Ergo, 98% of my visits to specialists and the like have been positive; I’ve always felt believed and accommodated (in fact, until now, I’d never considered the idea of not being believed!). However, because I’ve had that experience with the ENT, I now know what evil can lurk behind a smile and a white coat.

I even know where the mythology of MCS and psychogenic theory stems from: In 1998, Stephen Barrett MD, a psychiatrist who never even passed the bar exam and author of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Spurious Diagnosis, and Ronald Gots, a paid specialist in the areas of litigation, regulation, environmental/occupational medicine, indoor environmental matters, toxicology (and provider of scientific/medical support in individual tort and mass tort claims, involving a range of biological and chemical agents, as well as pharmaceuticals) cowrote the book, Chemical Sensitivity: The Truth About Environmental Illnessfull of the kind of psychogenic theories that form the basis for modern day discrimination and alienation of chemically sensitive people today.

By spreading misinformation on MCS, Gots, Barrett (and another flat-earther, Herman Staudenmayer) have done an enormous disservice to a multitude of chemically sensitive and possibly disabled individuals everywhere.

More from author of The Best Science Money Can Buy, Will Moredock, on The Environmental Illness Resource (EiR):

To fight its PR wars, the chemical industry created something called the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute, which seems to be modeled after the Tobacco Research Institute. TRI has been pumping out misinformation and questionable data for decades, trying to keep the waters muddied on the health effects of smoking. Funded by such corporate giants as DowElanco, Proctor & Gamble and Monsanto, ESRI is headed by Dr. Ronald Gots, who also runs the National Medical Advisory Service, which provides expert witnesses to defend chemical corporations in tort lawsuits.


Is this Stephen Barret from Quackwatch?

This is not okay with me; still, I’m ready to fight the good fight. But from a historical perspective, and, as McCarthy points out, look at what chemically sensitive people had (and still have) to live through—even just fifteen years ago, back when she wrote this:

MCS is truly a Cassandra Syndrome—and ironically, more than one seriously ill sufferer has had stones thrown at their homes – myself included. All the MCS sufferers I know, young or old, totally crippled or moderately functional, have had varying degrees of abuse and derision thrown at them—rather like lepers in the Dark Ages and beyond. Why? MCS isn’t catching—(although family members and nurses have been made ill by the sweat of detoxing patients—by direct contact).

Clearly the authorities ignore/deride/abuse sufferers:

a) to try and avoid spending money in the short term, although the cost of increasingly disabled sufferers kept ill by ignorant, culpable neglect in the long term is rising,

b) because of nebulous fears that if they acknowledge the condition, somebody might sue them—although all the sufferers I know are more interested in getting treatment and controlling their illness, but are more likely to sue if pushed into a corner by the passive/aggressive neglect of those authorities,

c) because some authorities (and some individuals within those authorities) are manifestly influenced, knowingly or unknowingly, by vested interests likely to be damaged by any acknowledgement of its reality and must therefore be avoided at all costs. The trouble is, the cost may be relative peanuts to the vested interests, but it is costing lives, livelihoods and lifestyle of the sufferers and their families and connections.

Why do members of the public, GPs, neighbours, even fellow religious groups/church members and some family members also match this stance—like the good, but misguided, citizens of Troy, often in a shockingly aggressive or at best, dismissive and hurtful way. These same people would not dream of saying to a diabetic (who has a much more simple condition to manage) “what you need is a big box of chocolates”, will readily say to a desperately hungry MCS sufferer miserably existing on millet or buckwheat because that’s all they can keep down,—“what you need is a damn good meal”. If only!

Why did the people of Troy stone the very person who warned them of danger? Fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the implications for them, fear of the consequences, et al. This problem is here, but is seen as being too big to “get their heads round” and therefore goes unacknowledged. People feel cornered and confused and in their fear and ignorance they lash out. They blame the victims. Sadly, they may soon join the victims, if they have not already unknowingly have done so—with their as yet “unconnected” string of end-organ dis-eases*.

McCarthy shares with us some of her own personal story:

I am one person who has been comprehensively lashed out at since I was first (organo chlorine) poisoned in 1972 and multiply organo phosphate poisoned from 1974 onwards and subsequently diagnosed with MCS in 1983, after years of desperate health problems and many mystified doctors. I am not an “isolated case”*. I am frequently told I am one of the “worst affected” sufferers living (although my existence can hardly be said to be called living).

My story, and that of the many other “allegedly” isolated cases of MCS is a salutary reminder that “there but for the Grace of God…”. The story of those who have lashed out at me, to continue the Biblical allusion, is graphically encapsulated by “scorners delight in their scorning and fools hate knowledge” (Ecclesiastes 1.18).

You too could lose your career, your health, your home, your car, your treasured possessions, your lifestyle, and like some sufferers, your marriage, your children in to Care, indeed your very life—if you are struck down by MCS and consigned to the “mercy” (sic) of the British Medical Establishment and Authorities and “Care” and Housing Authorities, once you have exhausted your own financial resources—triggered because an error is made treating your office for cockroaches, or you get sprayed walking your dog past a field, or you habitually lick your golf tees on a golf course sprayed with Ops, or joyfully move into a new home which has been furnished with MDF furniture and carpets treated with toxic chemicals—just after a dose of flu has compromised your immune system. One sufferer I know has been badly affected since she lay in a pool of diesel following a motor accident, until she could be cut from the wreckage. It can be that simple—it could happen to you, like other sufferers, through no fault of your own!

A recent sycophantic review of a book debunking Green Issues in a national Sunday newspaper sneeringly referred to environmentalists as “environmental Cassandras” – erroneously forgetting that the trouble with the much maligned Cassandra is—she was always right!! (I hate to tell you this…)


Enter the Trojan horse (my favourite piece  of writing by McCarthy):

The insidious and cumulative incursion of harmful, often xenobiotic chemicals in entirely unresearched and potentially chemically synergistic culminations, could be the 21st century Wooden Horse that stealthily brings artificially created “improvements” under the cloak of industry-led consumerism and advertising. This conceals a rampaging horde of trouble for those it purports to shield and benefit.

By listening to naysayers while ignoring the modern day Cassandras (and their prophetism) and the canaries (and their choking on pollution and petroleum byproducts) we run the risk of predicting, while simultaneously ignoring, our own impending demise.

McCarthy leaves us with:

This new millennium is the time for a new beginning, new attitudes, new perspectives and approaches and a new positive principle of humanity towards sufferers, whose condition doctors don‟t always comprehend – but that does not mean they should be denigrated, demeaned and disbelieved because they do not “fit‟ any of the ailments for which the doctors have been trained. We pride ourselves on our kindness to animals, now it is time to be kind and take note of your Canaries before you too are poisoned and brought to your knees.



You can read the rest of McCarthy’s ‘Canaries or Cassandras’, here

Post, written by Michellina van Loder from the blog The Labyrinth and Finding My Way Out, may be reprinted and distributed freely. Please reblog…


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Myths and Facts About Chemical Sensitivity

Michellina Van Loder is a Professional Writer, Journalist and Blogger. This is where she shares her tales about trail blazing her way out of the Labyrinth of Chemical Sensitivities and Mould. This is also where you will find the latest Research on related topics.

About Michellina van Loder


  1. SO true! Can very much relate to wanting to be an eagle rather than a canary. I, too, have not heard of anyone with MCS who HASN’T experienced disbelief, rejection, abuse (including myself). I’m grateful for the internet where we can connect and help each other. Thank you for this article.

  2. Wonderful article. Thanks.

Information, products and views presented by guest bloggers @The Labyrinth are not necessarily the same as those held by this blog's author, Michellina van Loder. Reviews are my own personal opinions (unless stated otherwise); and satire is used throughout personal posts. Any health topics discussed are not to be taken as medical advice. Seek out medical attention if needed and do your own research; however, you're welcome to use mine as a start.
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