Chemical Sensitivity - My Personal Experience
By Bill Groninga, Top Gun Refinish Equipment
As someone who has been sensitized from the chemicals used in the automotive repair industry, I will share my journey beginning with the symptoms that I have experienced and continue to experience, along with the struggles, both physically and financially. As I look back in time, the sensitization was a process over a five to six year period, not an immediate reaction to the chemicals, but a gradual process. A list of symptoms along with the order in which I experienced them are as follows:
- Compromised Immune System – I am one who always ate healthy, worked out and drank a gallon of water per day. I would catch a cold maybe once or twice per year. Then suddenly one year, I was on a constant cycle of colds and flus. I supplemented with vitamin C which helped to a point, but my immune system was still compromised with no idea why.
- Shortness of Breath – As I mentioned, I worked out four to five days per week with cardio and the majority, resistance training. We had been very busy at the shop (which I owned) so I was neglecting my work outs for approximately four to six months. One day I was walking up an incline of 30 degrees for approximately 80 feet and noticed that I was very winded, how could this be, I take care of myself? I thought it was because of the lack of exercise, but over time realized this was not the case. The consistent shortness of breath would also affect my ability to resume a daily workout routine.
- Digestive Issues – Digesting foods that were never a problem before, became an issue. Constipation was a consistent battle, no matter what the professionals suggested, there was no change. Remember, many of our foods are filled with chemicals.
- Depression – There were a few times that I experienced depression so severe that I wanted to crawl into a corner and die, even though I had always been an upbeat and positive person. This truly makes me feel for those dealing with depression daily. I am thankful this only happened three times, but to this day I will experience lighter forms of depression if I am exposed to certain chemicals.
- Sleep Issues – I would only get 4 hours of sleep per night on average.
- Dizziness – Lightheaded to the point of passing out, which happened a couple of times.
- Chest Pain
- Flu Like Symptoms – This was the end all. Body aches that push deep to the bone, skin tingling sensations all over my body and severe weakness, but no fever at all. I reached a point where I struggled to lift ten pounds, yes, ten pounds. I was like this for a two week stretch as all I could do is lay my head on my desk and rest. I went to the doctor as to which when they gave me a complete checkup, the diagnosis was that I was fine, but I was not fine.
These were the symptoms, now I will explain more of this journey. The compromised immune system, shortness of breath and digestive issues continued over the course of five to six years until I sold my business to totally remove myself from the collision industry environment. The flu like symptoms came on during the last two years of exposure. After months of trying to figure out what was going on, I remember walking in front of my paint booth and noticed a piece of tape on the floor, as I reached down to pick up the tape I actually heard a voice whisper in my ear the word “Isocyanates”. Many will say “weird” or worse, but it happened and I know the truth. I immediately went to my office to research isocyanates. Yes, we all hear about them but never really know about them and take them seriously because we just go, work hard and never think about it. As I was researching, I stumbled upon a blog forum that many former body techs were sharing their experience with chemical sensitivity. These former techs had been tested for lyme disease, cancer, fibromyalgia and many more other diseases spending tens of thousands of dollars trying to diagnose their condition. As I was reading, many of these former techs mentioned to watch how the body would feel after a long weekend away from the shop. Sure enough, if I was away from the shop for three to four days, I was feeling much better, but when I returned, I would experience the flu like symptoms once again. This was when I realized that I had to remove myself from the environment. I had reached the point that if my help would walk into my office, just the fumes on their clothes would give me a reaction (which continues to this day, five years later). The last month of owning my business was the worst, my help was done (a partnership was buying the business as to why the help went elsewhere), but the sale was delayed for a month. So, as it would happen, I had three large collision jobs come into the shop as to which I had to do all the repairs myself. Although I did have a fresh air system for painting at this point, just the fumes in the shop made me extremely ill even though it was summer and all the overhead doors were open. The day I signed the papers to sell the business, I was very lightheaded, could barely comprehend simple figures and struggled to stand as I was so weak. It would take three months of resting at home (after the sale) before I felt any relief.
Now to the cause of my chemical sensitivity issue. I have painted on over 4500 vehicles, possibly closer to 5000 over the course of my 30 year career. I had always used the disposable respirators that many of us know and use. I was never told (that I remember), never read the fine print on the bag or researched how often these disposable masks are to be replaced. These respirators must be replaced every 16-40 hours of spray time, depending on the condition of the spraying environment (more fog, replace at 16 hours, less fog, replace at 30-40 hours), I did not replace them as I should, which is one cause of my condition. Also, I have noticed myself and many painters will have overspray lines above the mask, under the eyes, after spraying paint. This reveals that the mask is not properly sealed which causes paint and fumes to be directly inhaled. The following list includes contributing factors for contracting chemical sensitivity:
- Not replacing disposable paint mask as specified
- Not utilizing a Supplied Air Respirator System, most important piece of equipment anyone should own, trust me I know!
- Not utilizing paint suits and rubber gloves (fumes linger on clothing for hours)
- Lack of proper exhaust in paint booth and paint room, not changing exhaust filters when needed or no paint booth or mixing room at all (painting in the shop)
- Lack of proper ventilation in shop area
- Painting and priming small areas with no mask (yes, we all have done it)
- Lack of dustless sanding equipment or sanding with no mask
Now the financial cost of my journey. Factoring my last full year as a business owner, I can honestly say that this condition has cost me well over $400,000 in wages alone over the course of the last five years, not to mention doctor bills that most would incur.
With a chemical sensitivity condition, finding a job is next to impossible. Chemicals are everywhere, grocery stores (floor cleaners, bleach), hardware stores (paint, floor cleaners), manufacturing plants (floor cleaners, paint, oils, forklift fumes), food processing plants (cleaners, disinfecting supplies) and the list goes on. Many have said “get on social security disability”, I myself do not want to depend on the government for my income, so have never pursued it, which by my understanding is hard to get in the first place with this condition. Most “safe” office jobs require a degree, or at a minimum, proficiency with Microsoft Office products, so schooling will be a necessity for many to find a new career. Looking back, I can see the steps that I should have taken to prevent this. This article is meant to bring awareness and to assist others in preventing the same. Investing in preventative equipment is a small price to pay when it comes to chemical sensitivity and the possibility of cancer and the toll it takes on a body. I recently lost my dad to a six year long battle with cancer and do not want to see anyone else have to go through what he did.
I truly believe the auto body/collision industry is a great place to own a career. I miss painting and repairing vehicles everyday, it was truly a passion of mine as many will agree. We definitely need more techs in this industry. This article is not to discourage or to scare anyone from the industry, but to encourage safety in the workplace for everyone’s present and future health. Every job will have its hazards, but prevention is key.
How many of us have said or will one day say -
“If only, I had…”