In the middle of nowhere, a Promised Land

A community with environmental sensitivities makes a home in Arizona’s desert.

Most tourists don’t linger in Snowflake, Arizona, unless they are Latter-day Saints who have come to visit or be sealed in the temple. The town is home to fewer than 6,000 people, and its economic engines are primarily agricultural; there’s a pig farm, for example, and a tomato grower. But about seven miles east in the sagebrush desert, there’s a group of people who came here because they saw it as their “last, best place” — a refuge for those who cannot handle the constant onslaught of non-organic chemicals and electromagnetic fields of modern life. I drove out there this spring, through Snowflake, down a dirt county road. Night had fallen by the time I arrived at the modest house of Susie Molloy, who serves as a kind of welcoming committee for the neighborhood and had volunteered to show me around.

 

I turned off the car, and the desert stillness settled over me, no sounds but the creaking of the car door and the wind whipping through a chain-link fence, billowing my T-shirt. Molloy — a tiny, crop-haired 66-year-old  who gives off a sense of bristling intelligence — greeted me at the door. She had already asked me to forgo shampoo and lotion for a couple of days before I arrived, and wear smoke-free clothes. Even so, she initially gave me a wide berth, maybe 10 feet. That’s because she, along with a few dozen nearby residents, has severe chemical sensitivities, or what they call “environmental illness” or EI. We settled in a couple of chairs in her kitchen-bedroom area, and she offered me a bowl of chicken soup. It’s not easy to live here, she said, but it beats the alternative. “Sometimes people get here and say ‘I can actually breathe and walk around here, but I’m so lonely I could die.’ ”

Molloy’s ready laughter is contagious, but it’s also a survival mechanism. She suffers from migraines, nausea and fatigue and has trouble enunciating words, when she’s exposed to everyday chemicals the rest of us either don’t notice or aren’t affected by.

She says that even the vestiges of those chemicals on me could affect her. I showered with just water and baking soda, at her request, and she suggested I camp in her backyard, a rocky, gravelly, shrubby area with simple but careful landscaping. I fell asleep to the yips and yowls of desert coyotes that night. I wondered whether all the stillness out here, the lack of noise pollution or light pollution, was comforting, disquieting, or both.

  • Susie Molloy self-identifies as having severe chemical sensitivity or Environmental Illness. She lives in a remote area where electro-magnetic radiation is minimal, which helps reduce her symptoms.

    Brooke Warren
  • Susie Molloy feeds her dog, Blackie, who is the only pet dog in this EI community. Her walls are lined with foil, which helps block electromagnetic radiation.

    Brooke Warren
  • State-funded housing units in the neighborhood east of Snowflake, Arizona.

    Tay Wiles
  • Susie Molloy's house in the first light of the morning.

    Brooke Warren

There’s no consensus in the medical community about EI or what might cause the illness. Many of those who have it believe it begins with an intense chemical exposure. For Molloy, that might have been the heavy doses of pesticides — including methyl iodide — that she was exposed to in northern Oregon where as a child she harvested beans and strawberries.

She worked the fields to pay for school clothes, as all the local kids did. “It was the heyday of pesticides in Oregon,” she told me. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA, was not established until 1971, so there were few regulations in those days. The kids would run down to the river at lunchtime to cool off, which at least rinsed away some of the residue on their bodies. 

Years later, when Molloy went to college in Oakland, California, in the mid-1960s, she plugged into a growing public awareness, spurred on by literature like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that pesticides could be harmful to human health. Yet it seemed like a distant threat, much like climate change is for many people today, she told me. “So mostly I just ignored it.”

But about the time Molloy turned 31, everything changed. “All of a sudden I couldn’t touch things, eat things, breathe things. It was a response to something bigger than I was, that was sort of bullying me into being this very peculiar person. It was as though all the world had become toxic.” A truck chugging outside her apartment, a neighbor spraying herbicide on roses, the electromagnetic emissions from telephone wires – all seemed to cause major disruptions to her health and well-being. She struggled with it for years.

In 1995, when Molloy was 46, her  father helped her purchase some property east of Snowflake, where the air was clean and telephone wires were sparse. Twenty years later, Molloy is the unofficial mayor of one of the emptiest towns in America, where she and others like her have chosen to live, deliberately isolating themselves from the world.

 

 

The next day at noon, Molloy and I jumped into her 1999 Rav4 to visit one of her friends about six miles north. We pulled up a dusty driveway, passing a cow skull stuck on a fence. Steen Hviid, a Danish citizen who's been in the U.S. for decades, was on his porch, ready to greet us. Tall and bright-eyed, he was wearing sun-protective clothing, wrap-around shades and a wide-brimmed outdoors hat. He has an extreme intolerance to sunlight. And noise. He came here to Snowflake seven years ago in large part because it’s one of the quietest regions in the country; before that he lived in western Arizona. “Arizona was like the Promised Land kind of thing,” he told me, as we sat at a metal table on his small cement porch.

Hviid experienced severe nausea and other symptoms on a regular basis for years before coming here. And he still does when he has to go into town or is exposed to chemicals in some other way, like the exhaust from a passing car or an overly perfumed visitor. To help describe how he feels, he asked me to lightly rap my fingertips on my forearm. Now imagine that feeling all over your body, he said, like bumblebees under your skin — that’s what exposure to electromagnetic radiation can be like to him. He says electro-magnetic fields and certain non-organic chemicals make him sick. Or, he said, referring to a Scientific American article he’d recently read about the dangers of artificial sweeteners, it could just be the Diet Coke he used to drink. He was half-kidding about the soda, but not about not the ambiguity he lives with: “We really just don’t know.”

Hviid is especially sensitive to ink fumes. Nevertheless, he’s an avid reader. In his out building, half a dozen photocopied articles were clothes-pinned to a line, like wet photographs straight out of developer. And several magazines were laid open on a table. He lets a magazine off-gas for 24 hours before reading a page, turning to the next, and re-hanging it. He’s always in the middle of multiple stories at once: Scientific American, Mother Jones, High Country News, Time and Ieee Xplore.

“We’re the lucky ones here,” Hviid said before Molloy and I left. To people with environmental sensitivities who are stuck in cities full of pollutants and petroleum products, unable to escape, a place like this seems like nirvana.

  • Steen Hviid in his out building where he hangs pages and lays books and magazines out to off-gas for 24 hours before reading each day. Hviid wears the mask pictured here to shield him from chemical exposures.

    Brooke Warren
  • Steen Hviid shuts the door to his 1984 Mercedes that has been retrofitted with a solar panel.

    Brooke Warren
  • Steen Hviid reads books through a plastic box, using the traction of pencil erasers to turn pages, since he has high sensitivity to ink fumes.

    Brooke Warren

When the term “environmental illness” first gained currency in the ‘80s, most doctors wrote it off as strictly psychological. How could everyday chemical products like toothpaste or wallpaper adhesives make someone horribly ill? Today, the American Medical Association does not fully recognize the condition, due to a lack of evidence. The 1991 subcommittee report on multiple chemical sensitivity still serves as the association's stance on the subject: 

"Clinical ecologists report that significant numbers of people have derangements in their immune system that markedly increase their sensitivity to low levels of substances innocuous to normal people in the environment either inhaled or ingested as liquids, foods or drugs.... The fact that the diagnostic tests and therapy recommended by clinical ecologists are largely unproven by controlled clinical studies does not necessarily establish the lack of scientific validity. Well-controlled studies could validate and provide a scientific basis for many of the test and therapies associated with multiple chemical sensitivities."

 The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America describes severe chemical sensitivities as a “variety of vague and hard-to-pinpoint symptoms experienced by an undetermined, but possibly sizable, number of adults and children.”

Despite the fringe element of EI, a handful of medical doctors around the country actively look for resources to treat patients who say they have it. A guru of sorts, though he’s received flak from in and outside the EI community for his experimental methods, Dr. William Rea in Dallas, Texas, has provided EI treatment for decades. Doctors in Massachusetts, Santa Fe and upstate New York have also become known for their EI research. This past May, 195 scientists called on the World Health Organization, United Nations and national governments for better electro-magnetic field regulations. But the pervasiveness of chemical use and wireless technology isn’t likely to change any time soon.

Low noise levels, clean air, clean water, a dry climate (to avoid mold), and little or no cell service enable a relatively stable quality of life for people with EI. Molloy’s neighborhood meets these requirements, except for the water, which she uses two filters on. It has served as a safe haven for people who can’t live anywhere else, or who have gone broke paying medical bills for treatments that don’t work. But places like Snowflake are by no means a panacea for everyone with chemical sensitivities; individuals react differently to the community’s environment and residences, and some find little relief.      

Molloy and her neighbors say there’s a growing number of people with EI, many of them hunkered down in open spaces in Western states. There are informal EI neighborhoods in other places in Arizona, Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, and Texas. Molloy worked for years with the Arizona Department of Housing to get four small housing units built out here. Each house goes for $300 to $600 a month, depending on the tenant’s income, and they’re almost always occupied. Molloy gets several calls a week from people who say they have chemical sensitivities and want to move here. She has to turn most of them down, because there’s no space in the housing units.With energy development, human communities and cell towers continuing to spread, the search for EI-friendly places isn’t getting any easier. And for those who have such sensitivities, daily life can be hard enough, let alone figuring out a way to start over. 

To make life work here, many people become hackers. “I can fix anything with a crowbar,” Molloy has been known to say. “You can’t get anything from a doctor,” a neighbor griped to me, “you have to figure it out yourself.” Many people in the neighborhood use baking soda for laundry detergent and body wash and don’t have computers or cell phones. Four of them drive 1984 Mercedes sedans with gutted electrical systems and solar panels on the roof. They hang new clothes outside for weeks or months at a time to off-gas before wearing them. Homes are constructed without toxic adhesives or carpet and sealed with sheets of tinfoil to block electromagnetic waves.

In Molloy’s gravel driveway, I noticed an old instant coffee jar with what looked like a chunk of cement inside. Deb Schmeltzer, a woman who’d been camping outside Molloy’s place for a while, explained that it’s a non-toxic but highly insulating type of cement that may be useful to the EI community in building homes. She knows of only one company, in Florida, that produces it. “I could probably mortar the blocks myself,” she said with a smile.

  • Deb Schmeltzer stands near her Nissan truck, where she's been living and sleeping for the past seven months in Molloy's driveway.

    Brooke Warren
  • Deb Schmeltzer hangs her sleeping bag to air out during the day.

    Brooke Warren
  • During a day visiting with other residents in the community, Deb Schmeltzer relaxes in the shade, willing a headache to go away.

    Brooke Warren

Molloy often lets newcomers, like Schmeltzer, camp in her driveway until they can find a better arrangement. At 54, Schmeltzer is waif-like, with blond hair and blue eyes, and is the kind of person you’d want with you in the Apocalypse: calm and direct. For the past seven months, she’d been living in her Nissan truck at Molloy’s. Like Molloy, she thinks the seeds of her EI may have been planted early. Schmeltzer grew up in Grand Haven, Michigan, fishing in the lake and playing softball and basketball — and breathing air pollution blowing in from Minneapolis and Wisconsin. As an adult, Schmeltzer worked as an engineer in South Bend, Indiana, assessing mechanical failures in aircraft brakes and field controls. Her office was next to a building where carbon fiber epoxy brakes were produced, the exhaust stacks from which were stationed beside her office’s ventilation system.

Schmeltzer said she wonders how much trichloroethylene, acetone, methyl ethyl ketone and other fumes she and her colleagues were breathing at work. “When you’re younger, you’re taught that basically everything’s harmless. It was just probably negligence on my part for not checking into some of this stuff. But everybody else is working, so you just don’t even think, until you start having to deal with it.”

Schmeltzer worked there for eight years without major health problems. Then she got pregnant. Then her office underwent a remodel, and she had to work in a portable building for a while that had formaldehyde in it. The combination overwhelmed her system, she said, and she began to acquire sensitivities. She didn’t return to work after having her daughter. Her husband, an electrical engineer, began to believe she was mentally ill. Her reactions to common household products and FDA- and EPA-approved chemicals, just seemed too extreme. Within a few years, he had filed for divorce, and Schmeltzer was on a quest to become healthy again. That was 25 years ago, and she’s still searching.

  • Bruce, an electrical engineer and resident of the community east of Snowflake, stands in his shop.

    Brooke Warren
  • Bruce has built a seal around his gas stove, in order to protect himself from the fumes.

    Brooke Warren
  • Bruce created a system that back projects his computer, which is located outside his house, to a screen inside. He has also retrofitted the keyboard and mouse in order to not emit electromagnetic radiation.

    Brooke Warren
  • Molloy walks towards Bruce's house in the remote Arizona desert outside of Snowflake.

    Brooke Warren

If there were an ultimate hacker in the east Snowflake neighborhood, it would be Bruce. (He asked that he be identified by his first name only.) Now 58, Bruce was 29 and an electrical engineer working on flight simulation technologies in Mesa, Arizona, when he became chemically sensitive. Over the past 25 years, he’s been experimenting with building EI-friendly homes out here. He does all the designing and some of the physical building himself. But with full-blown multiple sclerosis, remissive epilepsy and EI, he’s slowing down.

Bruce's house, a 15-minute drive from Molloy’s, sits in a gentle indentation in the sandy, rolling landscape to shield it from cell-tower emissions. “I miss being able to enjoy nature,” he told me as we toured his property. “Nature now comes with a cell tower. Sons of bitches.”

He designs and builds things that residents out here need. On his own place, Bruce originals include: An air-sealed foyer, a stove surrounded by glass and stainless steel panels like a telephone booth, appliances modified to run off direct current instead of alternating current, a refrigerator that makes no noise and emits no electromagnetic radiation, and power tools that he’s modified to be pneumatic instead of electrically run. “It helps to be an R&D engineer when you’re confronted with this illness,” he said.

To communicate with the outside world, Bruce has had to get creative. He keeps a flip phone in a box far up the slope of a hillside, fiber-optic-cabled to an analog circuit board in his house, and he’s rigged it so he can dial and operate his remote phone by voice control. His home, he says, “has been a bootstrap project of epic proportions.”

Before I left his place, he led me up a small hill to the south to see three new buildings under construction several hundred yards below. With help from a couple of outsiders, Bruce was building a large shop for further experimentation with EI-friendly creations, plus a storage shed and a shed for a generator. A 30-something EI couple from Tennessee had recently moved into the storage shed while they waited for their own house to be built, and the generator shed was temporarily occupied by an EI migrant from North Carolina.

As we talked, Bruce developed a headache. The day had taken its toll. (This property) is not quite good enough for me. But there’s no place left.” When I asked him about his long-term future, he said it can get dark. “You have to understand there is no nursing home that I can be in.” He told me of an elderly woman he knew with EI who finally agreed to a nursing home, and it made her even sicker. “She went home after two weeks and then suicided. Not out of depression, but out of, like, ‘well, I’m done.’ ”

For Bruce, his EI has created or exacerbated liver failure, thyroiditis, headaches and cognitive impairment; he struggles to process people’s voices to understand what they are saying. But his natural determination still comes through: “I can’t stop being myself, so I can’t stop trying. We all deal with whatever is on our plate as well as we can. But I’ll be relieved when this is all over.”

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News.