Toronto

Toronto man is so sensitive to his surroundings he has trouble living indoors

A Toronto man says his chemical sensitivities are so severe that he's now forced to live on the street. Oliver Zhang, an IT professional who CBC Toronto originally spoke with last December, says he has had to move 70 times in the past three years.

Former IT professional has had 70 homes in 3 years

Oliver Zhang was forced to leave his most recent room, which was needed for other clients. (Grant Linton/CBC)

A Toronto man says his chemical sensitivities are so severe that he's now forced to live on the street.

Oliver Zhang, an IT professional who CBC Toronto originally spoke with last December, says he has had to move 70 times in the past three years.

He's sensitive to a long list of common indoor chemicals and scents; exposure to them causes severe reactions — stomach aches, chest tightness and lower pelvic discomfort.

"I feel extremely worried," he told CBC Toronto last week, just days before he was due to leave his most recent lodging at the Gerstein Crisis Centre.

He isn't alone.

Statistics show more than 800,000 people had the disorder — known as multiple chemical sensitivities/environmental sensitivities (MCS/ES) — across Canada in 2010, the most recent year that figures are available. More than a quarter of a million people in Ontario had MCS/ES that year. 

"It could definitely put my life at high risk," Zhang said.

"I don't want to have nowhere to go. I want peace and calm."

In most indoor environments, Zhang says a face mask helps to block his exposure to some of the chemicals he's sensitive to. (Grant Linton/CBC)

He had been staying at Gerstein, on Bloor Street West near Dufferin Street, since December at the recommendation of Women's College Hospital's environmental health clinic, where he is being treated.

It's unclear to Zhang and his doctor why that facility was tolerable to him. But beds at the Gerstein centre are in demand.

It serves people "who are in crisis due to mental health ... or substance use issues," according to an email from the centre's director.

He was allowed to stay on an emergency basis, but last week he was told he had to leave by noon on April 15.

Case workers 'really creative'

The city's director of homelessness initiatives, Gord Tanner, said Monday the city is seeing more cases like Zhang's, and is working to find innovative ways to house people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

"The case workers have been really creative in finding different types of solutions," he said Monday, "whether it's finding somebody else who might be in that same circumstance and have a house that is much more sensitive to these issues than a general apartment one might find."

Zhang has been so hard to house because even when he does find a place that seems suitable, his body eventually begins to react to the new surroundings.

Triggered by common chemicals

"When the triggers come, I have to move again," he told CBC Toronto. "Your life's just totally destroyed."

His triggers are common indoor chemicals and the scents that many of us take for granted:  carpet deodorizers, air fresheners and even paint.

Within two hours of exposure, he says, he's in unbearable pain from stomach aches to tightness in the chest and lower pelvic discomfort,  and he must leave.

'I almost do not have a life'

Even being inside a hospital is painful.

In December, he had a meeting with administrators at the Gerstein facility, who reluctantly agreed to let him sleep there temporarily. 

The strain of his fruitless search for a suitable, chemical-free home is plain in his demeanour. He speaks jerkily and is easily distracted.

"I almost do not have a life," he told CBC Toronto in December.

"I couldn't enjoy [time with] with my mother; taking good care of my kid ... For the past three years, I couldn't take him indoor swimming, or see his indoor [piano] performances."

Treatments are limited

The Environmental Health Clinic at Women's College Hospital in Toronto specializes in treating people with MCS/ES. But those treatments are limited, according to Dr. Lynn Marshall, who has been seeing Zhang for about a year.

Marshall says her goal is to "teach him how to avoid the things that really trigger his symptoms," because that's the first step toward recovery. But it can be a long road, she says.

"We can't say how long it will take any individual."

Federal statistics show 800,500 people were diagnosed with MCS countrywide in 2010, up by 13.5 per cent from 2005.

In Ontario alone, there were 292,700 people diagnosed with MCS by a health care professional in 2010, Marshall says.

Dr. Lynn Marshall has been treating Zhang for about a year. She tries to help him cope with his symptoms and avoid triggers. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

This province's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care launched a task force on environmental health in 2016. Its job is to find new ways to treat people with MCS/ES.

The ministry wouldn't speak with CBC Toronto, but in an emailed statement in December, ministry spokesperson David Jensen said that report is due some time this year.

Recovery will likely be the outcome for Zhang, Marshall says.

But until then, Zhang's hunt for a home continues while he lives on disability payments from his former job.

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