‘The Sensitives’ Reveals a Little-Known and Controversial Illness [Watch]

The Sensitives is a documentary, but its trailer feels more like a missive from the world of science fiction. Two gaunt men stare out the windows of a van at a desolate landscape, dust masks covering their mouths and noses; another sits alone in a room wrapped entirely in aluminum foil. The scenes are lit with a hazy, otherworldly quality, and the overall effect is jarring.

The film is a look inside the lives of people who say they are suffering from an illness known as multiple chemical sensitivity, reportedly caused by low levels of exposure to toxins. Symptoms range widely, from fatigue and dizziness to breathing problems and chest pain, and in severe cases, sufferers leave their families to move to isolated communities in Arizona and New Mexico. Mainstream medicine has been unable to confirm the diagnosis, with some studies stating that it may be a mental illness and others arguing that more research is needed.

Drew Xanthopoulos, MFA ’11, is less interested in that debate than in the daily struggles of sufferers and their families. A New York Times photo essay sparked his interest in multiple chemical sensitivity, and he’s spent the last three years gaining the trust of his subjects and documenting their stories. Xanthopoulos spoke with the Alcalde about his experience creating the film, which is now in postproduction.


What attracted you to this topic?

It just pulled me in. The idea that people are so marginalized, living in far-off places, and nobody really knows about them, was compelling. They’re forgotten, but they used to be us. I had never heard of anything like it before.

The symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity can vary a lot. What are the commonalities?

Everybody has a variation of the same story: ‘Once upon a time I was just like you, but then something happened in my body and outside, and it’s never been the same since. Nobody has answers, nobody’s been able to help me get better, and now here I am living in the middle of nowhere.’ I met people who were older and had it for decades, and then other people younger than me who’ve had it since they were really young. And there are people all over the world. The breadth of it was kind of surprising.

Why do some sufferers move to the desert?

The only effective treatment everyone can agree on is to get away from the things that are bothering you. For some people, it’s such a long list that it’s easier to leave those things rather than get them out of your space. Some people find relief in the desert climate; they may not feel completely better, but they find a plateau. Others do feel better. It’s a whole spectrum.

Over the course of making the film, did you come to believe that it is a physical disease?

Nobody has a definitive answer, because there’s been so little research. I interviewed a psychiatrist for the film, and I asked him if this is something in people’s heads. He said I was asking the wrong question, that it’s a misconception of how illness works. We’re starting to enter an era in medicine where we’re not thinking of the mind and body as two fishbowls; it’s one big pool, instead.

I think most of these people have had very legitimate reactions to an environmental cause. After that, the amount of trauma they’ve gone through … I have no doubt they have developed clinical anxiety and depression because of how traumatic the experience is. They’ve lost their careers, their relationships, their status in society.

Without a doubt, the worst symptom is how isolated people become. It’s a modern-day leper colony in a sense. How do we allow them to fall through the cracks? Then the film becomes about us.

The Sensitives will be released in 2016. 

Photo: Sam, who suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity, laying out for some rare Vitamin D.

Image from The Sensitives © Drew Xanthopoulos.


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