In Memoriam: Barbara Wilkie 1938-2011 by Lynn Lawson
Barbara Wilkie 1938-2011
by Lynn Lawson
I first met Barb Wilkie in the late nineties when she came walking toward me between two trains in Chicago’s Union Station. I knew who she was because she was wearing a double-canister mask. She and husband Bill were stopping off after the first lap of their return from visiting a daughter in the East. After a talkfest lunch at the Berghoff, they walked back to the station for the second lap of their trip home to Berkeley, California.
Barb and I had become acquainted via e-mail after my book Staying Well in a Toxic World was published in 1994. As president of the main Calilfornia chemically sensitive support group Environmental Health Network, Barb had already accomplished a lot: an impressively thorough website (www.ehnca.org), a local Sierra Club anti-fragrance resolution, and many, many public relations contacts. She never missed a chance to inform influential people about the dangers of modern chemicals, especially synthetic fragrances.
Forced to quit her government job because of perfumed colleagues and unsympathetic supervisors, she devoted herself to battling this modern scourge every way she could. Her supreme accomplishment came in 1999, when she and a nurse on the East Coast, Betty Bridges, pooled their resources to send unopened bottles of Calvin Klein’s popular perfume Eternity to two independent testing labs. (Consumers are not allowed to know the ingredients in perfumes, of course; they are considered “trade secrets,” knowable only to rival companies with expensive testing equipment.)
Not unexpectedly, Eternity’s forty-one ingredients were found by Dr. Samuel S. Epstein’s Cancer Prevention Coalition to include twenty-five irritants; five allergens or ”skin sensitizers”; three with “fetal, hormonal, and reproductive toxicity”; two that “may cause cancer”; and twenty-six whose toxicological properties have either not been investigated at all or have not been thoroughly investigated. (Some of the ingredients fall into more than one category.) This disturbing news led the Environmental Health Network to compile and send a half-inch-thick People’s Petition to the Federal Food and Drug Administration, which also includes cosmetics. The Petition asks the FDA only to put ingredient and warning labels on Eternity. Twelve years and more than a thousand letters from chemically sensitive people later, the FDA has done nothing.
In 2000, however, Barb sent me a copy of the petition, which my husband and I took to my U.S. Representative, Jan Schakowsky, to tell her about the fragrance problem we all experience. (Her secretary serendipitously reinforced my news by saying that perfumes give her bad headaches.) Shortly after, Jan introduced in the House the Safe Notification and Information for Fragrances Act (SNIFF). The bill, which would require warning labels on any cosmetic containing a known allergen or toxin, garnered a couple of co-cosigners but languished through two hostile Congresses.
The good news is that in 2008 Congress passed a rare law permanently banning three of one group of chemicals—phthalates—in children’s toys and banning three more until they are proved safe by the manufacturer. They are plasticizers, not fragrances, but this is an unprecedented ban that puts the responsibility for the safety of chemicals right where it belongs–the industries profiting from them. Barb would appreciate this, for it goes way beyond EHN’s modest request for better labeling.
Barb and I had the pleasure of being together four more times–twice in the Bay Area and twice at national MCS conferences, exchanging stories, information, and jokes. Her last few years were not a joke, as she struggled to survive degenerative kidney disease secondary to chemical injury. By consistently and courageously refusing dialysis but using alternative therapies such as chiropractic, massage, Chinese medicine, and a special diet, she defeated nephrologists’ predictions of her demise by more than five years.
Barb had a great sense of humor. The last thing she sent me was a greeting card with an exhausted-looking woman slumped on a couch and clutching a vacuum cleaner: “As she contemplated what she could do to be more green, she was delighted to recall [page turn] nature abhors a vacuum.” Barb hoped I would find this card as funny as she did. She too would rather run a word processor than a vacuum.
—Lynn Lawson, member advisory boards of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation and the Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, & Chemical Sensitivity Coalition of Chicago (CFCCC).
This article was first published in Canary Times, the publication of the CFS/ME, Fibromyalgia and Chemical Sensitivity Coalition of Chicago (www.cfccc.org). It is reprinted here with the permission of Lynn Lawson and the Canary Times.