Swiss building provides a refuge for the hypersensitive

AFP-JIJI

No smoking, no perfume, no cellphones — the list of rules at a newly opened apartment building on the outskirts of Zurich is long.

The structure has been purpose-built for people who say exposure to everyday products such as perfume, hand lotion and wireless devices makes them so sick they cannot function.

“I have been suffering since I was a child,” said Christian Schifferle, 59, head of the Healthy Life and Living Foundation (www.stiftung-glw.com), the prime driver behind the project.

Schifferle and the other residents suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition not broadly recognized by the doctors. Those afflicted, however, believe it is sparked by low-level exposure to chemicals in things such as cigarette smoke, pesticides, scented products and paint fumes.

Many occupants also suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, in which electrical circuits and radiation from wireless equipment make them equally ill.

“It makes me weak, anxious, I can’t breath, my lungs hurt and I get dizzy,” said Schifferle, who suffers from both conditions.

While living in the building will not cure Schifferle or others, it aims to make daily lives more comfortable for people whose conditions have often left them isolated and unable to hold jobs.

Schifferle, who first felt sick from the fumes in his parents’ furniture factory when he was 3 or 4, has lived most of his adult life in a trailer in the pristine Swiss Alps. It was not until he was 35 and stumbled across an American book on MCS that he realized he was not alone, but it was another decade before he found a doctor who took him seriously.

“All my life it has been like I was only half alive,” he said.

Officials in Zurich estimate about 5,000 people in Switzerland alone suffer from MCS. The city made available the land and provided interest-free loans to help finance the 6.1-million Swiss-franc ($6.9-million) project.

With a mask covering his nose and mouth, Schifferle proudly shows off the 0.0 reading on a handheld electricity-measuring instrument with a triangular, green antenna. “This room is very good, because we have almost no electricity,” he said, nodding around a large common area equipped with a big carbon filter to purify the air.

Anyone entering the building is expected to switch off their phones, which in any case do not function inside. But there are land lines for telephone and Internet communication in the building.

Near the entrance, the only cleaning and personal hygiene products residents are allowed to use in the building are on prominent display.

The building was constructed with special materials, by purpose-trained builders banned from smoking or using scented products such as cologne as they worked. It has a ventilation system aimed at sucking out all odors.

“I think a good example for the whole thing is the plaster on the wall,” said architect Andreas Zimmermann, who designed it. “It doesn’t smell, and that is very important for these people,” he added, saying he searched for months for a completely odorless plaster.

The floor plan is layered like an onion “so that the deeper you enter the apartment, the cleaner the rooms get,” he said.

The building’s most “contaminated” parts are the common areas, main hallway, stairwell and elevator in the center. From there, residents enter their apartments. A special “net” has been built into the facade and roof to protect inhabitants from electromagnetic or electrostatic waves or fields, Zimmermann said.

Despite all the efforts, Schifferle said that more ventilation is needed until all traces and scents of the builders are gone.