A clean getaway: Hotel offers air of excellence
| by D. Aileen Dodd
Herald Staff Writer
Joyce Charney once worked in a posh 30-story glass building on Manhattan's trendy East Side, but the smell of smoke, perfume and gases rising from her office's new carpet and pressed board furniture made her sick.
"After two years of working in that building, I felt like I had the flu all the time," Charney,51, sitting on the patio of her Deerfield Beach home. "I was aching. My eyes would tear. Finally, I had to quit."
It's a story Charney shares with a frazzled woman suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity who has come to stay at the Natural Place, a Broward hotel where rooms have been purged of pesticides, artificial fabrics, fragrances, oil-based paints and anything else that may give guests an allergic reaction.
Charney opened the business with her husband Alan, 50, in 1992.
She couldn't bear working in a congested office anymore. Her environmental illness had turned her into a recluse. She lost weight, her face was gaunt. Her hazel eyes developed dark rings under them. She says she went to 20 doctors before she found out what was wrong with her.
Running an environmentally friendly hotel a block from the beach was something the Charneys could do together. Alan Charney, who crafted wooden guitars for entertainers such as Sting and the rock band Kiss, sold his business and moved with his wife to Florida.
Their four-unit complex at 1962 NE Fifth St. in Deerfield Beach has become a refuge for neat freaks and people so sensitive to chemical that they have no place else to go.
The Quality Assurance agreement at the Natural Place is strict: No pets. No smoking. No perfume. No scented lotions, soap, shampoo or hair spray. Maids are trained to use products like peroxide and baking soda to keep rooms clean.
Guests sleep on formaldehyde-free mattresses, which require a doctor's prescription to purchase. Before new linen is placed on the beds, each set is washed 20 times in baking soda and filtered water and soaked overnight in vinegar to remove chemical smells.
Joyce Charney knows firsthand how important a clean getaway is to the chemically hypersensitive. The Charneys have hosted more than 70 clients.
One guest exposed to pesticides on the job in Santa Fe, N.M., left his home to sleep in a tent in a park. One couple covered the inside of their car with tin foil because the fumes in the vehicle made them sick. Another guest wears a gas mask when he rides his bike along the road.
For them, places like movie theaters, restaurants and shopping malls are often off-limits. A crowd of people means an avalanche of smells - soap, shampoo, deodorant. The combination can be overwhelming.
"Most chemical smells bother me," said Venus Cenedella, 34, who has a six-week reservation at the Natural Place to recover from pesticide poisoning. "I have to be careful of where I go. Most buildings have pesticide spray. Even when I go to malls, the formaldehyde makes me so sick I have to go home and sleep for a while."
At the Natural Place, apartments have terrazzo floors instead of carpet and each room is equipped with a ceiling fan to keep a fresh breeze blowing.
Units have the kind of portable air filter you'd see in operating rooms to remove bacteria, mites and mold spores. Metal shelves are used instead of dressers for those allergic to wood. Bedding and towels are 100% cotton, free of dyes that can irritate the skin. Boric acid is sprinkled in the corners to keep the bugs away.
"It's a cute little place where you can feel relaxed, " Cenedella said. "Everything is immaculate."
Guest give guidance
When guests check in, they get a guide to organic restaurants and health-food stores. most don't eat food from the supermarket because it may be coated with waxes and preservatives.
Since David Robbins, 33, and his wife Eva Cavros, 32, stayed at the Natural Place, they have tossed their bug spray and toxic household cleaners and bought organic products and an air filter. They liked the cozy neighborhood so much they moved into a home with hardwood floors on the same block as the hotel.
"I started to realize just how much we are assaulted by the environment because of modern chemicals," said Cavros, a dance instructor at the New World School of the Arts in Miami.
A nursing student rooming at the hotel says the organic surroundings have heightened her senses. "I can smell the fabric softener in other people's clothes," said Tamara Mercatante, whose shelves and closet are meticulously neat. "Its so strong it makes you want to sneeze."
he Charneys say the Natural Place is the only hotel of its kind in the country, although some chain hotels offer environmentally friendly rooms.
In 1991, the Dadeland Marriott in Miami opened "green rooms" to satisfy its environmentally conscious guests. Now the hotel has two floors of green rooms that rent for the same price as a normal room, said Linda Cordova, room division manager. "We have a filter on the sink and a purifier for the air," she said. "Those are the first rooms that go."
The Marriott Harbor Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale is considering similar suites.
Not a small problem
Dr. Albert Robbins of Boca Raton has treated hundreds of patients suffering from chemical hypersensitivity at Robbins' Environmental Medicine Center. He uses the Natural Place to house people who come to him for detoxification, because no other hotel offers such a service.
Once people get the poison in their systems, their bodies are done permanent damage. That damage leaves the individual incapable of tolerating certain chemicals for the rest of their life," he said. "It's a problem that the medical and science community has known about for at least 40 years."
According to the National Academy of Science, 15 percent of the population has some type of allergic reaction to chemicals. But some groups, including the American Medical Association, have said that multiple chemical sensitivity is nothing more than a psychological condition.
But Cenedella says the pain is real. Scheduled to arrive in Deerfield Beach today, Cenedella will visit Robbins for follow-up treatment and spend some time on the beach.
Cenedella worked with pesticides for 10 years. A horticulturist, she fussed over plants and designed landscape for a Cocoa Beach hotel. Soon the fumes made her sick and waves of pain shot through her legs, spine and neck. She sued her employer and won a worker's compensation settlement.
"It messed up my nervous system and my immune system," she said. " I got so sick that I couldn't work at all. I couldn't stand up. My head ached. It felt like my brain was going to burst out of my skull."
People like Cenedella keep the phones ringing at the Natural Place –people who need someplace, any place, to sleep where the air is clean and the fumes won't cause them to scratch or become lightheaded.
The Charneys wish they could help everyone who calls. They want to buy a building to accommodate more guests so people suffering from multiple chemical disorder won't have to sleep in tents or spend the night in their cars.
"I had three calls from people who were desperate for somewhere to go, " Joyce Charney said. "People would stay here forever if we had the space."
Chemical-free hotel is nothing to sneeze atA natural choice for those with allergies
|by Tao Woolfe
DEERFIELD BEACH -- When Alan and Joyce Charney offer you a clean getaway, they aren't kidding.
Their four-unit hotel a block from the beach has been purged of fragrances, artificial fabrics, oil-based paint, pesticides, new wood and anything else that might cause a bad reaction in guests suffering from allergies or the modern- day illness known as multiple chemical sensitivity.
Pets, smoking and perfume are strictly forbidden You can leave the hair spray, scented soaps, deodorants and lotions at home, too.
"Some people just can't part with their perfumes and pets. We have to turn them away," Joyce Charney said.
The handmade cotton sheets and bedding are washed with borax or baking soda. The pillows and bedding also are made of all-natural organically grown fabrics. Sheets for extremely sensitive people are wrapped in foil after washing to keep out dust and spores.
All the rooms have special filters for water and air. There are no drapes or carpets. The paint is water-based and the only pesticide used Is boric acid.
The Charneys started The Natural Place about a year ago, after spending a year renovating and equipping the 30-year-old building at 1962 NE Fifth St.
They knew they had to move from the Northeast three years ago when Joyce Charney became ill after working in a new building in New York City.
"I felt like I had the flu all the time," she said. "I had migraine headaches, nausea, difficulty breathing, diarrhea and would be- come so disoriented I couldn't get the words out of my mouth"
With the help of research and specialists, Joyce Charney learned she has multiple chemical sensitivity. The condition has attracted much attention and controversy in recent years.
According to the National Academy of Science, 15 percent of the population -- or 40 million people -- is sensitive to chemicals to some degree. There is much debate in the medical community about the validity of the condition.
Various medical groups, including the American Medical Association, have published papers declaring MCS nothing more than a psychological condition.
Nevertheless, support groups for people with MCS have sprung up across the country, doctors now specialize in treating the condition, and government groups such as the National Institutes for Health and the Centers for Disease Control and, Prevention are beginning to study the syndrome.
There are no firm statistics on the incidence of the condition because it is not a reportable disease, such as AIDS or cancer, said Dr. Emilio Esteban of the National Center for Environmental Health.
His organization, part of the Centers for Disease Control, has statistics on sensitivities to specific chemicals such as pesticides or phosphates, but there is no such record keeping for MCS.
Like Joyce Charney, many people have claimed in workers compensation cases and lawsuits that they became ill while working in new, poorly ventilated office buildings. Fumes from new carpets, wood paneling and office chemicals caused toxic reactions, they said.
Many lawsuits -- accusing companies of providing an unsafe work atmosphere and causing a variety of MCS-related illnesses -- are pending across the country. In Boynton Beach, 77 employees filed workers compensation complaints in 1993, saying they became ill from air quality problems at the city's municipal complex. The city is still trying to fix the problems, especially the air conditioning. None of the lawsuits has been decided, lawyers say, but in 1990 it was determined by federal regulators that MCS should be included as a disability under the Americam with Disabilities Act.
In some cases thecauseof MCS is obvious, doctors say. Soldiers in the Gulf war who came back with a variety of MCS symptoms are thought to have been exposed to massive doses of windborne chemicals. In 1988 two Lauderdale Lakes firefighters inhaled noxious vapors when they responded to a Call at an apartment that contained a mixture of drain cleaner and water. Both were later diagnosed with MCS.
Other people can become chemically sensitive after a number of years for unknown reasons, said Dr. Albert Bobbins, of Boca Raton, an MCS specialist whose training is in osteopathv and environmental illness.
Treatment can be complicated but basically involves staying away from whatever ails you. Finding out which chemicals cause the problem, however, re- quires much time and effort.
Like the Charneys, many of the afflicted must make major changes in their lives: They can't go to movies. They must stay out of shopping malls. The smell of simple cleaners can make them pass out.
Many depend on disability payments or find work they can do at home.
Alan Charney, who is chemically sensitive, sold his music business and he and his wife sank their life savings -- about $250,000 - into The Natural Place. They figured people who cannot take a vacation at a standard hotel would welcome the idea of a chemical free environment.
Madeline Lanza would like to live at The Natural Place year round.
Last year the New Iberia, La., Resident spent four weeks at The Natural Place while receiving treatments from Robbins.
"I was so debilitated I could hardly get off the plane," Lanza said. "By the time I left, they couldn't believe the change." The Charneys say they have guests who come back regularly for a few days or a few weeks. You can view The Natural Place rates by going here.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is diffticult to