She says she also became highly sensitive to ordinary chemicals found in homes—detergents, cosmetics, weed killers. One whiff and her lungs closed up, she says. She says she had reactions to the vinyl flooring, carpeting and other building-material samples that went through her office and she had to quit her job.
When her frustrated oncologist told her she had to learn to live with it, she says, they started looking for alternatives.
We knew it wasn´t the cancer anymore, says Hahn, 46. We weren´t sure what it was, but neither of us wanted to accept it.
Hahn dug deep into medical research. Not only was Kaye overloaded with drugs, he concluded, but her severe sensitivities matched a newly defined illness known as RADS, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, which is similar to asthma but induced by exposure to certain chemicals.
I needed to change my life if I was to survive, says Kaye.
To start, they moved to Arlington, switched to an organic macrobiotic diet, drank only distilled water, and began buying their groceries at health food stores.
They went on a chemical-trashing spree, replacing all household cleaners, insecticides and other everyday chemicals with homemade concoctions using vinegar, baking soda, borax, orange oil and other natural ingredients. Hahn started weaning Kaye off prescription drugs. He first had her stop using the steroids, inhalers and pills she took to ease breathing, and replaced it with an ancient Chinese herbal tea. When that worked, he says, he looked for other alternatives and remedies.
Kaye felt better. But she still had occasional reactions to some body care products labeled organic from health food stores. We were baffled, she says.
They became label sleuths, interpreters of ingredient double-speak. They found synthetic additives hidden in the fluffy label language on organic products—petroleum-derived and man-made foaming substances and preservatives, artificial colors and scents. There were compounds with names such as alpha hydroxyl benzoate, methylparaben and disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, some of them compounds found in lab tests to be toxic, carcinogenic or hormone-disrupting in large amounts. Their copies of the Hawley´s Condensed Chemical Dictionary and the Hazardous Chemicals Desk Reference fattened with yellow sticky notes.
Now on a mission, they read scientific studies from Stanford and other universities indicating that these chemicals are easily absorbed through skin, go directly into the bloodstream and accumulate in the body. Convinced that such chemicals don´t belong in products called organic, they began cooking up their own additive-free creams and lotions at their kitchen table. When Kaye´s cancer support group begged for more, one thing led to another. Soon they were peddling organic goods through a mail-order catalogue.
Feeling good now, they bought a small former sheep farm in 1996, a few pastoral acres near Middletown, and geared up for bigger production. Kaye contacted shops coast to coast. Her calling card: Made from organic ingredients that get thumbs-up from independent government-approved certifiers, that meet federal standards for organic foods—the cocoa butter is the same used in chocolate bars, the peppermint oil the same used in candy.
We thought we were going to be in health food stores nationwide, says Kaye.
The Sham in Shampoo
Seven years later, they´re still not.
Kaye and Hahn say they were naive to think the marketplace would make shelf space for their 100 percent certified-organic, handmade products. One obstacle is price. Consumers pay a premium for organic personal care products anyway, but Terressentials cost 30 percent more than that. As a small artisan manufacturer, they can´t buy their raw materials in bulk and miss out on the truckload discounts big companies get. And using only certified-organic ingredients is pricey.
But Kaye and Hahn hadn´t foreseen they´d become industry pariahs for upsetting the organic apple cart. As one California health food store manager told Kaye, although Terressentials products are as clean as I´ve seen, she wouldn´t order any because shoppers would question her other organic products whose ingredients don´t compare. If my shampoo sits on a store shelf, says ‘organic’ on it, and sells for $15 a bottle, says Kaye, and next to it is another shampoo that also says ‘organic,’ has a tiny organic percentage and is full of synthetics and chemicals, but is $5 a bottle, which one is the customer going to buy? Kaye and Hahn also believed that the organics business was different from others, that its philosophy and products were both healthy for people and healthy for the planet.
Organic Growing Pains