Ms. Marilyn Brachman Hoffman (1930-2013) was a longtime resident of Boston and a graduate of the Wellesley College. For more than half a century of her lifetime, she had suffered from multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), a little understood condition also known as “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance” (TILT). Because of her condition, she was unable to find a residential space free of the chemicals that triggered myriad health symptoms. Therefore, she was forced to live in different hotels in Boston’s downtown area. As a victim of MCS/TILT, every minuscule element of her daily life required a great amount of attention: the paint on walls, the type of wood in furniture, scents in the air, etc. For five decades, she had battled to prove there was something making her sick. However, she said, “what the eye doesn’t see, the mind often doesn’t believe.”
“It’s not just the physical hurt, but the psychological, emotional impact that family members, friends, people you work with, how they treat you,” she said. “People are afraid of something they don’t understand.”
During her search for answers, Ms. Hoffman closely followed the work of Harvard professors John Spengler, an expert in indoor air pollution, and Joseph Brain, who studies the health effects of inhaled gases, particulates, and microbes. When she passed away in 2013, she left a generous bequest to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, laying the foundation for a new program entitled “The Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Program for Chemicals and Health,” which is co-led by Dr. Spengler and Dr. Brain and aims at promoting new research and education on how exposures to chemicals alter physiological responses.
“The bequest is transformative. Some of the research we’re interested in is not considered mainstream, and wouldn’t win traditional funding. But with this gift, we now have the ability to support novel research — to take risks,” said Dr. Brain and Dr. Spengler.
“We want to uncover the biologic mechanisms that lead to these chemical sensitivities,” said Dr. Brain. “We need to know which chemicals are causing the problems, and where and how exposures occur. We also need to know why some people are affected by certain chemicals while others are not.”
“Marilyn was concerned, legitimately so, that people don’t understand enough about chemical exposures and health,” said Dr. Spengler. “She also knew that, with information, you can make change. This generous bequest will enable us to propel that change.”
For Some Breathing is Never Easy. The Boston Globe. By Glenn Yoder, June 18, 2006.
MCS Friends Newsletter. Vol 2, Issue 5, Spring 2015.
Bequest Supports Research on Multiple Chemical Sensitivities. Harvard Public Health Magazine, Winter 2015, page 57.