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Flat for rent - no mobile phones, please

SAFE HOUSE: This building is meant for people who say exposure to products like perfume or wireless devices makes them so sick that they cannot function.
Flat for rent - no mobile phones, please

NO GO: A sign showing dos and don'ts at the new building. The residents suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.


    Apr 07, 2014

    Flat for rent - no mobile phones, please


    NO SMOKING, no perfume, no mobile phone use - the list of rules at a newly opened apartment building on the outskirts of Zurich is long.

    Here's why: It has been purpose-built for people who say exposure to everyday products like perfume, hand lotion or wireless devices makes them so sick that they cannot function.

    "I have been suffering since I was a child. This will really move my life in another direction," said Mr Christian Schifferle, the 59-year-old head of the Healthy Life and Living Foundation (, the prime driver behind the project.

    Mr Schifferle and the other residents suffer from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), a chronic condition not broadly recognised by the medical community.

    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.

    Twelve of the 15 apartments in the earth-coloured building in a remote part of Leimbach, on the outskirts of Switzerland's largest city, have already been rented since it opened in December.

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

    "It makes me weak, anxious, I can't breathe, my lungs hurt and I get dizzy," said Mr Schifferle, who suffers from both conditions.

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

    Mr Schifferle, who first felt sick from the fumes in his parents' furniture factory when he was three or four, 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 realised 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.

    The new building is the first of its kind in Europe, according to officials in Zurich, who decided to play a pioneering role in helping people with what they called "a very harmful problem".

    They estimate that 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 (S$8.6 million) project.

    "We wanted to help these people to have a calm home where they, hopefully, will be less sick," said Zurich housing office spokesman Lydia Trueb.

    With a mask covering his nose and mouth, Mr Schifferle proudly showed 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 his mobile phone, which in any case does not function inside. But there are landlines 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.

    "Avoiding the environmental burdens is really the only thing that helps most of these patients," said Dr John van Limburg Stirum, an internist specialising in environmental medicine who has treated Mr Schifferle and other MCS patients at the Seegarten Klinik near Zurich.

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

    "I think a good example of 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 that he searched for months for a completely odourless 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 lift in the centre.

    From there, residents enter their apartments, moving through a hallway where they can remove "polluted" clothing, the bathroom and kitchen or other technically equipped rooms, before getting to the "cleanest" rooms: the living room and bedroom.