Where do you go when your body can’t handle the chemicals, products and “conveniences” of the 21st century? How about Snowflake, Arizona?

Just outside this desert town, located 25 miles south of Interstate 40 (formerly Route 66), an isolated community has sprung up in recent years, populated by some 30 hypersensitive residents who have what they call “environmental illness” or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

Basically, that means they’re allergic to things like fragrances, Wi-Fi, electromagnetic radiation, synthetic fabrics and pesticides. The idea isn’t fully accepted by doctors, but sufferers insist their wide-ranging symptoms — everything from headaches, fatigue and nausea to memory problems, confusion and muscle pain — coincide with exposure to chemicals and technologies around them. (One Snowflake resident is so sensitive to fumes from book ink and paper that's he’s forced to read using a self-improvised apparatus that lets him turn pages without touching them directly.)

Plagued by unexplained symptoms

The idea that things in the modern world can cause illness isn’t new. Back in 1869, neurologist George Beard coined the term neurasthenia to describe a new illness characterized by unexplained symptoms such as headaches, muscle pain and depression. He attributed it to the stresses of modern life, including the impact of newfangled technologies like steam power and the telegraph. Over time, some researchers began linking these mysterious symptoms to food allergies and reactions to chemicals in the environment.

MCS is the modern evolution of this controversial idea, one the medical community still hasn’t unanimously embraced. Many physicians note the lack of a clear scientific link between low-level environmental exposure and chronic debilitating illness. Instead, they suggest that anxiety or depression may play a significant role in MCS. In other words, it’s psychosomatic.

But Snowflake’s MCS community fiercely disagrees. Residents insist their disabling symptoms are not only provoked by chemical and environmental exposures, but that this secluded, pristine desert refuge provides the only relief they’ve ever found. This in-depth profile in the Guardian explores how residents cope with their illness, even as the medical establishment calls them hypochondriacs.

There’s Susie Molloy, for example, one of the first to escape mainstream life two decades ago for the clean, dry air and mostly undeveloped open spaces of this high-altitude enclave.

Unable to live any longer with her cascading respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms that no doctor could explain or relieve, Molloy fled the world of “normies,” as people without MCS are disdainfully called, and arrived in Snowflake in 1994.

“For me the improvement was so radical,” she says in this 99% Invisible podcast. “You get out of the car, you feel better. You can walk. You don’t need the oxygen tank. Your speech is clear. I didn’t exactly want to move here, but my body said, ‘Yeah we’re moving here.’”

A year later her father and neighbors helped her build a small house with aluminum-foil-lined walls to mask odors off-gassing from the building materials.

Over time, other individuals whose bodies and senses were overwhelmed by the world began gravitating there as well to quiet their symptoms and live in peace. Interestingly, the actual nearby town of Snowflake (population 5,000) was originally intended to be a retreat from the larger culture when Mormon pioneers Erastus Snow and William Jordan Flake founded it in 1878.

Many in the MCS community are former chemical engineers who began noticing increased sensitivity at work. Others, like Molloy, can’t pinpoint what first triggered their symptoms. But all find it virtually impossible to live a regular life in the “polluted” outside world.

(You can meet more Snowflake residents in the video above.)

And there's a waiting list

Snowflake, Arizona The pristine air and open desert spaces around Snowflake, Arizona, provide a safe sanctuary for a small cadre of people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity. (Photo: Ken Lund/flickr)

Today, this safe haven sports a smattering of small homes, each one customized to reduce its owner’s exposure to chemicals and other triggers. A few residents live out of the back of their trucks. Most shun chemical-laced household products and cleaners, hang their clothes outside to dry, and keep their windows open to air out rooms. Many even avoid electricity and electronic gadgets, or else confine those items to one area of their house or put them behind barriers.

Snowflake isn’t the only MCS community in the country, but it’s one of the largest — and most desirable. One reason is its general acceptance by people in the main town. A few businesses even cater to MCS residents, including a realtor who helps people find low-toxicity homes and a dental practice that opens its windows, turns off the fluorescent lights and makes other accommodations for sensitive patients.

Molloy and her neighbors are proud of their unconventional colony, but they also worry about upsetting the precarious balance by welcoming in too many new residents, especially those who aren’t fully committed to preserving the nontoxic serenity. Molloy receives several calls a week from MCS sufferers begging to move there. She lends a sympathetic ear, but only extends an invitation when an existing house becomes available.

“It is fragile,” Molloy says. “All it takes is one family building a gas station out there on the road and a lot of us would have to move. So I am hyper-vigilant ... always hoping that we’re going to keep getting away with this life that we’ve built here.”