My Uniform Made Me Sick. Could The Same Thing Happen To a Hockey Star?

On Friday nights in Dallas, when I was in high school, I liked to go to free concerts in the West End. My friends and I would dress up, walk around and basically goof off. On one of those nights a good-looking man handed me a rose. He’d bought it on the street from a man who had a knack for guilting people into buying flowers for their loved ones. The first thing I noticed about the one who held the rose out to me was his size. He was huge. Not fat, but like the kind of guy you wouldn’t want to mess with in a dark alley. He was handsome too. He seemed nice. I mean only a nice guy would buy a girl a rose, right?

I thanked him. He invited me to watch him play hockey.

“Sure, okay. Where?” I asked, thinking there’s no way I was going to watch some stranger play hockey. For one I didn’t know anything about hockey and I had no idea where there might be rink.

“Reunion Arena.”

My eyes must have popped out of my head. REUNION ARENA. Why would he…

“I play for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bring your friends.”

“Ok,” I said, not knowing which friend or friends I could bring because, well, I couldn’t drive and neither could they.

I ended up taking my mother. I guess I should say my mother took me since she’s the one who drove. It was the first time we went to see a hockey game. It was also the first time we’d ever watched a hockey game. PERIOD. That night my new favorite hockey player scored a hat trick for the first time in his career. I have a feeling it was also the first time he met a girl’s mother at a game. You should have seen his face when he learned how old I was. I never spoke to him again.

Why am I talking about Mark Kachowski - er, I mean hockey? Because the most incredible thing happened a few days ago. While scrolling through Twitter reading all the latest news, I spotted a story about Marian Hossa, an NHL player who recently announced his retirement. Since then I’ve become obsessed with the Chicago Blackhawk’s player. I need to know everything about him. I wish someone could put me in contact with him. Not because I want to introduce him to my mother, but because I believe we have something crazy in common: A uniform.

It was the word ALLERGIC that initially made me scroll back up to read his story. The world ALLERGIC next to the words HOCKEY EQUIPMENT. I might have gasped when I read it.

Hockey equipment?! A million thoughts raced through my mind. The uniform? The stick? The puck? What?! I googled Marian’s name to find out more; almost every story I stumbled across mentioned a mysterious skin condition, side effects to allergy medication.

The following day the the Chicago Tribune reported that Marian Hossa will sit out the 2017-18 season “because of side effects from medication to treat a ‘progressive skin disorder.’” The Blackhawks declined to specify Hossa's condition or treatment.

What sort of skin disorder?! My mind screamed.

“Dermatologists who talked to the Tribune were clear they were not attempting to diagnose Hossa, but they said hockey players who suffered such skin conditions decades ago likely had contact dermatitis — a red, itchy rash caused by an allergen coming into contact with the skin.”

Contact dermatitis. I didn’t know anything about contact dermatitis until I started wearing the new American Airlines uniform. Some of the chemicals that have been found in the uniform are “sensitizers.”

According to The Department of Labor and Industries, “Sensitizers may not cause skin reactions on initial contact; however, repeated exposures can cause an allergic reaction in some people. These reactions can occur within days or years of the initial exposure. Once a person becomes sensitized (allergic), small amounts of the sensitizer can cause reactions.”

Back to the Chicago Tribune. The paper interviewed Warren Piette, the dermatology division chairman at Stroger Hospital. “Materials in clothing can be common allergens, Piette said, noting that more issues arise with more chemicals such as wrinkle-free and anti-fungal treatments being added to clothing. Dyes that dissolve in water can be allergens and transfer into the skin through perspiration. "It's not the fabric itself but the things it's treated with," he said. "Every exposure makes it progressively worse.”

I know exactly what he’s talking about.

Recently many of my co-workers have developed a “mysterious skin condition” (rashes and hives), which is why, after I read about Marian Hossa, I did what any person in my desperate shoes might do and linked his story to mine because, well, I just had a feeling. I hoped someone would see my tweets and share them with him and that maybe he’d reach out to me so we could compare notes and figure out what the F is going on in uniform world.

Many of my readers gave me grief. How dare I connect it to the uniform? Just because I had issues with my flight attendant’s uniform didn’t mean HIS issues were uniform-related! For some reason, I just felt like it was the uniform. Maybe because his fans’ reactions to the announcement were similar to the dismissive responses I’ve heard when I share my story. It all just feels so familiar.

Look, I’m not a doctor and I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve spent every second of the last nine months of my life trying to understand what’s happening to me and my co-workers – why we’re having so many strange reactions to a uniform all of a sudden. For the record I played soccer first grade through college. I’ve worked for two airlines. I’ve been a flight attendant for over 20 years. I’ve worn many different uniforms over the last 40 years and I’ve never had a problem with a uniform until now. Thanks to the new American Airlines uniform, and countless hours of late night research online, I know a lot more about toxic chemicals in clothing than most regular people like me who don’t have a degree in chemistry and therefore shouldn’t know anything about this.

My story.

In September, American Airlines issued its employees a new uniform. It didn’t take very long for people to report having “reactions” to it.

The word “reaction” doesn’t sound bad, does it? What about “chemical reaction”? A chemical reaction is an allergic reaction, but a chemical reaction is not like a typical allergic reaction, and yet it’s just as easy to blow off because it falls under allergy. I wonder if that’s because when you hear the word you think big deal because maybe you’re allergic to cats or strawberries or whatever, and life isn’t that bad.

A chemical reaction is an entirely different story because it can take a long time to determine the chemical you’re allergic too. It’s hard to avoid something you don’t know to avoid. Even when you do know what you should avoid, it can be impossible to do when big-names companies use loopholes in the law to hide toxic chemicals in every-day products.

Most people have no idea that toxic chemicals are in retail clothing: Dyes, pesticides, formaldehyde. Uniforms are worse. It’s nearly impossible to find out exactly what chemicals are in your clothes because the garment industry is unregulated. Testing is expensive, approximately $8,000 a piece. Even if you could afford to test your clothes, you’d have to know what to look for to find it. This is why the flight attendants union hasn’t been able to figure out what’s been making so many of us sick, and why they’re on round four of testing.

For two years, my thyroid was stable. I get my blood tested every three months so I have the data to prove it. Six days in the new uniform and my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) went outside the normal range. I would have blown it off if I hadn’t read about the Alaska Airlines flight attendants who had thyroid issues when they were issued the new uniforms several years ago.

I stopped wearing our new uniform and started wearing lookalike pieces from Calvin Klein. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. Being near co-workers in uniform made me sick. Now, whenever I’m at work, I feel pin pricks all over my body. Sometimes I want to scratch my face off. Other times I can’t breathe. When I bend down to grab a can out of the cart and stand back up I feel like I did a 30-second cardio blast. I never felt this before the new uniform.

The first reactions my colleagues had to the American Airlines uniform were hives and rashes, only they looked more like chemicals burns. The people who broke out in rashes and hives were lucky because they could actually see what was happening to them and were quick to stop wearing the new uniforms. The rest of us weren’t so sure about what was going on. It took us a little longer to connect the dots. I mean who would think a blazer could make their thyroid get out of whack? Who in their right mind gets a bloody nose and wonders if it’s their skirt? Who in the world would blame a silk scarf for causing an eye infection that doesn’t respond to antibiotics? Who looks at their pants and thinks, ah, that’s what’s causing my heart rate to get sky-high and my vision to get blurry.

Nobody, that’s who. Unless you’re one of the 5,000 American Airlines employees who’ve been sick ever since the uniforms were introduced.

What we’ve learned since September is these allergic reactions don’t stay the same. You don’t always have the same reaction. It gets worse as you continue to absorb toxic chemicals. Many of us have had trouble finding doctors because there are many different chemicals in the uniform, which means we could be having different reactions to multiple chemicals at the same time. Which means the chemical that’s causing my thyroid to be out of whack may not be causing the pin pricks I feel all over my body. The chemical that’s causing the pin pricks may not be responsible for my respiratory issues.

What’s particularly frustrating is even when we stop wearing the uniform we continue to have reactions because other flight attendants are still wearing it. At first, we thought people were only having reactions by absorbing chemicals through their skin. But even after we stopped wearing the uniform, many of us who’ve had reactions continued to have them. That’s how we realized chemical inhalation is happening too.

Over 5,000 employees have been affected since Sept. 20. Our numbers continue to rise as people continue to wear the uniform and the weather gets warmer. Heat, you see, plays a big role in this. It releases the chemicals and opens the pores so you absorb more chemicals.

Don’t hockey players get pretty hot and sweaty during a game? I bet their uniforms are water repellant too. Just trying to piece things together.

Since the uniform crisis began, many flight attendants are unable to work. Doctors have told a few of us we should quit our jobs. Because an allergy is considered personal, unrelated to the job (even though what we’re required to wear to work is making us sick), workers comp cases have been denied. Some of my coworkers have had to borrow money just to get by. Soon some will have no choice but to quit.

Many flight attendants, I imagine, will retire much earlier than they had planned, just like Marian Hossa.

The word desperate doesn’t even begin to describe what many of us feel. This is why I didn’t think twice about tweeting, “Can someone put me in touch with Marian Hossa so we can talk about chemical sensitivity, why it happens & how it's happening to thousands of AA employees.”

The responses came rolling in.

“I would guess his situation is different, since he is the only one affected. Not like this is a mass outbreak on the team.”

But here’s the thing: Everyone absorbs chemicals at a different rate. Many things affect absorption rate. Because heat is a factor, if you live in Phoenix you may be affected more than someone who lives in Alaska. If you work in a flying tube breathing recycled air for 10-12 hours a day you may be more affected than someone who works at the ticket counter in the airport. Environment matters. So does length of service, particularly when your work environment could be toxic too. Think flame retardants. They’re all over airplane seats and carpets. Perhaps this explains why it’s taken some of our newer coworkers a little longer to have first time reactions to the same new uniform.

As you continue to be exposed to toxic chemicals, you will eventually reach your “toxic threshold.” Once you reach your toxic threshold, you will have an allergic reaction.

“This came literally out of the blue, so people are doubting the veracity,” wrote another…fan?

Someone else wrote: “I can only think of one other player something like this happened to since I've been a hockey fan.”

Well there was a time when none of us in the airline industry were affected either. There was the first uniform reaction. Soon after, the first dead pet, the first inhaler, the first prescription for steroids. Now we’re seeing a couple of cases of chemical pneumonia. A reaction to the uniform? The jury’s still out.

But if we continue to see chemical pneumonia pop up among flight attendants I think we’ll have a better idea if it’s connected. You see the more we share, the more we learn and then, all of a sudden, there are more and more similar stories, and what once sounded totally unbelievable becomes common. Like, flight attendants’ menstrual cycles being affected by the uniform. It’s happening.

Of course, I can’t prove it’s the chemicals in our uniform. That’s the awful thing about this. Because the burden of proof is on us, more and more people will get sick until there are so many sick people the company can no longer claim it’s safe. My question is, how many sick people are too many sick people?

The first airline to be affected by a uniform was Alaska Airlines. When I read about them I blew it off too. It’s easy to blow off at first. That’s the thing about firsts. Then as you learn more you learn this isn’t anything new. Before Alaska there was UPS. UPS workers have reported having issues with their uniforms made by the same manufacturer as ours. Since I’ve become so vocal, I’ve heard from many people who are experiencing the same thing, from lab techs, to police officers, to military men and woman. Think I can add hockey players to the list now?

“This is not a ‘hockey thing,’ it’s a chemical reaction thing,” I reminded many hockey fans the other day.

What you have to remember is it’s not the fabric. It has less to do with wool or cotton or spandex and more to do with what the wool and cotton or spandex is treated with that’s causing so many of us problems. There’s a difference between retail clothing and a uniform. I could never wear an off the rack suit the same way I wear a uniform. An off the rack suit would fall apart in no time. Chemicals make it look nice. Think Formaldehyde. It’s what makes clothing wrinkle free. There’s also water repellent and stain repellent. These chemicals make it last longer. Chemicals save a company a lot of money because they don’t have to spend as much on replacement pieces.

“They say Hossa was being treated for the allergy with medication, and that the side-effects of this medication is a factor,” somebody reminded me after I tweeted something about his uniform.

That made me laugh. Flight attendants are also loading up on allergy medication. At some point this is going to affect us too. Our newest accessory is an inhaler. Some flight attendants now have Epipens. Others have been prescribed steroids. Just to go to work. We’re flight attendants! Not professional athletes. Which reminds me, how many Benadryls are too many Benadryls - on a plane? Asking for a friend.

“How's about this: not all skin and other reactions to clothing are the result of toxic exposure. Yes, that is the case with your uniform”

What’s interesting about Hossa’s case is he’s not alone. Former NHL player Tom Reid on WGN morning news in Chicago said he had the SAME uniform allergy in 1970s. The problem lasted for years. A rash over his entire torso, but they didn't find cause. NHL goalie Gilles Gilbert talked about suffering from a serious rash to the New York times in 1982. A doctor diagnosed him with atopic dermatitis. Gilbert and Reid were teammates. Gilbert estimated 15% of NHL players had some skin condition caused by playing.

Or the uniform.

Toxic chemicals in the uniform.

Hey, just throwing it out there. Something to think about.