Snowflake MCS/EHS community
A rural area outside Snowflake, Arizona has become a haven for people with severe MCS and electrical sensitivity. Over 35 people with environmental illness live in specially built or modified homes on large lots. Thirteen homes are built adjacent to each other, while the rest are scattered over a larger area.
Keywords: Snowflake, Arizona, MCS, EHS, electrical sensitivity, environmental illness, community, housing
All of the EIs in the community moved there from somewhere else. Most came from other states. The common reasons to move to Snowflake are:
¥ low air pollution
¥ low mold
¥ moderate pollen season
¥ low humidity
¥ low electropollution
¥ moderate four-season climate
¥ large lots are affordable
¥ availability of experienced builders
¥ occasional availability of housing
¥ established MCS/EHS community
There are drawbacks also, such as:
¥ no MCS/EI doctors
¥ some people miss green landscapes
¥ high elevation (thin air)
¥ windy springtime
¥ occasional smell from distant pig farm
¥ occasional smoke from distant forest fires
¥ few specialty stores
¥ conservative politics
However, no place is perfect, and no place is for everyone. Some people used to big cities initially wrinkle their noses, but often grow to like the place. Almost all of us used to live in large cities.
The zoning in most areas requires a minimum of 20 acres (8 hectares) for each home, ensuring that the area stays rural. Land is inexpensive, making such large lots economical.
Most of the MCS/EHS homes are connected to the electrical grid, while some are fully powered by the sun.
The Snowflake area
The town of Snowflake was first settled by Mormon pioneers. It is named after Mr. Snow and Mr. Flake. About half of the town population today are members of the Mormon church.
No EIs live in town. Most live in a rural neighborhood about eight miles east of Snowflake; others live further away. The rural area east of town is an eclectic mix of country folk, old hippies, EIs and survivalists. A large neighborhood of old hippies is located a few miles east of the main EI neighborhood.
Navajo County stretches up to the Utah state line and is a thinly populated county, with a little over 100,000 inhabitants. The large Navajo and Apache Indian reservations are located at each end of the county.
The county seat is Holbrook, which also sees a lot of tourist traffic in the summer.
The main shopping town is Show Low to the south, which also serves a large area of vacation homes in the surrounding mountains. The smaller towns of Pinetop and Lakeside are a little more upscale.
Apache county starts about 18 miles east of Snowflake. Some EIs live there. Apache county is more rural and less sophisticated than Navajo county.
The politics of Snowflake and the two counties is thoroughly Republican and very pro-development.
There are hundreds of off-grid solar homes in the area. It is not seen as something that just green-minded people do. Land well beyond the electrical grid is inexpensive, attracting many kinds of people.
There are six local FM radio stations, and National Public Radio can be received with a good antenna. There is a community TV station in Show Low, but there is no reception in Snowflake. The only TV available is via satellite receivers.
Snowflake is served by the Silver Creek Herald newspaper, though the regional White Mountain Independent has much better coverage.
Snowflake is located at 5700 ft (1800 meters) elevation in the high desert of Arizona. The area receives about 12 inches (300 mm) of rain a year, mostly during the summer monsoon.
The high elevation provides for a much cooler climate than in the low deserts of southern Arizona. The summers are moderate, with daytime temperatures typically in the low 90s (low 30s centigrade). The low humidity makes higher temperatures more comfortable than they would be in a more humid climate.
The dry and thin air means the air does not hold the heat as well, so the temperature varies greatly between night and day, especially during spring and fall. It is not uncommon to have a fall day with 28¼F (–2¼C) at sunrise and 68¼F (20¼C) in the afternoon. Most homes do not have air conditioning, instead people cool their houses with open windows at night.
The winter nights are cold, often in the teens (–20¼C), but most days are very sunny and usually in the forties (5–10¼C) in the afternoon. Snow falls occasionally, but rarely stays for more than a day or two. The heating season is six to seven months, depending on how well the house is built.
It is a windy climate. The wind blows most days in April and May, where it can be quite annoying, with typical afternoon wind gusts of 20 to 30 mph, sometimes more.
The dry climate may take some time to get used to. Newcomers sometimes have nosebleeds the first months.
The air quality is exceptionally good most of the year, much better than any city or suburb. There are no major sources of air pollution within ten miles of the neighborhood, and only a few within a hundred miles.
The nearby Petrified Forest National Park is listed as a Class 1 (most protected) area in the Clean Air Act, which encourages low air pollution levels in the general area.
The larger area has some pollution sources, though their impact is small compared to most other areas in the United States.
Three coal fired power plants operate in the region. One is at Joseph City, about 20 miles to the northwest. Two other plants are about 35 miles to the east. The prevailing winds are from the southwest and west; it is very rare that pollution is carried towards the MCS neighborhood. It has never been a problem.
A smaller biomass (woodchip) fired plant is located about fifteen miles to the west of the EI neighborhood. Some people could sometimes smell it when it was operational, but it is presently not in use.
A large commercial greenhouse operation west of town burns trash a few times a month. The trash consists of plant material and plastic — probably not EPA-legit, but environmental laws are loosely enforced in Arizona.
A large pig farm is located ten miles north of Snowflake. The stench of manure can sometimes be smelled 15 miles away, when directly downwind.
The season for forest fires in the Southwest is during the months of May and June, before the monsoon. Forest fires can send smoke to the area from forests to the south and west. Most years, there are days when some EIs stay inside with closed windows to avoid the smoke from distant forest fires. However, it was only during the large 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire (upwind and only 30 miles away) that some EIs moved away for a couple of weeks to escape the smoke.
The Forest Service does prescribed burnings in the forests south of Snowflake every fall. Even though the forests are at least thirty miles away, the smoke can be bothersome when carried up by the wind.
The Arizona Department of Transportation sprays along highway 77 and Interstate 40 once every spring. All county roads are mowed, none are sprayed.
The climate is too dry for large-scale farming. Open land is used for free-range cattle instead. There is some small-scale irrigation farming around the town of Snowflake.
There are presently no mining operations in the area, but a couple of companies are considering opening potash mines in an area 20 miles to the north and 15 miles to the northeast of the MCS neighborhood. The impact of those possible mines is uncertain, though the wind rarely comes from those directions.
The drawback to really clean air
There is actually a drawback to living in air this clean — it can confuse the sense of smell.
If a person sits in total darkness, he or she will be able to pick up extremely faint sources of light. The same is the case with both noise and smells.
WeÕve had a few people who complained that they could smell something burning, even though the rest of us could not smell it, and there was nothing to see for many miles (easy to check in open country).
At such low levels of stimulation, the olfactory system may play tricks on some people, where their brains interpret natural smells incorrectly — or perhaps even report smells that arenÕt there. A similar phenomenon can happen with our hearing — when it is extremely quiet some people hear tinnitus-like sounds.
Vegetation, mold and pollen
The climate is dry high desert, with little vegetation. Some areas have dense stands of juniper bushes while the rest is mostly native grasses. The juniper pollen season in March is bothersome to many, and there are some flower and grass pollens in August-September.
The dry climate inhibits mold growth, though any house can have mold inside it due to moisture generated by the people living in the house (from cooking, bathing, roof leaks, etc.) There are dormant molds in the soil, which can become activated by the monsoon and be bothersome. The fungus causing valley fever does not live in Northern Arizona.
The mold and pollen levels are generally much lower than they are in more humid climates.
The cold winters and dry climate limits the number of critters. Snakes and scorpions exist here, but are rarely seen. They prefer the lower elevations where they are much more common. There is enough moisture during the summer monsoon to support flies, while mosquitoes are rare. There are some spiders in the area, including a small version of the tarantula. The centipede is a many-legged creature about two inches long with a nasty bite, which must be avoided, however.
The only bugs that businesses may spray pesticides for are ants and centipedes. Many businesses, including the post office, do spray on a schedule. A few towns in the general area do have more mosquitoes and have aerial sprayings (St. Johns, Springerville).
The levels of electropollution are generally low in the area. The exception is the town of Holbrook, which has four large transmission towers and measured radio frequency levels well above anywhere else in the area.
The town of Snowflake presently has rather low readings. There is only one cell tower in town, about a mile west of Main Street. Another is located in the hills a few miles south of Taylor, along highway 77. Another tower is about five miles north of town, also along highway 77.
The EI neighborhood is eight miles east of Snowflake. The nearest tower is located on Black Mesa, five miles from the neighborhood. Only the off-grid areas have greater distances to towers.
Wireless mesh smart meters were installed in the area in October 2013. Thanks to local activists, the electrical company allows anyone to opt out.
The electropollution from neighbors is low in the rural areas, as most is zoned for 20 acres per house.
Two 500 kilovolt power lines cross the area. People are advised not to live within a mile of them.
The table shows typical 2014 ambient daytime levels for the central EI-neighborhood as well as a more remote area with no grid power and very few homes. The nighttime levels are much lower.
Below 0.001 milligauss
20 Graham-Stetzer units
If you are comparing these numbers with your own, or other sources, make sure to use the same units. Several common units for radio frequencies look much alike. We use the microwatt-pr-square-meter unit. A microwatt is 1/1000th of a milliwatt, which is commonly used in areas with higher radiation levels.
For comparison with other scales:
1 mW/m2 = 0.001 mW/m2
1 mW/m2 = 0.0000001 mW/cm2
1 mW/m2 = 0.0001 mW/cm2
1 mW/m2 = 0.04 V/m
1 mW/m2 = –51 dBm
0.01 milligauss = 1 nanoTesla
The listed numbers are all low compared to what is typically found in towns, suburbs and cities in the United States. The actual values can vary dramatically with the specific house site and can be greatly influenced by the neighbors, power lines, etc. Any electrical problems inside a house can dramatically raise the levels.
The rural areas have some of the lowest noise levels in the United States, which was documented by a community study in 2010 as well as by other studies.
The background noise level in the central EI community is 22 decibels (dBA) while the more remote areas are even lower.
People who visit often comment on how quiet the area is.
Most EI houses have their own well, which is typically 300 to 400 ft (100–130 m) deep. A well costs about $12,000 so some houses have chosen to have a storage tank and have water delivered by a truck, or they haul it themselves.
The well water is pristine and has not been polluted by pesticides or other chemicals.
There are no mining, major agriculture, industry or oil/gas operations in the area, or on the ground-water path from the mountains, so the water should continue to be unpolluted.
The ground water has a naturally high mineral content, especially iron, but there is no toxic arsenic. Most environmentally sensitive people need to filter the water with reverse-osmosis (RO) before drinking it. Most EI houses have RO systems, while some buy RO-filtered water from machines in town.
Most homes use whole-house water softeners, while a few also had to install whole-house iron filters.
There are areas where the mineral content is so high the water is not usable at all, particularly the area east and north of Holbrook.
There are no looming water shortages in this area, unlike many other places in the Southwest.
There are telephone landlines in most areas. Some of the off-grid areas do not have landlines. Cell phone and 3G service now reaches all areas.
The telephone company offers wired DSL internet service in most areas with telephone service, but not all.
Some people use the computers at the public library in Snowflake or at the community college.
The Postal Service doesnÕt deliver mail to individual homes on unpaved roads. People living in these areas will have to pick up their mail from a post office box in town, or a rural mailbox on a paved road. People commonly gather their mail a couple of times a week.
Various types of outdoor recreation is available. The area south of Snowflake offers many hiking trails, lakes to boat on and fish in, and a ski resort during the winter months. There are also some good hiking areas along Silver Creek canyon north of Snowflake.
The mountains south of Snowflake can provide a respite from the summer heat and for people longing to see a forest instead of the desert.
There are festivals of various kinds in the different little towns throughout summer. The annual festival in Snowflake is Pioneer Days in late July, which includes a parade well worth seeing.
Perhaps the largest festival in the area is held the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Winslow.
The Snowflake area has two grocery stores and various businesses offering photocopies, auto repair, hardware, etc. The town of Show Low has the usual assortment of big-box stores.
A wide variety of fresh and boxed organic foods are available from a health food store in Snowflake. Most of the grocery stores also carry some organic foods.
Two large health food supermarkets are available in Flagstaff, which also has more specialty stores.
Additional organic produce, etc. is available by mail order from Phoenix at reasonable cost, and through the Azure co-op which delivers monthly.
There are no environmental doctors in the region. The closest ones are in Santa Fe and Los Alamos (New Mexico) and Benson east of Tucson.
There is a naturopath (NMD) who will work with us, but cannot offer much EI-specific assistance. He does not take Medicare or any other insurance, but his fees are lower than the MDs in town. He will come to your home, if necessary, but he is not fragrance-free.
There used to be two ÒconventionalÓ clinics in Snowflake that were friendly to EIs, but one closed and the other got new management and made other changes, and is no longer helpful to us. Some EIs now go to a friendly MD in Show Low, though his clinic is not safe to be in.
The hospital is in Show Low. There have been some contacts with the EI community, and the policy is that the staff do not use fragrances. The air quality in the patient rooms is excellent. The electropollution is very high, however. There are transmitters on the roof and next door. Each patient room has a staff-used computer as well as other electronics.
The hospital performs various types of surgery, though some complicated surgeries are referred to Phoenix.
One Snowflake dentist has a good understanding of MCS/EHS issues and will accommodate if advised in advance.
There are few specialist physicians in the area. There are some travelling specialist physicians who come to the area a few times a month. However, people sometimes have to travel to Phoenix for specialists.
There is very little alternative health care available in the area. Some people go to Flagstaff, two hours away. The towns of Prescott and Sedona have world-class offerings, but they are too far away for a day trip.
The Arizona public schools generally rank low compared to other states, which is typical for the Sunbelt. There are some private schools in the Show Low area, including a Montessori school.
There is a small community college in Snowflake, which is part of the Northland Pioneer system. The nearest university is Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, which cooperates with the Northland Pioneer system.
Employment opportunities around Snowflake are very limited. Most well-paying jobs are found in the Show Low area. A major employer in the area is the Navajo county administration in Holbrook.
The EI community
The EI community consists of all sorts of people from many backgrounds. Some keep to themselves while others join in the opportunities for social interaction with the rest of the community. Most major holidays are celebrated, as well as several birthdays each year.
As the community has grown, it is no longer feasible to host parties for the whole community, as was the norm until recent years.
Like many communities, people help each other in need, as long as it is appropriate and balanced. People who need ongoing help hire people for shopping and other services. There are several less-toxic people available.
The EI community enjoys good relations with the nearby hippie community, consisting of about fifty households. Many of them do organic gardening and usually use less-toxic personal care products. The two communities have joined forces opposing developers a few times.
Doctors, scientists and others with an interest in MCS/EHS and related issues have occasionally visited the community. Health practitioners have a few times come and offered treatments in someoneÕs home.
Some of the EIs use a local senior center, which makes good efforts to be less toxic.
This is a community for people with both MCS and EHS. Most have both illnesses, but some have only one. If you are lucky enough to have only one of these illnesses, you may consider embracing both lifestyles if you wish to participate in the social life. If you use toxic products daily, it is not possible for you to just take a shower and be clean enough to visit someone with MCS.
Our community has been burdened a few times with newcomers who were prone to conflicts. Some people with environmental illness tend to be angry at the world and create conflict with their neighbors no matter where they go. If this is you, this community will not make your world any more pleasant. No place will.
There are both rental houses and privately owned homes in the EI community. Most houses are purpose-built by contractors who are experienced in MCS/EHS housing, though the owner is usually involved on a daily basis. Several owners camped in tents, cars or trailers while their house was built.
Several homes have been built for around $175,000 – $225,000, everything included. Off-grid houses can be cheaper, while larger homes can cost much more. The ownerÕs project management skills can also greatly impact the total cost.
There are sometimes houses for rent or sale. The availability varies and there isnÕt any official waiting list (except for the state-funded rental houses). Some people get a local contact to stay informed; some have simply camped in the area for months in order to secure a rental.
The State of Arizona built four specially designed, less-toxic/low-EMF houses in the neighborhood, which are rented out to people with environmental illness who also have a low income.
Pictures and more information about the state rental houses are available from the link at the end of this article.
Visiting the Snowflake community
We get about five to ten visitors a year who come to see if this is a place for them to move to. Some come back later, a few never leave.
People need to arrive with their own transportation.
Be aware that people here may be much more sensitive than yourself. Most of us avoid cell phones and when we come home from town most of us take a shower and put on clean clothes. While in town, our hair and clothes will pick up fragrances and other contaminants, which will have to be removed before we can start feeling better again.
We know that visitors rarely arrive really ÒcleanÓ, so please do not be offended if you are not invited inside a house or you are politely offered a shower and some clean clothes to borrow during your visit. We cannot smell the clothes we wear ourselves, but they can make us and others sick just as well. You may feel better yourself!
Visitors are also expected to fully turn off their cell phones and other electronics. Making them silent is not enough — they must be fully off, so they cannot receive calls in any way. If you feel you need to make a call using a cell phone, please do not do it inside anyoneÕs house, but go outside at least fifty feet (15 meters) from the house.
The best time to visit is summer and fall. Avoid the winter and the month of April, when the storms roll through.
The best less-toxic commercial lodging is La Posada in Winslow, which is built and maintained with natural materials and generally avoids fragrances, pesticides and toxic cleaners.
Campers like Fool Hollow Lake in Show Low and Lyman Lake State Park in St. Johns, where dispersed camping is possible on the beach. Some visitors have slept in their car or RV in someoneÕs driveway, though such lodging must be arranged privately before arriving.
Our community has been visited by public TV stations from Europe and Asia, as well as NPR radio, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times. We have turned down requests from the more sensationalistic media.
Pictures and more information
See the Arizona web page of The EI Wellspring (www.eiwellspring.org/arizonalocal.html) for pictures and additional information about Snowflake and other Arizona MCS/EHS communities.
last updated November 2014