Sensitivity to chemicals prompts organic business

Editor’s note: Slice of Life features are being written by Hood College journalism students throughout the month.

One day in the early 1990s, Diana Kaye walked into her local post office and was unable to breathe.

“They had just waxed the floors,” said Kaye’s life and business partner, Jim Hahn.

“I was just thinking … why can I not breathe?” Kaye said.

It was not an isolated incident for Kaye. At the time, she had recently ended intensive chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which was diagnosed in 1988 when she was 29.

The severe chemical sensitivities that Kaye suffered as a result of the experimental chemotherapy, which she described as “double the dose in half the time,” led her and Hahn to purge their lives of petro-chemicals and other substances — and ultimately to found Terressentials, a store featuring USDA-approved organic products based in Middletown with a Frederick location at 100 E. Patrick St.

The store’s all-natural wares include skin care products, jewelry, scarves, chocolate, teas and wrapping paper. All ingredients are displayed.

“We try to educate people about what it is in the products they buy,” Kaye said. “We educate people. That is our No. 1 mission.”

The scary moment in the post office reflected Kaye’s grave challenges after her chemotherapy. Her side effects included hormonal problems, headaches, chemical sensitivities, stomach issues and neuropathy.

While researching Kaye’s condition, Hahn concentrated on her strong reaction to chemicals because that was a daily occurrence they could try to control.

“We wanted to try to minimize my exposure to petro-chemicals,” Kaye said, explaining how the couple began to look into freshly grown products that claimed to be natural and healthy.

It turned out that many “organic” products were not as they were advertised.

“They were the furthest thing from natural,” Hahn said.

Disenchanted with what was available, Kaye and Hahn began to make their own organically grown products and sell them through a catalog. In 1996, they made the life-changing choice to exchange their architectural careers in Washington for a catalog-based business selling organic products from a Middletown farm.

Kaye, 52, and Hahn, 56, work six days a week growing and creating products — as well as networking with local artisans — to maintain the downtown Terressentials location.

“There was no choice,” Kaye said of their decision to start the business. Their actions were inspired not only by Kaye’s chemical sensitivity, but also by research-based concern for how the modern population treats itself.

Kaye and Hahn believe Kaye’s cancer diagnosis was largely rooted in her upbringing in Pittsburgh, where she was exposed to chemicals through art products, fixing car engines with her father, and working on a farm where the now-banned insecticide DDT was used.

“Humans have not adapted to metabolize this onslaught of chemicals,” Kaye said. “People accept these things as normal, but they’re not.”

The couple also saw companies that claimed to be “organic” as contributing to environmental problems.

“We didn’t feel right supporting industries that produced such pollution through manufacturing,” Kaye said.

“We are, in a huge way, trying to fix the world. And education is premium.”

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