MCS, or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, is a chronic health condition. MSC could be defined as the development of multiple symptoms attributed to exposure to any number of identifiable or unidentifiable chemical substances.
MCS is also known as “environmental illness”, “sick building syndrome”, “chemical sensitivity”, “20th Century Disease”, “Universal Allergy”, “Total Allergy Syndrome”, “Allergic Toxemia” and doctors are most likely to call it “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance.” (IEI).
It was first proposed as a distinct disease in 1950 by Theron G Randolph, a physician, allergist, and researcher from the United States.
Randolph suggested that the body was like “a barrel filling up with chemicals” until a critical point was reached after which, it reacted to any further chemical exposure.
However, traditional medical bodies were skeptical of his ideas and it has taken many years for a shift in attitudes.
With many household chemicals and everyday agents suspected of causing the condition, the label Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) was first used by Mark Cullen, MD in the 1980s. Cullen was an American professor of medicine and epidemiology who established seven criteria for defining MCS.
In 1991, a workshop of the National Academy of Sciences agreed on a definition designating as a syndrome, cases in which patients reacted to chemicals at levels far lower than is normally tolerated.
The National Institute of Environmental Health in the USA (NIEH) defined Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a “chronic recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals” and suggested the medical description Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (1999).
Although the symptoms themselves are real, and can be unpleasant and even disabling for some sufferers of MCS, the condition still remains disputed by many health professionals.
However, according to the UK charity MCS-aware, MCS is recognized as a serious medical illness in Germany, Denmark, Austria, Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA, where sufferers have access to appropriate medical treatment, housing and social support. It is also classified as a physical illness by the World Health Organization (WHO) under the International Classification of Diseases ICD-10-SGB-V, T78.4.
What causes MCS?
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is often attributed to exposure (inhaled, absorbed through the skin or ingested) to chemicals from a variety of sources such as:
- cigarette and cigar smoke
- car exhaust
- paint fumes
- photocopier chemicals
- perfumes and colognes and other scented products
- nail varnish and remover
- hair spray and other hair products
- cleaning products
- dry cleaning fluid
- new carpet
- new furniture
- synthetic fabrics
- flame retardants on furniture and clothing
- newspaper ink
- alcohol and drugs
- caffeine and food additives
- artificial sweeteners
- chlorine in swimming pools
- formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds
What are the symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
MCS sufferers say that the condition affects their overall health and well-being.
It can impair the function of many of the body organs but it is particularly characterized by the debilitating effect it can have on the brain and nervous and digestive systems.
Exposure to different mixes of chemicals means that each sufferer may have an individual set of reactions leading to them exhibiting unique patterns of symptoms.
Symptoms of MCS may range from sore throats to seizure disorders including the following:
- headaches and migraine
- flu-like symptoms
- brain fog
- mental confusion
- irritability and altered behaviors
- poor memory
- difficulty concentrating
- persistent skin rashes, inflammation and sores
- muscle weakness
- joint aches
- numbness and tingling
- restless leg syndrome
- gastrointestinal disturbances
- Inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract
- respiratory problems
- chronic exhaustion
- visual disturbances
- ear nose and throat problems
- Genito-urinary problems
- persistent infections
- auto-immune disorders
- intolerance to heat or cold
- increased sensitivity to odors
- cardio-vascular irregularities
Many of these symptoms are described as ‘non-specific’ which many Health practitioners believe to be psychological or psychosomatic problems.
It can be extremely frustrating for sick people suffering from chronic headaches, tiredness, digestive disturbances, joint pain and other manifestations associated with MCS to have their ill-health dismissed as psychosomatic.
Who can suffer from the disorder?
Many individuals will be suffering from a variety of symptoms unaware that they symptoms may be caused by chemical sensitivity.
For instance, many of us will get headaches from using oil based paint but will not understand that it is the presence of chemicals in the paint that may be the trigger.
Doctors may not recognize MCS as a medical illness because so little is known about it. As a consequence, they are unlikely to make a diagnosis of it or may diagnose it as something else. So, it is not possible to accurately assess how many people actually suffer from MCS.
However, a study carried out in 2004 suggests that 11.2% of the United States population is hypersensitive to one or more common everyday chemicals.
Studies have shown that symptoms of MCS are more common among military personnel, particularly Gulf War veterans. Some findings indicate that these veterans have an increased sensitivity to smog, vehicle exhaust, cosmetics, and chemicals and that this may be linked to behavioral changes.
While anyone can have symptoms from chemical intolerance, it is more common in women than in men. This may be at least partly attributable to female hormonal imbalance. Many pregnant, perimenopausal or menopausal women report increased sensitivity to smells as well as a host of physical ailments that match up to the list of symptoms described above. It is often noted that when steps are taken to balance the hormones, the symptoms disappear.
It is most commonly found in the 30 – 50 age group but children also suffer from MCS.
In reality, individuals with this condition come from any walk of life, any group and any occupation, though geographically they tend to be restricted to those living in North America and Europe.
While it easily understood that high doses of some chemicals make people sick and that irritants such as pollution and cigarette smoke worsen conditions like asthma, it is more a matter of conjecture how exposure to very low levels of chemicals affects people.
It could be due to long-term contact with low levels of chemicals, such as in an office or home with poor ventilation. The consistent exposure over a protracted period may lead to the development of sensitivity and reaction to the chemicals even at levels most people can tolerate.
The reason some people are more susceptible than others may be due to individual body chemistry.
Certain individuals may have a reduced ability to breakdown foreign chemicals causing them to be easily overburdened. This may be inherited or due to some other factor such as nutritionl deficiencies.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity may be more likely in individuals who have an allergic tendency or have experienced:
- glandular fever
- bacterial infection
- viral infection
- severe stress
- severe emotional trauma eg grief
- low grade, long term exposure to chemicals
- or a combination of these
How Is MCS diagnosed?
There are no reliable tests to diagnose Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.
Maintaining a careful case history of the patient is very important in the diagnosis.
It will be vital to keep a detailed record of daily routines and activities and when and where symptoms are better or worse. Precise information on daily, weekly and seasonal routines may help to determine triggers and reveal which exposures the individual may be reacting to.
It is likely that the physician will also wish to rule out other disorders that may be causing the symptoms by using medical tests such as blood tests, X-rays etc.
Is MSC ever confused with other diseases?
Many Physicians do not recognize Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a medical disease and so they will generally diagnose another cause for the symptoms. The following disorders may either co-exist with MSC or present with similar symptoms:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME)
- Underactive thyroid gland
What are the treatments for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
Although symptoms can be managed and sometimes improved, there is currently no known cure for MCS.
The most effective treatment is to try to identify and then avoid the chemicals and pollutants that are triggering the symptoms.
However, any lifestyle changes that help remove as many toxins and other problem substances from the environment in which you live is likely to be beneficial.
Here are 4 self-help tips that may help and some ideas for removing toxins from your home. You might also find that some houseplants reduce the chemicals from the air you breathe at home and in the office.
The UK charity MCS-aware, advises that early access to appropriate information, support, treatment and an individual approach is vital for any chance of recovery.
Why is MCS a relatively recent phenomenon?
Chemical sensitivity was first recognized in the 1950s (see Theron G Randolph above).
However, it came more into focus in the 1970s when there was a significant increase in the numbers exhibiting these symptoms.
This coincided with the introduction of urea-formaldehyde insulation into North American homes and led to connections being made between the symptoms and chemical sensitivity.
There were also other developments in building modifications beyond the use of urea-formaldehyde insulation that impacted on the environments in which we lived and worked.
There was an increase in the use of synthetic materials and finishes, which we now know emit volatile chemicals. Buildings were also becoming more air tight with the introduction of double-glazed windows (often using PVC) and insulation. This kept the warmth in. However, it also prevented fresh air from entering and stopped indoor air pollution from escaping.
MCS is a potentially devastating condition.
There are many different triggers and many different reactions to the cocktail of chemicals that we are exposed to.
It is difficult to get a definitive diagnosis from many health professionals and that, in itself, can make a sufferer feel extremely isolated.
Our aim at CopingWithMultipleChemicalSensitivity.com is to be supportive and to try to provide a useful resource for those living Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.