Thursday, April 7, 2011

Multiple Chemical Sensitvities (MCS)

What is MCS?

MCS is a disorder in which a person develops symptoms from exposure to chemicals in the environment. With each incidence of exposure, lower levels of the chemical will trigger a reaction and the person becomes increasingly vulnerable to reactions triggered by other chemicals. Medical experts disagree on the cause of the syndrome, and as to whether MCS is a clinically recognized illness.

How are the causes of MCS?

MCS either begins with one high-dose exposure to a chemical or long-term exposure to a low level of a chemical. Chemicals most often connected with MCS include formaldehyde; pesticides; solvents; petrochemical fuels such as diesel, gasoline, and kerosene, waxes, detergents, cleaning products, latex, tobacco smoke, perfumes, fragrances, artificial colors and flavors, and preservatives. People who develop MCS frequently exposed to chemicals in one of the following situations: on the job as an industrial worker; residing or working in a poorly ventilated building; or living in conditions of high air or water pollution.

Chemical exposure is often a result of indoor air pollution. Many buildings that are tightly sealed for energy conservation do a good job of keeping pollutants in the building. Newly constructed commercial or residential buildings, that have not degassed, are especially troublesome. Airborne environmental chemicals such as formaldehyde from the furniture, carpet glues, and latex caulking may be high leading to MCS. That new car smell is nothing but toxic chemical. As long as the “new” smell is around, so are high levels of chemicals.

How is MCS diagnosed by a physician?

MCS is difficult to diagnose. As a result, estimates vary as to what percentage of the population develops MCS. Most MCS patients are female, median age of 40 years old, and most experienced symptoms before they were 30 years old. There are also a large percentage, of Persian Gulf War veterans, who have reported symptoms of chemical sensitivity since their return from the Gulf in the early 1990s.

MCS is a modern day disorder, becoming more prevalent as more human-made chemicals are introduced into the environment in greater quantities. It is especially difficult to diagnose because it presents no consistent or measurable set of symptoms and has no single diagnostic test or marker. A new specialty of medicine has evolving to address MCS and related illnesses: occupational and environmental medicine. A good physician looking for MCS will take a complete patient history and try to identify chemical exposures.

What are the symptoms of MCS?

The symptoms of MCS vary from person to person. Symptoms primarily affect the respiratory and nervous systems and may include the following commonly reported; headache, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, short-term memory loss, dizziness, irritability, depression, itching, numbness, burning sensation, congestion, sore throat, hoarseness, shortness of breath, cough, and stomach pains. One commonly reported symptom of MCS is a heightened sensitivity to odors, including a stronger emotional reaction to them.

What are the Treatments for MCS?

Once MCS sets in, sensitivity can continue to increase and a person's health can continue to deteriorate. Strictly avoiding exposure to triggering chemicals is probably the single most important suggestion.

Some doctors recommend antihistamines, analgesics, and other medications to combat the symptoms. However, the most effective treatment is to avoid those chemicals, which trigger the symptoms. This becomes increasingly difficult as the number of offending chemicals increases, and people with MCS often remain at home where they are able to control the chemicals in their environment therefore isolating themselves.

Some people with MCS may find relief with detoxification programs of diet, exercise, and sweating. Others support their health with nutritional regimens and immunotherapy vaccines. Some undergo food-allergy testing and testing for accumulated pesticides in the body to learn more about their condition and what chemicals to avoid. Homeopathy, acupuncture, and chelation of heavy metals may give added support to any treatment program for MCS patients. Botanical medicine can help to support the liver and other involved organs.

Here are some common household items that contain toxic chemicals:

 Paint with VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Zero or low VOC paint is more expensive but worth the price for your health.

 Synthetic carpet.  Synthetic carpet contains many toxins and hazardous chemicals at nearly every step of the manufacturing process. Most carpets are constructed from fibers derived from petroleum. They are bonded to their backings with either natural or synthetic latex and then they are treated with pesticides, bleaches, dyes, stain protectants, and anti-static solutions. Add to this mixture anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agents, as well as chemical baths containing substances like chlorine, bromine, and phosphorous to render the carpet non-flammable. When cleaning carpets, avoid strong and toxic cleaning agents. Use enzymatic products made to remove pet stains and odors from carpets, such as Nature's Miracle. It can be used in carpet cleaners and do a good job of keeping them clean and fresh. Hardwood flooring and carpets with natural fibers is preferable to synthetic carpets. If you just moved into a house with synthetic carpet, clean it and vacuum daily for the first couple of months. See for more information.

 BPA, PVC and Phthalates are chemicals found in plastics. All three chemicals are extremely dangerous to our health and most dangerous of all to unborn babies, infants and children. They are all what are known as endocrine disruptors. They can upset normal hormonal balance in our bodies, stimulate the growth and development of cancers (breast, uterine, prostate), impair fertility, and disrupt pregnancy. They can be found in plastic food packaging, plastic food storage containers, plastic water bottles, canned foods, toys, cooking implements and kitchen appliances like coffee makers. These chemicals migrate out of the plastic and into the food and liquids we consume. There are other sicknesses associated with these chemicals, including heart disease and behavioral problems in children. They may be in the plastic of the bottle containing the organic shampoo you bought last week and even in your child’s dental sealant. See for more information.

 Laundry detergent – the typical laundry detergent is loaded with many synthetic chemicals including petroleum and phosphates. Use one that is biodegradable and exempt of toxic chemicals like Seventh Generation or Enviro-Rite. See for more information.

 Pesticides - Products that have been formulated to kill bugs, weeds, fungus, rodents, and other pests are not only deadly for their intended victims, but they can also harm many other living organisms that come into contact with them, including humans and pets. Use alternative ways to handle unwanted plants and pests, such as natural grade diatomaceous earth to get rid of bugs, pulling weeds out by hand, and using covers in gardens to ward off insects.

 Herbicides – same as pesticides. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is higher among farmers who used chemical herbicides. Use organic herbicides.  I have a friend who grew up on a farm and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's when he was only 37.

 Fabric softener – contains a laundry list of chemical including petrochemicals that are known to cause cancer and brain damage. You can (1) add a quarter cup of baking soda to wash cycle to soften fabric, (2) add a quarter cup of white vinegar to rinse to soften fabric and eliminate cling, or (3) check out your local health food store for a natural fabric softener that uses a natural base like soy instead of chemicals. See The Toxic Danger of Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets for more information.

Other Resource:

Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine (2008). Multiple chemical sensitivity. Retrieved May 23, 2010 from

Image: Danilo Rizzuti /

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