MCS: What is It?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), often re­ferred to as environmental illness, is an im­mune and nervous system disorder involving severe reactions to many everyday chemicals and products. For some people MCS occurs with dramatic onset, precipitated by a major chemical exposure or industrial accident. But for most people the condition develops gradu­ally as the result of the cumulative exposures of daily life.

The symptoms of MCS are diverse and unique to each person and can involve any or­gan of the body. Symptoms range from mild to disabling and can sometimes be life threat­ening. They include headaches, fatigue, sleep disturbances, depression, panic attacks, emo­tional outbursts, difficulty concentrating, short-term memory loss, dizziness, heart pal­pitations, diarrhea, constipation, shortness of breath, asthma, rashes, flu-like symptoms, and seizures. Symptoms maybe chronic or may oc­cur only when a person is exposed to certain substances. The particular organs affected de­pend on the individuals genetic background and prior history as well as the specific chemi­cals involved in the exposure.

Symptoms are often triggered by very low levels of exposure, including levels lower than permissible by government standards and typically below the levels tolerated by most people. Triggers include a wide range of sub­stances found in the workplace and at home. Solvents, paints, varnishes, adhesives, pes­ticides, and cleaning solutions are most fre­quently implicated. Other substances include new building materials and furnishings, form­aldehyde in new clothes, artificial fragrances in cleaning and personal care products, deter­gents, car exhaust, and copy mach ine and laser printer toner. Symptoms can occur after inhal­ing chemical vapors, after chemicals touch the skin, or after ingestion. Sensitivity to a par­ticular chemical can lead to sensitivity to an

ever-widening range of other, often dissimilar, chemicals. This characteristic is known as the spreading phenomenon.

It may be useful to think of environmen­tal illness as a spectrum that encompasses a wide range of chemical sensitivities. At one end are individuals who may suffer from mild symptoms, such as simple sinus congestion or headaches, which usually resolve when the triggering chemical is removed. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals with full­blown MCS, who suffer extremely debilitating symptoms that can last for months or years af­ter exposure.

Why do some people develop MCS while others with the same level of exposure do not? Because of biochemical individuality, all humans manifest disease according to their genetic makeup, past chemical exposure, and overall general state of health, which includes total load. Total load refers to all the stressors in a person s life, including chemical exposure, poor nutrition, emotional tension, allergies, infections, trauma, and physical stress.

Although the exact mechanism whereby chemicals create this heightened sensitivity has not yet been clearly elucidated, theories are emerging that will hopefully lead to greater understanding and better treatment of MCS. Recent studies have demonstrated how tox­ins, having gained access to the brain through the olfactory nerve, can cause release of excit­atory amino acids that result in swelling, dys – regulation, and destruction of brain cells. The olfactory nerve is also the pathway to the lim­bic system, which is an area of the brain where the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems interact. The limbic system regulates an ex­tremely wide variety of body functions. Many of the varied and seemingly bizarre symptoms reported by persons with MCS are consistent with symptoms known in the medical litera­ture to occur when various parts of the limbic system are damaged by chemicals or physical injury.

Toxic chemicals can also cause direct dam­age to specific tissues of the body such as en­zymes in the liver that are essential in the de­toxification pathway. Because of inadequate amounts of detoxifying enzymes, a person with MCS is less able to handle chemical loads. Also, recent data indicate that certain toxins in the environment, especially chlorinated com­pounds, mimic natural hormones, causing disruption of endocrine systems such as the thyroid, adrenal, and reproductive systems.

The first documented cases of environmen­tal illness resulted from widespread chemical poisoning during World War I. The exposure to mustard gas had long-term consequences for soldiers, many of whom developed chronic symptoms of chemical sensitivities. More re­cently, thousands of veterans who fought in the Gulf War returned with symptoms simi­lar to those found in patients diagnosed with MCS.

Since World War II, the production of syn­thetic chemicals has increased significantly. In 1945, the estimated worldwide production of these chemicals was less than 10 million tons. Today it is over 110 million tons. As more and more synthetic chemicals are introduced into the environment, larger numbers of healthy people are becoming affected. Most people with MCS have not been through a war. They have become ill from ordinary day-to-day, low-level exposures to poor indoor air qual­ity in their homes and workplaces. MCS suf­ferers often say that their role in society is like the canary in the coal mine. When the canary collapsed, the miners were warned that lethal gases were in the air.

Although MCS is a rapidly growing prob­lem, sometimes called a silent epidemic, health care workers know little about the sub­ject. Chemical sensitivity is a relatively new field of medicine, controversial in nature, and not recognized or understood by most physi­cians. The illness does not fit neatly into the current medical model and, unlike diabe­tes or hypertension, there is no simple med­ical test for making the diagnosis. There are remarkably few individuals in medicine who have toxicology training and who are sensitive to the possible neurological, behavioral, and psychiatric problems resulting from chemical exposures. In addition, the chemical and in­surance industries have played a major role in influencing the average persons perceptions about chemicals and their impact on living or­ganisms.

One of the most important steps in the treatment of the chemically sensitive person is to avoid or reduce toxic chemical exposures as much as possible in order to allow the body to heal. A healthy home is a prerequisite for those who wish to regain their health. The person with MCS needs a sanctuary of peace and well-being in a world saturated with toxic chemicals.

In spite of widespread ignorance and vested financial interests, MCS is gradually becoming known to the public as more and more people are becoming ill. For several years a small but growing number of physi­cians specializing in environmental medicine have been focusing on this serious problem. If you would like information about a physi­cian in your area with expertise in the diagno­sis and treatment of chemically related health problems, contact the American Academy of Environmental Medicine in Wichita, Kansas, at 316-684-5500 or aaemonline. org.