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Understanding Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Reviewed By: Dr. Kurt Kloss, MD
Last Reviewed Date: Apr 03, 2018
Last Modified Date: Apr 03, 2018
Published Date: Feb 01, 2018

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is also referred to as Environmental Illness. MCS is a highly controversial condition where the sufferer believes his or her illnesses are attributed to continual exposure to low doses or levels of chemicals in the surrounding environment. The person who believes they suffer from MCS may relay a number of symptoms to their health care worker; however, due to the vagueness of the symptoms and lack of clinical studies on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, cases are difficult to prove. Many scientific and medical governing bodies fail to recognize MCS as a valid condition. Check out the question and answer session below for the latest information regarding this controversial illness.

Q: What is MCS/Environmental Illness?

A: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) or Environmental Illness, as it is also known, is identified as a syndrome where a sufferer lists a variety of symptoms that are believed to be the result of low level, continual exposure to chemicals. MCS symptoms are often brought on by a set of environmental triggers and are long lasting or chronic. In the early stages of MCS, when the trigger is removed, the symptoms disappear.

Q: Is MCS Recognized as valid?

A: MCS is a controversial syndrome that lacks scientific proof through verifiable studies to make it a valid medical condition by many governing legal and medical authorities. Research continues to support claims of sufferers, and scientists, health care practitioners, attorneys and judges are continually changing their opinions regarding MCS and Environmental Illness. Though not recognized as an official disease or syndrome by the American Medical Association; many U.S. government agencies not only recognize Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome, but provide resources for those who believe they have been impacted by the condition. The U.S. Department of Health, National Institutes of Health, and the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) provide resources, studies, and guidance for those believe to have the condition; even though scientific data has yet to confirm the syndrome.

Q: Have there been any studies done on the disease?

A: There have been many studies researching the cause, symptoms and long term impact of MCS. The condition was first described by Theron Randolph, an environmental allergist, who published medical literature regarding the condition in the early 1950s and throughout the 1960s. Randolph and several other physicians continued to study and report on MCS, however, their publications weren’t widely accepted by the medical community as a whole. Randolph founded the Society for Human Ecology which continues to research MCS.

Following Theron Randolph’s lead, the U.S. Government has shown great interest in MCS and has authored numerous studies. What is most often debated is how the medical community should present MCS to the public and what factors cause one person to develop sensitivities to long term exposure to chemicals rather than another. The fact that chemical exposure can lead to illness is not contested.

Q:  What causes Environmental Illness?

A: There is no known, specific cause for Environmental Illness, which has helped cause the controversy surrounding the condition. It is debated whether sufferers of MCS are experiencing an allergic reaction, or are experiencing the harmful effects of toxic, chemical exposure. The National Institute of Health defines MCS as a “chronic recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals.” As the description is based upon one person’s inability to tolerate chemical exposure, while another person may be exposed to the same chemical and never suffer harm, the scientific and medical community have not yet determined a cause for MCS. Symptoms also vary from one person to the next, making a single cause difficult to locate.

Q: What are some symptoms of MCS?

A: MCS symptoms vary from one person to the next, however, most symptoms are similar to those of an allergic reaction or chemical poisoning. Wheezing, runny nose, lack of concentration, difficulty focusing, extreme fatigue, lethargy, difficulty breathing or feeling a loss of breath, migraines, blurred vision, dizziness, and feeling faint make up some of the most frequently reported symptoms associated with MCS.

Q: What are some triggers that bring on MCS symptoms?

A: MCS is associated with certain triggers or environmental factors that when a sufferer is associated with that particular source, he or she experiences MCS symptoms. Some of the most frequently reported and identified triggers of MCS include: gas fumes, cigarette smoke, perfumes, household and commercial cleaning products, furniture polish, paints and lacquers, formaldehyde, sugar, aspirin, air pollution, smog, bleach, ammonia, fluoride and drinking water.

Q: How is MCS diagnosed and treated?

 A: There are certain criteria that must be met in order for an MCS diagnosis to be rendered. These include a sufferer reporting that he or she has experienced symptoms associated with MCS on a chronic or long term basis, that there is sufficient reason to believe that repeated exposure to a chemical substance is attributing to the condition, that when identifiable triggers are removed the condition improves and that any exposure to the chemical brings about the symptoms.

Please see the links below for more information regarding Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome.