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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Definition, Description, Causes and symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Alternative treatment, Prognosis, Prevention

Multiple chemical sensitivity, also known as MCS syndrome or simply 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.

Description

Multiple chemical sensitivity typically begins with one high-dose exposure to a chemical, but it may also develop with 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, and cleaning products; latex; tobacco smoke; perfumes and fragrances; and artificial colors, flavors, and preservatives. People who develop MCS are commonly exposed 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. Others may be exposed in unique incidents.

Because MCS is difficult to diagnose, estimates vary as to what percentage of the population develops MCS. However, most MCS patients are female. The median age of MCS patients is 40 years old, and most experienced symptoms before they were 30 years old.

Causes and symptoms

Chemical exposure is often a result of indoor air pollution. Buildings which are tightly sealed for energy conservation may cause a related illness called sick building syndrome, in which people develop symptoms from chronic exposure to airborne environmental chemicals such as formaldehyde from the furniture, carpet glues, and latex caulking. A person moving into a newly constructed building, which has not had time to degas, may experience the initial high-dose exposure that leads to MCS.

The symptoms of MCS vary from person to person and are not chemical-specific. Symptoms are not limited to one physiological system, but primarily affect the respiratory and nervous systems. Symptoms commonly reported are headache, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, short-term memory loss, dizziness, irritability and depression, itching, numbness, burning sensation, congestion, sore throat, hoarseness, shortness of breath, cough, and stomach pains.

Diagnosis

Multiple chemical sensitivity is a twentieth-century disorder, becoming more prevalent as more man-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. Physicians are often unaware of MCS as a condition. They may be unable to diagnose it, or may misdiagnose it as another degenerative disease, or may label it as a psychosomatic illness (a physical illness that is caused by emotional problems). Their lack of understanding generates frustration, anxiety, and distrust in patients already struggling with MCS. However, a new specialty of medicine is evolving to address MCS and related illnesses: occupational and environmental medicine. A physician looking for MCS will take a complete patient history and try to identify chemical exposures.

Treatment

While doctors may recommend antihistamines, analgesics, and other medications to combat the symptoms, 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. This isolation often limits their abilities to work and socialize, so supportive counseling may also be appropriate.

Alternative treatment

Some MCS patients find relief with detoxification programs of exercise and sweating, and chelation of heavy metals. 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 and acupuncture can give added support to any treatment program for MCS patients. Botanical medicine can help to support the liver and other involved organs.

Prognosis

Once MCS sets in, sensitivity continues to increase and a person's health continues to deteriorate. Strictly avoiding exposure to triggering chemicals for a year or more may improve health.

Prevention

Multiple chemical sensitivity is difficult to prevent because even at high-dose exposures, different people react differently. Ensuring adequate ventilation in situations with potential for acute high-dose or chronic low-dose chemical exposure, as well as wearing the proper protective equipment in industrial situations, will minimize the risk.

Resources

BOOKS

Hu, Howard, and Frank E. Speizer. "Specific Environmental and Occupational Hazards." In Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, ed. Anthony S. Fauci, et al. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

PERIODICALS

Sparks, P. J., et al. "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome: A Clinical Perspective." Journal of Occupational Medicine 36 (1994): 718.

ORGANIZATIONS

American Academy of Environmental Medicine. P.O. Box CN 1001-8001, New Hope, PA 18938. (215) 862-4544.

Bethany Thivierge

KEY TERMS


Degas—To release and vent gases. New building materials often give off gases and odors and the air should be well circulated to remove them.

Sick building syndrome—An illness related to MCS in which a person develops symptoms in response to chronic exposure to airborne environmental chemicals found in a tightly sealed building.

Additional topics

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