Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Growing up, I would frequently spend a couple of weeks each summer in San Diego with my aunt, uncle, cousins and an old family friend who was wonderfully sweet. She would always take my cousin and me for a special treat at the start of the trip but, many times, we would end up walking through a department store that would make her so sick we would have to step outside and rest for a while. Although she knew this meant she was sensitive to chemical fragrances, what none of us knew then was that she was not alone.
picture of a gas mask around earth with the words "chemical sensitivity environmental awareness" 
In many ways, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is what it sounds like: a heightened sensitivity to chemicals. However, there are a lot of variables, misunderstandings, and much confusion when it comes to elements of MCS.

People with chemical sensitivity develop symptoms after "exposure to chemical, biological or other physical agents" ( Symptoms can begin after inhaling, touching or ingesting such agents as insecticides, pesticides, fresh paint, new carpet, cleaning products, smoke, perfumes, car exhaust, etc.

Symptoms range from "headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, congestion, itching, sneezing, sore throat, chest pains, changes in heart rhythm, breathing problems, muscle pain or stiffness, skin rash, diarrhea, bloating, gas, confusion, trouble concentrating, memory problems and mood change." (

picture of the word fragrance with a large red line through it.Although experts are unable to put their finger on exactly why these reactions happen to some people, MCS symptoms can be caused by many things, such as a single chemical event, physical injuries,  and/or pre-existing allergies or conditions such as eczema or asthma.

According to, perfumes, once made from natural ingredients, now use crude oil or turpentine as a base for synthetically-created scents. All of these chemicals and harsh environmental compounds just add to the millions of other toxins we are exposed to every day, which impacts the health of everyone. Additionally, people who have multiple chemical sensitivities are extra sensitive to these chemicals and can have immediate and serious immune responses.

Although it is recognized in many studies that MCS "frequently involves imbalances in a person's nervous, immune and endocrine (hormonal) systems" (, some organizations do not yet recognize Multiple Chemical Sensitivity as a distinct disability, as they claim symptoms and the suspected causes range so widely from case to case, it cannot be identified as such.

cartoon picture of a man looking sick surrounded by toxic chemicalsHowever, my old family friend was not the last person I encountered with very real reactions to chemicals. When I was in college, I noticed a rash on my arm that I was worried could have any number of causes. When I went to the doctor, we ran through several potential options before realizing it was being caused by the new detergent I was using to wash my clothes. Although I had not had noticeable issues before from the heavily fragranced laundry soaps I had always used, I suddenly could no longer use any soaps or lotions with fragrance in them without breaking out into a rash when they touched my skin. My symptoms were very minor compared to some but, to this day, I use fragrance and dye-free detergent and chemical-free home and health products, which my skin is very thankful for!

If you find that you are experiencing symptoms of MCS when you are exposed to different agents or if you have someone in your life that is, reminds readers that "avoidance is key."  In addition to changing the personal and home products you buy and use, you can consider the kind of energy you use, appliances you have, cleaning supplies and paints in your home, and move work areas away from common sources of symptoms such as copiers and printers. If you're in a pinch in a particular moment, make sure to go outside and get fresh air or move to a different environment. Check out for more on how to make changes at work or in the home to improve the quality of life of someone with MCS!

Have you ever experienced any chemical sensitivity?  Do you have some tips for others that do?  Please leave a comment in the box below.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I have been having chemical sensitivity reactions for years. In my teens, most deodorants and hair sprays, many cleaners were aerosol and early on we found that I would have allergic reactions to the propellants. In my late thirties, I worked for an Orthotics prosthetics vendor where they created the AFO's (ankle foot Orthotics) by making a plaster mould, exact replica of the patients leg and foot, which involved putting on a cast and cutting it off to fill with plaster. Then heating huge sheets of plastic in a pizza oven (true!) to get the plastic to melt and shape around the plaster moulds. We had dust from the casts, and the plaster moulds and the toxic fumes from the plastic melting all which made me very sick. Later in my 40's I was given K 5 sanitizing solution accidently when I ordered Ice tea from a very well known burger chain. The night crew put in the solution to clean the stainless ice tea cannisters but failed to drain and rinse it out. The morning crew never checked it. They made fresh tea, dumped it in the dispenser on top of the toxic cleaner. I drank two gulps of what I THOUGHT was fresh hot tea to make room for the ice cup she was handing me... It burned out my sinuses, my tongue, throat ... and you can imagine what else.. All of this has left me very sensitive to perfumes, aerosols of any kind, candles, room air fresheners, laundry detergents and softeners, hand lotions, new garments, the gas station and isles in the stores with gardening insecticides and pool chemicals are horrid. I finally asked Longs if they could move the chemicals a couple of isles over away from their pharmacy and noted that the isle to the Pharmacy was a straight shot from their front door and right where they planted pool supplies and gardening. Note, they were happy to move them!!

    So what happens? Sneezing, coughing, itchy throat and eyes, severe headache, rashes, bloody noses.