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.
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" (WebMD.com). 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." (WebMD.com)
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 invisibledisabilities.org, 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" (chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org), 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.
However, 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, multiplechemicalsensitivity.org 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 chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org 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.