Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a chronic condition that affects a growing number of individuals worldwide.
People with MCS experience symptoms when exposed to low levels of various common chemicals. This article aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of MCS, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and holistic treatment options.
What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, also known as MCS, is a complex disorder characterized by heightened sensitivity to multiple chemically unrelated substances.
These substances can include everyday chemicals such as perfumes, pesticides, tobacco smoke, fresh paint, new carpets, air fresheners, new building materials, vehicle exhaust, solvents, industrial fumes, and cleaning products. People with MCS can also experience reactions to foods, drugs, mold, pollen, and electromagnetic fields.
Prevalence of MCS
MCS affects people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds. It occurs twice as often in women as in men.
A national U.S. prevalence study found that 11.2% of respondents reported heightened sensitivity to common chemicals, and the numbers seem to be growing. Reports from around the world indicate that chemical sensitivity is a global problem.
Causes of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
The exact cause of MCS is still not fully understood. However, many people who develop MCS were once healthy individuals who tolerated chemical exposures like everyone else, until they experienced an exposure from which they did not recover.
For example, some people have developed MCS after moving into a newly built house, having carpets installed in their office, or after having their home sprayed with pesticides. Others slowly become ill over a period of years, seemingly as a result of the cumulative exposures of everyday life.
There is evidence to suggest that genetic factors may play a role in the development of MCS. Some studies have identified specific genetic variations associated with an increased risk of developing the condition. However, more research is needed to fully understand the role of genetics in MCS.
Environmental factors, such as exposure to chemicals and pollutants, are believed to be significant contributors to the development of MCS.
The condition is thought to result from a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers. Prolonged exposure to low levels of chemicals may lead to a breakdown of the body's natural detoxification processes, resulting in increased sensitivity to these substances.
Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
The symptoms of MCS are diverse and unique to each person. They can range from mild to life-threatening and can include, but are not limited to:
- Trouble concentrating
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Fatigue, weakness
- Metallic taste in the mouth
- Dizziness, numbness, and tingling
- Wheezing, irregular heartbeat
- Joint and muscle pain, tremors, seizures
- Altered brain chemistry causing anxiety, depression, and emotional outbursts
Symptoms in children may include red cheeks and ears, dark circles under the eyes, hyperactivity, and behavioral or learning problems. After an exposure, symptoms may occur immediately or be delayed by hours or days. Reactions may last from a few minutes to weeks or months.
Variable Symptoms and Exposures
The key factor distinguishing MCS from other medical conditions is that MCS symptoms come and go, or wax and wane, in relation to levels of chemical exposures that do not ordinarily affect others. The severity and type of symptoms can vary depending on the individual and the specific chemical exposure.
Diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
Diagnosing MCS can be challenging, as there is no definitive test or biomarker for the condition. A published consensus definition defines MCS as a chronic condition involving multiple organ systems in which low-level exposures to multiple chemically unrelated substances cause symptoms, and these symptoms improve or resolve when a person is no longer exposed to these substances.
The diagnostic criteria for MCS typically include:
- A history of exposure to chemicals or environmental triggers
- Symptoms that occur in response to exposure to these substances
- Symptom improvement or resolution when the exposure is removed
- The presence of symptoms in multiple organ systems
- The exclusion of other medical conditions that could explain the symptoms
While there are no specific diagnostic tests for MCS, some tests may help identify underlying imbalances and abnormalities associated with the condition. These tests can include:
- SPECT brain scans
- In-depth immune studies
- Elevated levels of heavy metals or synthetic chemicals
The results of these tests, along with a thorough medical history and physical examination, can help support a diagnosis of MCS.
Holistic Treatment Options for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
There is no known cure for MCS; however, a variety of holistic treatments can help people reduce their symptoms and improve their health. The most helpful treatment is to avoid exposure to chemicals, foods, drugs, and electromagnetic fields that trigger symptoms.
Creating a Safe Environment
A good place to start is by creating a "safe" room in one's home that is as free of triggering substances and conditions as possible. This may involve:
- Removing synthetic materials, carpets, and furniture that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Using air purifiers with HEPA filters and activated carbon to remove airborne chemicals
- Choosing unscented, natural cleaning and personal care products
- Avoiding pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the home and garden
Nutritional supplements may be helpful for people with MCS to support detoxification, immune function, and overall health. These supplements can include vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids. A balanced diet rich in fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can also help support overall health and well-being.
Detoxification therapies, such as sauna therapy, colon hydrotherapy, and liver and kidney support, can help remove accumulated toxins from the body and improve detoxification pathways. It is essential to work with a knowledgeable healthcare provider to ensure these therapies are safe and effective for the individual.
Alternative and Complementary Therapies
Alternative and complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, herbs, brain retraining programs, and other treatments, have been helpful for some people with MCS. However, it is important to note that individuals with MCS vary considerably in their response to treatments and their ability to tolerate them (with the exception of chemical avoidance, which is almost universally helpful).
Finding a Knowledgeable Physician
People with MCS are advised to find a physician knowledgeable about the condition to avoid getting sick in standard medical offices, being misdiagnosed, put through inappropriate or hazardous testing and treatment, and suffering from disbelief or even hostility from medical staff. Many medical doctors who specialize in the evaluation and treatment of MCS can be located through organizations such as the American Academy of Environmental Medicine.
Impact of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
MCS can have a significant impact on an individual's quality of life. People with mild to moderate chemical sensitivities may be able to make adjustments in their diets, home environment, type and location of work, clothing, and personal care products they use to remain productive and connected to the outside world. However, at its worst, MCS is a severe, disabling, and isolating disease that forces people to alter every aspect of their lives.
Social and Economic Implications
People with severe MCS often lose their jobs, homes, careers, family, and friends. They may be unable to go into most buildings and can even become homebound. The isolation imposed by chemical barriers and lack of understanding of MCS contributes to the often devastating nature of this illness.
Legal and Political Considerations
The acceptance of MCS as a "real" illness by the medical community has been slow, and still has a long way to go. This is largely the result of the extensive efforts of the chemical/pharmaceutical industry to prevent the recognition of MCS. Despite industry efforts, the validity of MCS continues to slowly gain ground, with recognition by various government agencies and coverage under disability legislation on a case-by-case basis.
MCS Advocacy and Future Developments
People with MCS continue to organize locally, nationally, and internationally to educate others about this disease, promote research, advocate for those who suffer from it, and help prevent others from getting it.
Increased awareness and understanding of MCS are essential for improving the lives of those affected by this challenging condition. With ongoing research and advocacy efforts, there is hope for a better future for individuals living with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.