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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – Basic Overview
This article is also available as a PDF file (overview.pdf – 11KB)
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity – Basic Overview
The problem of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity came to public attention in the United States in 1987 when Washington’s Environmental Protection Agency refurbished and re-carpeted large areas of office space. Subsequently nearly 200 people developed symptoms of “sick building syndrome.” Dozens of people later reported developing MCS.
MCS is a chronic medical condition with multiple symptoms which occur as a result of chemical exposure. MCS can be caused by a single large exposure to one or more toxic chemicals or through repeated low-dose exposures over a longer period of time. In the early stages of chemical sensitivity the symptoms might only be present during the actual time of chemical exposure. Continued exposure then leads to increasing and more permanent symptoms, while less and less of the chemical is needed to cause these health effects. As the condition worsens a whole range of substances, often unrelated to the first exposure, begin to trigger reactions.
Symptoms often vary between individuals and include:
Common chemical exposures linked to MCS include:
People diagnosed with MCS are often:
People with MCS may become partially or totally disabled for several years or for life. They must make fundamental changes to their lifestyle and may be forced to leave employment. Some people eventually recover but few return to complete health.
Two thirds of people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and fibromyalgia (a painful musculoskeletal condition) also have MCS and vice versa. A high incidence of MCS occurs amongst people with asthma, allergies and attention deficit disorder. All of these medical conditions have increased significantly across the industrialised world and community concern is growing.
There is currently no recognised treatment for MCS. Avoiding any chemical exposures which may trigger reactions is essential and may produce some improvement. People with MCS must often escape the pollution of modern life to a clean, safe micro-environment, either by moving to an isolated location or by attempting to create a chemical free area in which to live and work. Isolation and depression are common problems for people with MCS, who are often restricted socially due to the health risks of chemical exposure.
Simply avoiding chemical exposure can prevent the symptoms of MCS. A difficult task in our modern world.
In the United States, over the past fifteen years, increasingly widespread recognition has been given to chemical sensitivity and MCS by US federal, state and local authorities, court decisions and independent organisations. Public policies, grounded in public health, occupational health and safety and disability access legislation, have been adopted to help prevent MCS and to protect the disability rights of people who already have MCS. Some jurisdictions, including the cities of San Francisco and Santa Cruz and the state of Washington, specifically include MCS within their disability access regulations and recommendations.
Generally these policies call for:
The US Environmental Protection Agency has completed a review of indoor air quality standards.
The Commonwealth Department of Family and Community Services recognises MCS in relation to disability support payments. Despite this fact, there are very few other provisions responding adequately to the problems which MCS presents, either in federal or state public health policy or in chemical regulation and use. MCS is a major public health problem in Australia which is not being addressed. The condition is poorly recognised, poorly diagnosed and poorly treated, while the right to a clean environment for people living with MCS is almost universally ignored. Despite this lack of specific action on MCS the Commonwealth is currently conducting a review of indoor air quality standards.
Australia’s OHS&W and disability access legislation offers a significant lever for MCS policy development.
*“Studies of the Prevalence of Chemical Sensitivity and MCS” MCS Referral and Resources, USA , www.mcsrr.org.