Resources and Support for Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, Environmental Illness, and Chemical Injuries in Canada

A Dr. looks at Environmental Illness

Written by Dr. Ann McCampbell, M.D. Santa Fe, NM (1999)

Prior to 1988, I was a healthy, athletic physician who played drums in a rock band. A year later I was severely disabled with what is known as Multiple Chemical sensitivities (MCS). The onset was subtle, with slowly worsening food intolerance, progressing to the point where I could only eat three green vegetables. By then I was also having severe reactions to inhaled substances and had developed headaches, fatigue, heart palpitations, nausea, and severe diarrhea. Like so many others with MCS, I could no longer tolerate where I lived and was forced to live outside in my yard, the car, or a makeshift shelter.

Despite some improvements since the late 1980's, I still face food intolerance, malnutrition, and adverse reactions to a wide array of chemicals commonly found in the air, foods, and water in our everyday environment. I go to few places outside my home in order to avoid exposures to cigarette smoke, pesticides, perfume, vehicle exhaust, cleaning products and other toxic fumes which make me sicker. I still do not know what caused my MCS, although I do know that I am sick now and that my illness is real and has been devastating.

What is MCS?

Persons who have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) experience adverse health reactions following exposure to a wide spectrum of certain chemicals at levels which ordinarily do not affect others. The stimulating agents are found everywhere in our modern world: Pesticides, new building materials, new carpets and furniture, glue and solvents, paint, perfume and many personal care products, detergents, fabric softeners, shampoos, hair sprays, mousse, soaps, lotions, deodorants, tar and asphalt fumes, smoke, cleaning products, disinfectants, vehicular and industrial exhaust fumes, fresh ink, new plastics, and synthetic clothing. Symptoms can be provoked by even minute amounts of substances being inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Many with MCS also react to mold, dust, pollen and animals. There are significant overlaps between MCS and the syndromes of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction system and Fibromyalgia, a painful chronic condition of joint and muscle pain.

MCS occurs in people of all ages, races, and socio-economic conditions. Women are affected more frequently than men. Although the exact prevalence of this disorder has not been clearly defined, a 1995 randomized study in California found that 16% of the population reported some degree of chemical sensitivity and 7% said they had been diagnosed with MCS. Three physicians in northern New Mexico who treat patients with MCS estimate that collectively, they have diagnosed 1500 new patients in our area in the past two years.

The severity of this illness varies greatly, from those with only minimal symptoms as a "real" illness, there are some physicians who understand and treat the condition. It has also been recognized as a potentially disabling condition by the Federal Social Security Administration, Department of Housing and Development (HUD), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Academy of Sciences. The newly-built medical facility in Taos, NM - Holy Cross Hospital- was constructed with rooms designed to accommodate chemically sensitive patients, by not only utilizing less-toxic building materials, but also establishing guidelines for staff to refrain from wearing scented personal care products and utilizing less-toxic cleaning methods.

Causes of MCS:

MCS is thought to result from exposure to toxic chemicals, although the exact etiology of MCS is unproven and the mechanism of the illness is unknown. Some develop MCS after a single major exposure, while others seem to develop symptoms slowly following cumulative events. Many of those with MCS report the onset of their illness after moving into a new home or working in recently remodeled offices. Many members of the health care profession have developed this disorder, seemingly after chronic exposure to disinfectants and other chemicals found in hospital and other health care settings.

The Symptoms of MCS:

The symptoms of MCS vary greatly and are unique to each person, but the unifying factor is that chemically sensitive people experience the onset and/or exacerbation of their symptoms following exposure to chemicals. The diversity of symptoms and the lack of a clear causative agent has contributed to the bewilderment of medical professionals who, all too often, throw up their hands in frustration and attribute the symptoms to a pure psychiatric problem.

The symptoms of MCS run the gamut of all the body systems: headache, fatigue, sleep disturbances, dizziness, heart palpitations, respiratory difficulties, swollen lymph nodes, abnormal taste sensations, impaired circulation, gastrointestinal problems, joint and muscle pain, weakness, loss of coordination, nerve irritations, and even seizures. Many cerebral symptoms can also appear, such as clouded thinking, difficulty in concentration and communication, memory loss and feelings of intoxication. Emotional symptoms may occur as well, such as depression, panic attacks and emotional outbursts. Finally, persons with MCS may have typical symptoms associated with allergies such as itchy eyes, nasal congestion, sinusitis, asthma, hives and other rashes, and even anaphylactic reactions.

The onset and severity of symptoms following an exposure varies from person to person based on their general state of health, recent cumulative exposures, and other unknown factors. Symptom onset may be delayed by hours or even days from exposure. The duration of an individuals reaction can also vary from seconds to a few weeks or months.

Diagnosis and Treatment of MCS:

The diagnosis of MCS is often easy to make, but difficult to prove, since there are no agreed upon diagnostic criteria for this disorder. Like other conditions with limited physical and laboratory findings - e.g. headaches— the physician must often rely primarily on reports from the patient's array of symptoms resulting from environmental exposures. Various tests such as brain scans, immunological studies, enzyme functioning, and neuropsychological tests have shown abnormalities in many people with MCS, pointing to possible damage to the immunological and central nervous systems.

There is no known cure for MCS, but a variety of treatments can help reduce the reactions and improve the overall health of people with the disorder. Avoiding exposure to stimulating chemicals is of prime importance, but not always possible in the environment of modern society. Treatments that have been found to be helpful include nutritional supplements, detoxification treatments, allergy desensitization and correction of hormonal imbalances. Complimentary medical techniques such as acupuncture and homeopathic medicines have also found to be effective.

Although some people seem to fully recover from MCS, most unfortunately demonstrate a chronic relapsing course characterized by spurts of improvement countered with distressing setbacks. MCS is rarely fatal in itself, but deaths have been known to occur as a result of severe broncho spasm, heart irregularities and malnutrition. Tragically, suicide is also a factor of morbidity for those with MCS who find their worlds overwhelmingly intolerable due to the pain, isolation, and hopelessness associated with this illness.

Written by Dr. Ann Campbell, M.D. Santa Fe, NM


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