May is MCS, aka multiple chemical sensitivity, awareness month. Many of you may not be aware that this is a deeply personal issue for me, because I live with severe and disabling MCS. So this is a topic that I have a great deal of not only professional experience, but personal as well. I first posted this article in May of 2009, so if you’ve been with me a while, it may look vaguely familiar. However, since it is packed with valuable information, I have decided to re-post it for my new viewers and those who need a refresher on the topic.
Despite the fact that more than 48 million Americans have some degree of chemical sensitivity, of which about 3 million are full blown MCS, it continues to be a condition that many people are unaware of and don’t understand.
MCS is short for multiple chemical sensitivity and is sometimes called environmental illness syndrome or more recently chemical injury. The term chemical injury was coined in an attempt to find a better term that more accurately describes the condition. As anyone living with MCS knows, the term “sensitivity” really doesn’t capture the essence of what this condition means. To some degree it really minimizes it and covers up the fact, which is that chemicals have injured the person inflicted, so therefore chemical injury is a much more accurate term. However, since most people continue to use the term MCS and it is the term that most people are aware of, we will continue to use it in this discussion.
Multiple chemical sensitivity is a chronic, and often progressive, condition where the individual experiences a variety of negative health effects from exposure to common everyday chemicals in the environment that are usually deemed as safe.
These health effects can range anywhere from mild to completely debilitating and even life-threatening. For those with mild effects, they may be able to live a semi-normal life by making strict environmental controls in their home environment and diet, but for the severely sensitive, the impact is profound and life-altering and usually results in disability. The only way for the severely sensitive to protect their health is to avoid all areas that contain threatening chemicals and since these chemicals are found in all public places, then all these places must be avoided.
This means that their social life is extremely restricted, they are unable to secure employment in the workforce, and even something as simple as going to get groceries can be a mine field filled with toxins that leaves them debilitated sometimes for days.
Although the level of sensitivity of those inflicted can vary greatly, it is usually progressive. The mildly sensitive progressively get more sensitive the more often they are exposed to chemicals. For example, when I first discovered I had MCS, even though my sensitivity level was pretty severe even then, I was still able to participate in life to some degree as long as I kept my home and diet toxin free. However, after a serious exposure to an organophosphate herbicide, what little health I had left was completely destroyed and my sensitivity level went from severe to extreme. At that point, I had no choice but to move into the desert away from everything in order to survive.
The symptoms of MCS are wide and varied and usually affect multiple organs and systems. Symptoms may appear in the pulmonary, cardiovascular, rheumatic, gastrointestinal, genitourinary, immune, endocrine and nervous systems. The bodies detox and enzyme pathways are usually impaired.
Symptoms may include, but are not limited to, trembling, heart palpitations, headaches, difficulty concentrating, intense irritability, loss of coordination, muscle pain and weakness, breathing difficulties, visual and verbal impairments, excessive fatigue and drowsiness, diarrhea, skeletal pain, irritable bowel, heart pounding, disorientation, short term memory loss, rashes, itching, confusion, rage, weeping for no apparent reason, elevated blood pressure, anxiety, depression, mood swings, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, chronic pain which may be localized to one area like the gallbladder, colon, or lower back or it may be diffuse and wide spread pain that effects the entire body.
Symptoms can vary from day to day and individual to individual. Most environmental toxins impact the nervous system, so most chemically sensitive people have numerous neurological symptoms. However, other toxins target different parts of the body. Some toxins may damage the liver, kidneys, respiratory, immune, etc. depending on their unique chemical composition. Variability is also dependent on genetic vulnerabilities. For example, someone with gallbladder disease or heart disease in the family may have inherited a weakness or vulnerability in these systems or organs and the chemicals toxins may result in symptoms in whatever organ or system is vulnerable for that individual. So the same chemical could cause gallbladder pain and inflammation for one person, while causing high blood pressure or heart palpitations for another. The overall health of the individual, as well as their nutritional status, will also impact the type and degree of sensitivity one experiences.
Chemicals that incite symptoms are great and varied as well, but the most common include, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, bactericides, perfume, cologne, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, petrochemicals, fabric softener, laundry soap, any fragrance or chemical that is in personal care products, new carpeting and remodeling, paint, wood smoke and gas heat. Many severely chemically sensitive individuals often react to natural substances like essential oils, herbs and a variety of vegetation in the environment like pine trees, junipers, ragweed etc., because their natural chemical composition is so potent. They typically have numerous foods, even when eating organic, that create symptoms as well, again because of the natural chemical composition of the food. Mold is also a problem for most.
Part of the reason that MCS is so poorly misunderstood by the general population is that it is very difficult to find the words to accurately describe what happens and because the experience is out of the realm of most people’s reality. We have been programmed to believe that chemicals are safe and they have been part of our daily life for as long as most of us can remember. When we tell others that this simply is not true, it is too challenging to their reality. It contradicts what their doctor, the EPA, FDA, the evening news, TV commercials and manufacturers of the chemicals themselves tell them. If what we say is true, then it means they are being lied to and everything they have believed for so long is a lie. The term chemical injury or toxic when applied to perfume, cologne, cleaning supplies etc., is not comprehensible for many.
In an attempt to try and use words that other people will understand, people with MCS and even health care providers in the field of environmental medicine, often use the word “allergic.” We often say that we have “allergic like” symptoms to chemicals. Everyone understands what an allergy is, so if we say allergy, then we are speaking the same language. Now, although there may be times when the word “allergy” may be the best word to use, in many ways it can be counterproductive.
If I’m talking to someone that I will only have a brief interaction with on occasion, such as a mechanic. I might say, “please don’t give me any of those complimentary air fresheners, because I’m very allergic to them.” In this instance that is an adequate explanation. To tell him much more would not be beneficial.
However, for someone like a neighbor, who I must maintain a long-term relationship with, interact with on a frequent basis and will have to ask for their cooperation in notifying me if they are going to use any chemicals, it is important that they understand the situation more completely. For them I will be more honest and direct and disclose a little more information. I typically tell them that I have a health condition where my liver doesn’t process chemicals in the environment and as a result of this, I become very sick when exposed to them. I may share a few of my symptoms with them, so that they understand what it is like for me.
When we tell someone we have an “allergy” to chemicals it plants a few concepts in their mind. People think “oh well then, you can just take an allergy pill.” However, that is not the case, allergy pills don’t help people with chemical sensitivities. Additionally, someone with allergies typically gets a headache, runny nose and itchy eyes. Although these symptoms are annoying, they are not very serious. If we say we have allergies to chemicals, people don’t understand the seriousness of the situation. They don’t understand our symptoms can be completely debilitating and even life-threatening. Additionally, in reality, allergy is not occurring. It is pretty rare that the chemically sensitive person actually has IgE mediated allergies to chemicals.
When we use the word “allergy” it minimizes the seriousness and the depth of impact that chemicals have on our lives. Now although the word, “allergy” can be useful at times, it’s important that we try and get society to understand that we’re really not talking about “allergy” here, we’re talking about “toxicity,” so that over time the concept won’t seem so foreign and unbelievable. Chemicals are toxic and have damaged our bodies.We need to start calling it as it is in order to bring awareness to the real issue at hand, which is “environmental toxins have a negative affect on our health.”
Impact of MCS
One of the worst aspects that those living MCS must face is the backlash from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, who work diligently to discredit the existence of multiple chemical sensitivity and downplay the toxicity of chemicals, because to acknowledge it will be detrimental to them financially. Chemicals and pharmaceuticals run this country, and unfortunately they are very powerful and have great influence over our medical society, government and governmental policies. Additionally, the medical society and government themselves would also be profoundly impacted personally as well.
If human beings are getting sick from chemicals, which they are, then these companies will have to stop manufacturing them, which means they will lose billions of dollars. Pharmaceuticals can not fix the damage that is done to the body from chemicals, so they too will lose billions of dollars. Our medical universities, hospitals, and much of our medical research is supported by the pharmaceutical industry so they will not support the medical society, if they do not do what they want them to do. What they want them to do is deny that chemicals are toxic to the human body and multiple chemical sensitivity does not exist.
We can look at this situation a little further and see how it trickles down to impact each and every individual in society. Most of the modern day living conveniences we are accustomed to are created with environmental toxins, we would have to give up or find alternatives for these conveniences. If we must stop manufacturing all the chemicals that have a detrimental affect on human health, everyone has to change. The way we live must change and millions would lose their jobs.
For example, cleaning supplies, perfumes, colognes, soap, disinfectants, plastics, air fresheners, carpeting, cosmetics and yard care all contain chemicals that are harmful to our health. So if we stop manufacturing these products, or even if more people in society become aware of how toxic they are and stops using them, the person who creates the chemicals for each of these products, the ones who put the chemicals together, the ones who box the product, the ones who deliver the product, the retailers who sell the product would all lose money and possibly even their jobs. There are alternatives, these products can be made with natural ingredients that are safer, but it would take massive change and time to implement these changes.
Politicians won’t get financial support or votes from this vast amount of people in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry unless they too do as they wish, and so they pass government policies that support the chemical and pharmaceutical industry instead of protecting the individuals in society. Basically the chemical and pharmaceutical industry, the medical society and the government agencies are all engaging in mass delusion and denial, because the consequences of this truth are catastrophic. To acknowledge the truth about environmental toxins and MCS could actually destroy the entire financial structure of the country, which is already hanging by a thread. However, to continue to ignore it and try to put our head in the sand, has even greater consequences on human life and health and the planet itself.
What we see playing out here is the exact scenario that we saw for decades in the tobacco industry. Minimizing, rationalizing, justifying, blatant lying, cheating and deceiving to protect the interests of those who have the most money to lose, until eventually the truth could not be hidden anymore. We can only hope that some day we will achieve the same awareness for chemicals and environmental toxins as we did for tobacco, but the tobacco industry was not as widespread as the chemical and pharmaceuticals industry and our economy was not dependent upon their profits, so it will likely take a much longer time to get people to see this light.
What this means for those living with MCS today is that not only are they living with a debilitating health condition that alters their life profoundly and drains their financial resources, they are also isolated from society, friends, family, co-workers, neighbors etc., and get very little, if any, emotional support or adequate health care because many people in society don’t believe the condition exists.
They are often looked at with skepticism, question and doubt. Some people even question their sanity. MCS people are sometimes forced to end relationships with friends, family members, spouses and partners because they refuse to believe their condition exists and will not stop using products that make them ill. They are often shunned, ridiculed and rejected by many members in society.
It’s hard for most members of society to believe in something when we have most of the medical community, the FDA, the EPA, 20/20, the evening news, etc., which are the agencies and sources that are supposed to protect them, repeatedly telling them this condition does not exist and that chemicals and pharmaceuticals will not harm them. Additionally, the truth of this condition is frightening for society themselves — it means that it can happen to them too. If they acknowledge this truth, then it means they will have to change to protect their health. Most people don’t like change. It’s too hard and uncomfortable. Staying in denial with the rest of the bunch is much more comfortable.
Additionally, we are a society that is obsessed with scents. We think everything should have a strong fragrant smell. It is programmed into our brains with incessant advertising. Then the chemicals in the scents themselves actually alter the neurotransmitters in the brain and can even make some people addicted to the smell, so they want to keep using them. Why do we always see commercials for a “new and improved” air freshener or fragrance? Because when the chemicals in these products alter the neurotransmitters in the brain, the brain becomes sensitized to the chemical and then needs more of that chemical for it to smell good. The fragrance can no longer be smelled at the lower level, it needs to be more potent now to get the same effect. It’s just like addiction to a drug; tolerance develops.
Not only that, for many people, things like scented candles, air fresheners, cosmetics, perfume, cologne, a particular type of shampoo or soap, etc., is deeply tied to their identity. It’s a part of who they are and the way they see themselves. So in order to get them to give these things up, we’re literally talking about changing their identity, which is not an easy or quick process.
So, as we can see, there are many monumental hurdles to overcome before the truth about environmental toxins will be widely accepted.
The majority of the medical society and health care system does not acknowledge the existence of multiple chemical sensitivity and therefore does not treat it. It’s very difficult for the MCS person to receive adequate health care. They often must travel for many hours or even go to a different state to find a competent health care provider who is trained and capable of treating their condition. The most educated and competent physicians in regard to multiple chemical sensitivity are referred to as doctors of environmental medicine or clinical ecologists. Some integrative medicine specialists who use functional medicine are knowledgeable about this condition, but not all. Some naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors and a few osteopaths are also educated in this area, but their degree of expertise and competency varies greatly.
The only way for the MCS person to begin healing and prevent symptoms from occurring is to not be exposed to chemicals, so avoidance is the number one treatment method. However, although this sounds easy, it really isn’t. The MCS person must secure a home that is toxin free, which is often very difficult to achieve. For those who rent, almost all rentals are sprayed frequently with pesticides, painted regularly, have residues from air fresheners, perfume, cleaning supplies, cigarette smoke etc. from previous tenants and have gas or propane heat. The grounds are often sprayed with herbicides and the actual construction of the building may be new, which means high levels of chemicals.
MCS people often search for years for a safe place to live and many have dealt with homelessness at least once in their life or been forced to live in housing that made them very sick and deteriorated their health even further. They are often forced to relocate to another area to secure a home that has been lived in by another MCS person. The best housing solution for the chemically sensitive person is one they build for themselves, or another MCS person has built, with safe materials from the ground up, which is located on about 40 acres, to provide a nice cushion from those around them. However, for most people this is not financially possible, so they must make the best with what they can find and many continue to suffer. Some may even be forced to live in their car or a tent.
Even when the MCS person manages to secure a home that is toxin free and is livable for them, it is impossible to avoid the environmental toxins from everyone around them. Chemicals are just like cigarette smoke, there is second hand environmental toxins. Meaning the chemicals that everyone else is using is in the air and impacts the health of the MCS person. Second hand chemicals can be just as detrimental to our health as first hand. For example, if someone puts on cologne or perfume and goes to the store, everyone in the store is going to have to breathe these chemicals. When someone uses scented laundry soap and dryer sheets and then runs their dryer, the chemicals in the dryer exhaust can fill the air of the entire neighborhood. When someone burns wood smoke, it too fills the air of the entire neighborhood and even with the windows shut it is very hard to keep wood smoke out of surrounding houses, because wood smoke can permeate the smallest crevice. If someone uses herbicides on their yard to kill weeds, it not only goes into the air of their neighbors, but it too permeates crevices and will enter their houses. Herbicide residue can travel up to six miles.
Therefore, when a neighbor sprays pesticides or herbicides, burns wood smoke, runs their dryer, lights a grill, paints their house or uses any chemical in their yard, these chemicals drift into the MCS person’s yard and home and results in debilitating symptoms. The city or state often sprays the highways with herbicides. The electric company sprays the power lines with herbicides. The city fogs for mosquitos and so on and so on. So the MCS person lives in a constant state of hypervigilance and uncertainty while trying to protect their homes and themselves from the actions of others around them.
Almost all public buildings are treated regularly with pesticides, are cleaned with toxic disinfectants, contain air fresheners etc., or the people in the buildings are wearing cologne, perfume, hair spray or other scented products. The scents that other people wear are not contained to their person. The chemicals from these products on their body, are released into the air space everywhere they go. So the MCS person is not able to go in most public places or when they must do so, to get groceries or meet other basic needs, they do so with the understanding that they will have to endure their symptoms for a period of time and will need time to recuperate after their venture. Some very sensitive people must have other people do their shopping and errands for them, because the suffering is too great. It’s important for society to understand that their choices affect everyone around them.
There are other treatment methods that are helpful for some MCS individuals which include a variety of detoxification methods and nutritional therapy. If the individual can get their detoxification system working better, then their degree of sensitivity often improves. However, once again they are presented with a variety of hurdles with this approach as well. Many people are so sick that they can’t take the nutrients, herbs and other supplements that may help them because their liver simply can’t process them and thus only makes them sicker. As I mentioned above, finding a capable and knowledgeable health care provider who knows how to guide the MCS individual to the proper tests that are needed to identify what needs fixed in their detoxification system is very difficult to find. Additionally, since many MCS people are disabled, their income is very limited and they can’t afford the treatments which are typically not covered by insurance. However, it’s important to note that sometimes the damage that is done to the body from environmental toxins is permanent.
There are a couple new treatment approaches that some people are finding to be helpful in recovery called Dynamic Neural RetrainingTM and Amygdala RetrainingTM. Both of these methods use neurolinguistic programing to turn off the sympathetic nervous system , which is believed to be the root of MCS symptoms. A small amount of people have made full recoveries and are living normal lives once again using one of these methods, while a lot of other people are making significant improvements. However, some people see very few or no results. I, personally, improved my health by about 25 percent using these techniques and I continue to use Amygdala RetrainingTM on a daily basis to turn off 50 to 75 percent of my symptoms. Visit my limbic system retraining page to learn more about these approaches.
What Causes MCS?
There seems to be a great deal of confusion even in the health field who acknowledges and treats those with multiple chemical sensitivities and those living with MCS themselves as to what causes MCS, but it really is very simple. Environmental toxins are called toxins for a reason, they are toxic to the human brain and body.
We all seem to accept the fact that environmental toxins impact other living things like birds, mice, insects, marine life, etc. However, many people seem to have trouble understanding that these toxins impact all living things, which includes human beings and don’t forget “the earth is a living thing.” They also seem to have a hard time understanding that damage from toxins goes well beyond the ability to cause Cancer and we are all subjected to an enormous amount of environmental toxins on a daily basis.
Environmental toxins, that are present in common every day chemicals, alter, deplete and disrupt neurotransmitters in the brain. They deplete nutrients. They alter and damage the immune system, detoxification system, organs, reproductive, cardiovascular, metabolic, nervous and endocrine systems. They can land on receptors for our hormones and interfere in their ability to perform their functions. They trigger the fight or flight response and cause dysfunction in the autonomic nervous system and increase oxidative stress. Please take a look at, how toxins make you sick page, to understand this process more thoroughly.
These toxins are found in your soil, water, air, construction of your home and place of employment, schools, colleges, furniture, carpeting, air fresheners, cleaning supplies, laundry soap, fabric softener, dryer sheets, shampoo, dish soap, body soap, disinfectants, cosmetics, vehicle, food, cooking utensils, prescription and over the counter medication, car exhaust, food storage supplies, pesticides, herbicides, heating sources like natural gas, wood smoke and propane and even your toothpaste.
With the continuous onslaught of low level exposure to these toxins, the sympathetic nervous system becomes dominant and the body becomes overloaded and breaks down. When this happens, then a host of debilitating health conditions and negative symptoms develop. There is not a big mystery as to what causes MCS. The human mind and body simply were not designed to be exposed to toxins and over time can not process them.
People often look at those with MCS as if there is something wrong with them or think they are weak in some way since they can’t handle these toxins. No one should be asking, “Why are you getting sick from these chemicals?” No one should think it is weird or unbelievable.
The fact that many of us are getting sick from environmental toxins is not abnormal, odd or unexpected. It would be abnormal if the body didn’t break down from this incessant attack of exposures. It is insane that we would think that we could continue to expose the human body to continuous toxins and expect it to remain healthy. It defies nature, science and basic common sense. It would be surprising if our health was not negatively impacted.
Sometimes those trying to discredit multiple chemical sensitivity say something ridiculous like “if these chemicals are so toxic, why isn’t everyone getting sick.” First of all, we could say the same about Cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, heart disease etc., Just because not everyone in the world is getting Cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s or heart attacks we don’t say it doesn’t exist. We have a basic understanding that some people are more vulnerable than others to certain conditions depending on a variety of factors. The same applies to MCS.
Why Do Some People Get MCS and Others Don’t?
There’s a variety of factors that may contribute to why someone develops MCS and another one doesn’t. Candida overgrowth, nutritional deficiencies, childhood abuse, genetics, mal-functioning detox pathways and chronic stress are the most common. Candida overgrowth is a frequent contributor, as the toxins that Candida releases into the body overloads the liver and then the body can not process other toxins it comes in contact with. Childhood abuse or chronic stress damages the endocrine system, as well as the brain, central nervous system, and autonomic nervous system which leaves the child who grows into an adult, at high risk of MCS and a variety of other health conditions. Nutritional deficiencies result in organs and systems that don’t perform their jobs adequately and an overactive sympathetic nervous system. Some people may be born lacking certain nutrients or carry genetic vulnerabilities that inhibit their detoxification pathways. Many people with MCS are lacking in crucial enzymes needed for the body to adequately detoxify chemicals.
The impact of environmental toxins on the human body carries from generation to generation. For example, lets say Grandma began to show some signs of break down from environmental toxins with frequent headaches and feeling fatigued all the time. Then Dad who was born from Grandma shows more signs of break down who has frequent headaches and fatigue, but is also developing high blood pressure or depression or addiction. Then children who are born with what they inherited from Dad and Grandma are having headaches, fatigue, depression and addiction as well as being hyperactive, learning disabled, obesity etc. Generation after generation it gets worse.
If you happen to be born from a family where that family tree is already beginning to deteriorate from environmental toxins, then you will be more vulnerable immediately. On the other hand, if you’re fortunate enough to come from a family who still has a strong constitution, then you may not be vulnerable, yet.
However, sometimes it is none of these factors and it simply occurs because the body and the autonomic nervous system cannot handle the continuous burden of trying to filter out all the toxins that we are exposed to on a continuous basis. With year after year of insult and abuse to the body, it eventually erodes, destroys, alters or damages organs and systems. It becomes a vicious cycle as the now damaged organs and systems can’t protect the body and the more it receives exposures to the chemicals the weaker and more damaged it becomes and the autonomic nervous system becomes more sensitized.
However, what is inevitable, is that some day it will happen to everyone. Eventually all family trees will be damaged. While some bodies have not broken down yet, the key word is “yet.” We simply can not expose the human body to continuous toxins and not see dire consequences.
As we mentioned at the opening of this article, more than 3 million Americans have full blown MCS and 48 million have some degree of chemical sensitivity. That number is staggering to begin with. However, here is another important point to keep in mind. These are only those who have been diagnosed. MCS is hugely misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed. People with multiple chemical sensitivity are given all kinds of other labels that include, depression, hyperactive, adult attention deficit disorders, addicts, alcoholics, autistic, irritable bowel, anxiety disorders, chronic pain, agoraphobia, anti-social behavior, criminals, hypochondriacs and many more. Our psych wards, mental health institutes and prisons are filled to the brim with people who have brains that don’t function properly because of environmental toxins. It is the mal-functioning brain that causes the behavior that lands them in this position to begin with. Cancer, Parkinson’s, MS, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, high blood pressure, heart diseases and pretty much any health condition you can think of has some link to environmental toxins. For some of these conditions, there may be other factors involved as well such as diet and lifestyle, but toxins have a huge role.
In the field of environmental medicine they often refer to those with MCS as canaries. Canaries are extremely sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, so the poor little creatures were used to monitor the air quality of coal mines. It was common practice for miners to take caged canaries into the coal mine with them while working. As long as the canary continued to sing, then the miners new the air quality was okay, but if the canary had changes in behavior or died, then they knew immediate evacuation was called for.
The canary in the coal mine analogy could not be more accurate for those with multiple chemical sensitivity, and the rest of society should really see this is as very alarming. The coal miners recognized the danger and immediately took action, unfortunately most people are ignoring, denying and downright refusing to listen to the song that MCS people are singing. The bodies of the MCS person have already begun to break down and this is a warning to others for what the future holds for everyone if change does not take place. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes that I think is quite fitting of the lies being told about environmental toxins.
“When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.” — Dresden James