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Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Causes, symptoms and practical tips

Multiple chemical sensitivity (M.C.S.) or simply chemical sensitivity is the term used for those who react to chemicals at a much lower concentration than would affect most people. It can strike at any time and almost anything can be a trigger. It is usually the result of either one single large exposure to one or more toxic chemicals or to repeated exposures to low levels of chemicals.

When you suffer from M.C.S. you can feel very isolated as often family and friends just cannot understand how you feel. There is no specific set of unique symptoms which can make chemical sensitivity difficult to diagnose and the majority of G.P.s do not recognise it as a medical condition. You may feel very depressed by your condition and worried that nothing you do will make a difference.

At The Healthy House® we don't underestimate the difficulties but through our own experience of living with M.C.S. we do know that by reducing the overload of chemical triggers most people can improve their condition. Read more information on M.C.S below....

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Surrounded by chemicals

In the modern world more chemicals are used in our everyday lives than we realise; paints and varnishes, household products particularly cleaning products and air fresheners, furniture, skincare products, even the clothes we wear and the bedding we sleep in are usually coated in chemicals. Easycare treatments always sound like a good idea but when you consider that all these chemicals actually off gas you might like to reconsider what you buy. Breathing in chemicals of this sort is not good for anyone but for some it makes them noticeably ill.

Chemical sensitivity is a poorly recognised condition. More and more people are suffering from it, and most of them do not know what it is. Pamela Reed Gibson in her book 'Multiple Chemical Sensitivity' writes that "approximately 4 percent of the US population is becoming ill every day from chemicals, this extrapolates to over 11 million people having moderate to severe M.C.S., a formidable number of people to be ill without so much as an agreement as to what to call their condition."

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What are the causes?

Multiple chemical sensitivity is a disorder triggered by exposure to chemicals in the environment. Symptoms may result from a single large exposure to one or more toxic chemicals or repeated exposures to low doses. Some people are sensitised from a toxic spill or from pesticide spraying while many others develop M.C.S. from long term exposure to a variety of chemicals now common to everyday life both at home and at work. A variety of other conditions make it more likely to occur: these include Candida overgrowth, nutrient deficiency, a poor functioning endocrine system and a general inability for adequate detoxification. People with M.C.S. have symptoms from chemical exposures at concentrations far below the level tolerated by most people. In the early stages of M.C.S. repeat exposure to the offending substance(s) that caused the initial health effect provokes a reaction. After a while it takes less and less exposure to that or related chemicals to trigger a reaction. Sensitisation to these chemicals often leads to the sufferer becoming more susceptible to the other chemicals that surround them. For instance, they may suddenly notice that they feel ill in the office where they are surrounded by VOCs coming off the chipboard desks or the paper during photocopying, or they may notice that they can no longer tolerate their favourite perfume. Whatever form it takes, M.C.S. can drastically affect peoples lives. 

Read this case study of multiple chemical sensitivity from our office manager, Ann.

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What are the symptoms?

M.C.S. affects the overall health and well-being of the sufferer. It can impair the functioning of many of the body organs especially the brain and nervous system and digestion. Each person with M.C.S. has a unique set of problems and may exhibit different patterns of symptoms when exposed to different chemicals. Symptoms can be caused by exposure to air, food, water or skin contact and often occur in more than one organ system. It can produce any symptom, in any sensitised person, at any time, but the brain is the most common target organ involved. There is a vast range of individual susceptibility and that there is a spreading phenomenon. Most other people seem to show no reaction to these low doses but may later become sensitised.

Symptoms of MCS may range from sore throats to seizure disorders and the following have been reported:

  • Headaches
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Asthma or other respiratory problems
  • Visual disturbances
  • Ear, nose and throat problems
  • Persistent skin rashes and sores
  • Inflammation
  • Muscle weakness and joint pains
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Food allergies
  • Bloating and other digestive problems
  • Genito-urinary problems
  • Yeast infections and Candida
  • Auto-immune disorders
  • Cardio-vascular irregularities
  • Fatigue and depression
  • Mental confusion and brain fog
  • Dizziness
  • Persistent infections
  • Increased sensitivity to odours
  • Short and long term memory loss
  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Irritability and behavioural problems
  • Poor memory
  • Learning disabilities in children

Many of these symptoms are referred to as 'non-specific' and it is widely believed that non-specific symptoms are psychological/psychiatric or psychosomatic even when there is no evidence to indicate this. This misdiagnosis is particularly common in people with MCS because their reactions often cause depression, brain fog, memory problems and fatigue. This can be very upsetting for the sufferer who has noticed that their symptoms are worse in certain places until they find a practitioner who can help them find out more about their condition, and what they can do about reducing their reactions.

Individuals can be sensitised in a variety of ways and groups can be affected by contaminated air or water, living near toxic waste, or be Gulf War veterans. The vast majority spend their time with a variety of symptoms and just never feel well, but the worst cases can become partially or totally disabled. There are some people who have made the headlines because their condition has been given the emotive title "Total Allergy Syndrome", but this is no more than severe M.C.S.

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Who suffers from M.C.S?

There are thousands of people who suffer from a variety of symptoms who may be quite unaware that they are caused by chemical sensitivity. Many people will say they get a headache from using oil based paint but just accept it not realizing that the substances that are causing that headache are present in other products they live with each day.

Almost anyone can have symptoms from chemicals, but for some reason it is more common in women than in men. Children also suffer from M.C.S. People with this condition can be from any walk of life and have almost any occupation. The reason some people are more susceptible than others could be due to individual body chemistry. Some people may have a reduced ability to metabolise foreign chemicals (xenobiotic detoxication), either inherited or due to poor nutrition, and may be easily overburdened by environmental chemicals. M.C.S. may be more likely if there is an inherited allergic tendency, glandular fever or viral pneumonia, severe stress, severe emotional reactions such as grief, or low grade, long term exposure to chemicals, or a combination of these.

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Why have people become sensitive to the chemicals that surround them?

Chemical sensitivity was first recognised in the 1950s but first really made the headlines when in the U.S. and Canada many homes were insulated with urea formaldehyde insulation in the 1970s. Almost overnight there were a vast array of symptoms manifested and from the examination of thousands of cases a great deal was learned about the principles of chemical sensitivity. At around the same time as urea formaldehyde insulation became fashionable, the buildings we live and work in also began to change. Tight buildings, double glazed (often PVC) windows and insulation which kept the warmth in but didn't allow indoor air pollution to escape or any fresh air to come in - and an increase in the use of synthetic materials and finishes which give off volatile chemicals.

The most common chemicals that cause M.C.S are thought to be:

  • Organophosphates, commonly found in pesticide control
  • Formaldehyde- found in synthetic carpets, easy care materials used in bedding and clothes, plastics, chipboard, detergents, mouth washes, fabric softeners, wood veneer, latex paints, hair setting solutions and shampoos, adhesives
  • Chlorine - found in treated water, cleaning products, swimming pools
  • Ammonia- found in cleaning products, deodorants and disinfectants
  • Hydrocarbons- found in natural gas, petrol fumes, coal gas, paraffin
  • Terpenes- these are the natural volatile chemicals released from plants and usually give the characteristic odour or scent of the plant e.g. the smell of pine needles, orange, eucalyptus, cloves and jasmine(and account for chemically sensitive people being intolerant to pine and some organic varnishes)
  • Volatile Organic Compounds (toluene, xylene, hexanes, benzene) which evaporate into the air we breathe, chlorinated water, pesticides, insecticides, fragrances and perfumes, deodorants, cleaning products and detergents, dry cleaning solvents, anaesthetics and prescribed medications, heavy metals particularly mercury in dental fillings, artificial colourings, flavouring and preservatives in foods, drinks and drugs
  • Ethylene - used in the commercial ripening of fruits and cause a problem to many chemically sensitive people as does the gas used in gas roasted commercial coffee
  • Foods - On a worldwide basis about 70,000 different chemicals are presently in everyday use in the treatment of foods. A study of common foods shows that modern methods of food production pose a real threat to the chemically sensitive
  • Spray residues, fumigant contamination, sulphur and sulphites, gassing of foods such as bananas and coffee, fungicides, waxes, antibiotics and hormones are all present in our daily food
  • Synthetic fragrances- used in cleaning products, toiletries, perfumes, aftershave and air fresheners

A study of building materials alone show that many of the xenobiotics (foreign chemicals) mentioned above are present in most buildings and can, in time, cause previously unaffected people to become ill. Though some of these chemicals are actually toxic in their own right, not everyone has obvious reactions to them, indeed the majority are unaware of the toxic mess they live in.

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Diagnosis

In diagnosing or treating M.C.S the patient case history is of great importance. It needs to be much more specific than a normal medical history and include details of daily routines and of when and where symptoms are better or worse. Checking daily, weekly or seasonal routines may help to determine cause and effect. Sometime symptoms will have started after moving into a new house or after a particular exposure, for instance to organophosphates on a farm, or may show up as a result of something that the patient does on a particular day each week.

Some clinics offer testing for sensitivity to particular chemicals. Some labs also test for heavy metals and concentrations of some organic chemicals in the blood, sweat and urine.

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Treatment

The main planks of treatment are finding out what exposures are provoking your symptoms and how to avoid them, and correcting any nutritional deficiencies so that you can detoxify chemicals more effectively. It may not be necessary to find out exactly which chemicals you are sensitive to (although it may help) as long as you can alter your lifestyle so as to avoid them. For some severely affected patients this is not possible and they may undergo neutralization or desensitisation to try to reduce their sensitivity. Even then they will need to be careful. The general management of those suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity tends to be multifaceted and holistic. It needs to involve daily living routines, diet, avoidance and supplementation.

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Avoidance

On a practical level, removal of as many synthetic materials from the home and workplace as possible is essential. This would include removal of plastics, vinyls, foam and chipboard. Someone who is particularly sensitive to pine resin may also need to get rid of pine or wood which contains a lot of resin. Stop using toxic or fragranced cleaning chemicals and polishes, synthetic soaps, detergents and, in particular, fabric conditioners. It is important here to get rid of all possible culprits first, including perfumed toiletries: when you are well you can see if you can tolerate some without developing symptoms again. But do remember that if you use fragranced washing powders your washing will pollute nearby gardens as well as yours and may make your neighbours ill: many of them will be too polite to tell you.

  • Use a water filter to remove chlorine and pollutants from the water or drink unpolluted spring water
  • Avoid decorating while you are finding out about your sensitivities. Later, use non-toxic paints and varnishes, even paint that is labelled as low odour releases VOCs. Some natural paint also contains a high level of natural resins which can also cause a reaction. So find out which you can tolerate. The Ecos (now known as Lakeland) paints have been well tolerated by most of our chemically sensitive customers
  • Use unperfumed detergents, natural soaps and shampoos. The detergents which release the most volatile organic chemicals tend to be highly scented to disguise this.
  • Use organic or untreated cotton and wool bedding. Do not use synthetic materials or chemically treated cottons either for bedding or clothing. Do not have clothes or bedding dry cleaned, and if it is unavoidable, banish them to the garage for several weeks afterwards.
  • If possible, remove gas appliances and use electricity: if this is not possible consider the outlets of gas appliances, making sure that the gas fumes cannot get back into the house through a nearby window or door
  • Always ventilate your house well to get rid of any toxic build-up.
  • Use an air purifier that will remove chemicals
  • Do not use electric blankets as the synthetics off-gas when warmed up (they also give off very high electrical fields)
  • Use cane or hardwood, leather, wool and other natural fibres for furniture and furnishings
  • Insulation material and floor coverings should be inert. Rock wool insulation and inert materials such as stone, cement, hardwood, slate or brick. Most if not all carpets in the U.K. are now treated with insecticides and fungicides. All underlay is treated with fungicides. It is preferable to have hardwood floorings and cotton rugs, or cork or genuine linoleum (Marmoleum) which is usually safe provided that the glues giving off volatiles are not used
  • Many sensitive people are affected by computers, televisions and other products made of hard plastics which, particularly when new, offgas when in use. Many people are also becoming aware that they are sensitive to electrical and magnetic fields. We offer a wide range of electrical protection products.
  • All processed foods and drugs which contain artificial flavourings, colourings and preservatives should be avoided. When possible consume organically grown produce. Do not use tefal or teflon cooking utensils, stainless steel or cast iron should be used in preference
  • Food allergies are often a problem for the chemically sensitive patient. An elimination diet (which could be preceded by food testing), if followed carefully, will identify the foods you need to avoid. If you are careful and rotate your foods afterwards you may shake off your sensitivities in as little as 6 to 12 months. For the less ill, just making sure you do not eat the same foods two days running may be enough, but others may need a four or five day rotation diet to eliminate the likelihood of sensitisation to more foods.

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Nutrition

Make sure that you eat as balanced a diet as possible including lots of vegetables and fruits: the five-a-day recommendation is fine as long as each helping is a good big one. If there are a lot of foods you do not tolerate you may need to take supplements as well and would be better to get some nutritional advice. The nutritional supplements suggested below may help to reduce inflammation and should improve the detoxification of chemicals.

Vitamin C can improve tolerance to many chemicals and it may be useful to take an extra dose if you know you are going to be exposed, although in a small number of people it is said to actually increase chemical toxicity. Digestive enzymes should be taken with each meal. One teaspoon of apple cider vinegar taken with water with meals may aid stomach digestion. Fish oils or linseed oil and ginger all reduce inflammation. Vitamin B5 and taurine may reduce chemical sensitivity; B6 and C may reduce sensitivity to MSG; B12, glycine and molybdenum may reduce metabisulphite and sulphite sensitivity; zinc may reduce tartrazine and other sensitivities. Magnesium can improve patients chemical sensitivity and aid in detoxification.

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Medical help

We owe a great deal to Dr Theron Randolph (Chicago) who spent his life as a pioneer in the field of allergy, chemical sensitivity and what is now called ecological medicine. It was he who first brought to light the fact that many people suffer a wide variety of mental, emotional and physical disorders when exposed to "non toxic" and seemingly harmless chemicals. He worked with patients who would in other circumstances have been treated by psychiatrists and in some of the worst cases found that both foods and chemicals could bring on what appeared to be mania as seen in a manic depressive. His work has brought hope to many thousands of chemically sensitive people.

Professor Rea in Dallas, Dr Richard Mackarness and Dr Sherry Rogers are among the pioneers in the field of multiple chemical sensitivity and now in this country there are a growing number of doctors who have based their practices or clinics around the diagnosis and treatment of allergic and chemically sensitive patients.

The charity MCS-Aware offers information and a helpline for sufferers. They may also be able to suggest practicioners and doctors that could help you. One such doctor that we know about is Doctor S. Myhill.

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References

  • Honor Anthony, Sybil Birtwistle, Keith Eaton, Jonathan Maberly. Environmental Medicine in Clinical Practice 1997
  • Judge Tom Blane, Goodbye Allergies Revised edition The Citadel Press 1978
  • Tracy Frisch. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in the Workplace. Internet 1998
  • Dr Richard Mackarness, Chemical Victims Pan Original 1980
  • Theron G Randolph, M.D. and Ralph W Moss, PhD. An Alternative Approach to Allergies. Revised edition. Perennial Library 1990
  • Sherry A Rogers, M.D. Chemical Sensitivity. Environmental diseases and pollutants - how they hurt us. A Keats Good Health Guide. 1995
  • David Rousseau, W J Rea, M.D. and Jean Enwright. Your Home, Your Health and Well-Being Ten Speed Press, 1988
  • WDDTY. Feb 1999. Article adapted from material in Detoxification and Healing by Dr Sidney Baker, Keats. 1998 

Please note: Information included in this website is intended for information purposes only and is not to be used as a substitute for consultation with a medical practitioner.