When Chemicals Make You Sick

MANY aspects of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) are puzzling. Understandably, there is considerable disagreement in the medical community as to the nature of the condition. Some doctors believe that MCS has a physical cause, others believe that it has a psychological cause, and still others point to both physical and psychological factors. Some doctors suggest that MCS may even represent a class of several diseases. *

Many patients with MCS say that an initial large exposure to a toxin such as a pesticide caused their condition; others point to repeated or chronic exposure to lower levels of toxin. Once MCS is acquired, sufferers react with various symptoms to a variety of seemingly unrelated chemicals that they previously tolerated, such as fragrances and cleaning products. Thus, the term “multiple chemical sensitivity.” Take the case of Joyce.

Joyce contracted head lice while in school. Her head was then sprayed with a pesticide. Joyce’s health deteriorated, and she became intolerant of many chemicals that had not bothered her before. These include household cleaners, air fresheners,  fragrances, shampoos, and gasoline. “My eyes swell shut,” says Joyce, “and my sinuses become infected, causing headaches and nausea so severe that I remain sick for days. . . . I have had pneumonia so many times that my lungs are scarred like those of a person who has smoked for 40 years—and I have never smoked!”

Chronic exposure to a lower level of toxin, which has also been suggested as a factor in MCS, may occur outdoors or indoors. In fact, in recent decades the rash of sicknesses in the wake of indoor air pollution has led to the coining of the term “sick-building syndrome.”

Sick-Building Syndrome

Sick-building syndrome surfaced in the 1970’s when to conserve energy, many naturally ventilated homes, schools, and offices were replaced with airtight, air-conditioned buildings. Insulation, treated wood, volatile adhesives, and synthetic fabrics and carpets were often incorporated into these buildings and their furnishings.

Especially when new, many of these products release low levels of potentially harmful chemicals, such as formaldehyde, into the recycled air. Carpets add to the problem by absorbing various cleaners and solvents and then releasing them over a long period of time. “Vapors from various solvents are the most prevalent of indoor air contaminants,” says the book Chemical Exposures—Low Levels and High Stakes. “Solvents,” in turn, “are among the chemicals most frequently implicated by chemically sensitive patients,” the book states.

While most people seem able to cope with the environment inside such buildings, some develop symptoms ranging from asthma and other respiratory-tract problems to headaches and lethargy. These symptoms generally disappear when the affected people leave that environment. But in some cases, “patients may develop multiple chemical sensitivities,” says the British medical journal The Lancet. But why do some get sick from chemicals while others do not? This is an important question because some who seem unaffected may find it difficult to be understanding of those who become ill.

All of Us Are Different

It is good to remember that we all react differently to various agents, whether they be chemicals, germs, or viruses. Things that affect reactions include genetic makeup, age, gender, health status, medications we may be taking, preexisting disease, and life-style factors such as use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.

With medicinal drugs, for example, your uniqueness dictates “whether a drug will work and what its side effects might be,” says New Scientist magazine. Some of these side effects can be serious, even resulting in death. Normally, proteins called enzymes  clear out of the body chemicals that are foreign, such as the chemicals in drugs and the pollutants that are absorbed in daily activities. But if these “housekeeping” enzymes are defective, perhaps because of heredity, prior damage by toxins, or poor diet, foreign chemicals can build up to dangerous levels. *

MCS has been compared to a group of enzyme-related blood disorders called porphyrias. Often the way people with certain porphyrias react to chemicals, ranging from vehicle emissions to fragrances, is similar to the way people with MCS react.

The Mind Is Also Affected

One MCS sufferer told Awake! that certain common chemicals make her feel drugged. She said: “I have experienced personality changes—becoming angry, agitated, irritable, fearful, lethargic. . . . These symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.” Afterward, she feels hung over and suffers from varying degrees of depression.

These effects are not unusual for people with MCS. Dr. Claudia Miller says that “more than a dozen countries report psychological problems after well-identified chemical exposures, whether it’s insecticide exposure or sick building [syndrome]. . . . We know that workers exposed to solvents are more at risk of developing panic attacks and depression. . . . So we need to be very thoughtful and remember that perhaps the most sensitive organ system in the body to chemical exposures is the brain.”

Although chemical exposure can lead to psychological problems, many doctors believe that the reverse is also true—psychological problems can contribute to the development of chemical sensitivities. Dr. Miller, mentioned above, and Dr. Nicholas Ashford, firm believers in physical causes of MCS, acknowledge that “psychosocial events, such as the death of a spouse or divorce, can suppress immune system function and may predispose certain people to being more sensitive to chemicals at low levels. Certainly, the relationship between psychological and physiological systems is an intricate one.” Dr. Sherry Rogers, another believer in physical causes of MCS, states that “stress makes a person more chemically sensitive.”

Is there anything MCS sufferers can do to improve their health or at least reduce their symptoms?

Help for Those With MCS

Although there is no known cure for MCS, many sufferers have been able to reduce their symptoms, and others have even been able to resume a reasonably normal life. What has helped them to cope? Some say that they have benefited by following their doctor’s recommendation to avoid, as much as possible, chemicals that trigger their symptoms. * MCS sufferer Judy finds that avoidance works well for her. While recovering from the Epstein-Barr virus, Judy was overexposed to a pesticide used inside her home and subsequently developed MCS.

Like many with MCS, Judy reacts to a broad range of domestic chemicals. Thus, she does all her cleaning and laundry with pure soaps and baking soda. She finds vinegar most effective as a fabric softener. Her wardrobe and bedroom contain only natural fibers and fabrics. Her husband does not  keep his dry-cleaned clothes in their closet until they have aired out for weeks in a well-ventilated place.

Of course, in today’s world it may not be possible for MCS sufferers to avoid all contact with problem chemicals. American Family Physician says: “The major disability from MCS is often the isolation and withdrawal experienced as the patient seeks to avoid chemical exposures.” The article suggests that under medical supervision patients should work and socialize, gradually increasing their activity. At the same time, they should work at managing panic attacks and heart palpitations by learning relaxation and breath-control techniques. The aim is to help patients gradually adjust to chemical exposures rather than eliminate chemicals from their life altogether.

Another important therapy is a good night’s sleep. David, an MCS sufferer who is now virtually symptom free, attributes part of his recovery to sleeping in a bedroom where he gets plenty of fresh air. Ernest and his wife, Lorraine, both of whom suffer  from MCS, also find that “a good night’s sleep helps considerably in coping with unavoidable chemical exposure during the day.”

Good nutrition, of course, is always essential for maintaining or regaining good health. In fact, it has been hailed as “the single most important component of preventive health care.” It stands to reason that for the body to regain health, at least to the extent possible, its systems must be working efficiently. Dietary supplements may help.

Exercise also contributes to good health. Additionally, when you perspire you help your body eliminate toxins through your skin. Also important are a good mental disposition and a sense of humor, along with being loved and showing love to others. In fact, “love and laughter” is the prescription one doctor gives all her MCS patients. Yes, “a heart that is joyful does good as a curer.”—Proverbs 17:22.

Enjoying loving, happy companionship, however, can be a major problem for MCS sufferers who are unable to tolerate fragrances, cleaning agents, deodorizers, and other chemicals that most of us encounter in our daily activities. How do people with MCS manage under these circumstances? Equally important, what can others do to help those with MCS? The next article will discuss these matters.


^ par. 2 Awake! is not a medical journal, and these articles on MCS are not intended to promote any medical point of view. They are simply reporting on recent findings and on what some doctors and patients have found to be helpful in managing this illness. Awake! acknowledges that among physicians there is no universal consensus regarding the causes of MCS, the nature of the condition, or the many treatments and programs offered to and used by sufferers.

^ par. 12 A common example of an enzyme deficiency involves the enzyme lactase. Those with a lactase problem cannot assimilate the lactose in milk, and they become ill when they drink it. Other people have a deficiency in the enzyme that metabolizes tyramine, a chemical found in cheese and other foods. As a result, when they consume such foods, these people can develop migraine headaches.

^ par. 20 Those who believe that they suffer from MCS should seek professional help from a reputable physician. It would be unwise to make radical, and perhaps costly, changes to your life-style without first undergoing a thorough examination. Tests may reveal that only minor adjustments to your diet or life-style will reduce or even correct your symptoms.

[Box/Picture on page 7]

Do You Need So Many Chemicals?

All of us should keep our exposure to potentially toxic chemicals to a minimum. This includes chemicals that we keep in the home. Says the book Chemical Exposures: “Indoor air contaminants appear to be among the most potent initiators and triggers of chemical intolerances. Complex mixtures containing low levels of hundreds of different volatile organic chemicals occur indoors.” *

So ask yourself if you really need to use as many chemicals as you do, especially pesticides and products containing volatile solvents. Have you tried nontoxic alternatives? If you must use a potentially dangerous chemical, however, be sure never to handle it without taking all the necessary precautions. Also, be sure to store it in a safe place where children cannot reach it and where vapors it may give off will do no harm. Remember, even chemicals in some sealed containers may give off vapors.

Chemical awareness also applies to what we put or spill onto our skin. Many chemicals, including fragrances, are absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin. Thus, skin patches are one means of administering certain drugs. So if you spill a toxic chemical onto your skin, “the first and most immediate treatment must be to thoroughly wash the chemical off the skin,” says the book Tired or Toxic?

Many people with multiple chemical sensitivity are sensitive to fragrances. Ninety-five percent of the chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum. Acetone, camphor, benzaldehyde, ethanol, g-terpinene, and many other chemical ingredients are used. The health risks associated with these substances have been published—in the United States, for example, by the Environmental Protection Agency. The same is true of chemicals used in air fresheners. When environmental scientists study air fresheners, says the University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter, they “study them as polluters, not improvers, of indoor air.” Air fresheners do not eradicate bad odors; they mask them.

The book Calculated Risks states that “one of the most important concepts in toxicology [is that] all chemicals are toxic under some conditions of exposure.”


^ par. 33 Ways to keep your home safe from a number of potential toxins were discussed in the December 22, 1998, issue of Awake!