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MULTIPLE CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY:
THE CANARY IN THE
COAL MINE

What is MCS?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a condition whereby the body cannot defend itself from toxic chemicals ever-present in our environment. It's an illness that affects over 16% of the American population. This adds up to approximately 10 million severe sufferers, and 25-45 million people with mild to moderate sensitivity. MCS is NOT an allergy to chemicals. An allergy is an overactive response by the immune system to various substances such as foods, pollens and pet hair. These allergens are not harmful in-and-of themselves. MCS is the opposite of an allergy in that the body fails to react adequately to aggravating chemicals. Instead of processing the chemicals and getting rid of them, the body can't seem to eliminate them at all.

You probably come across people with MCS every day, but never know it because they usually suffer in silence and try to avoid toxic encounters. People with MCS often have a hard time receiving the understanding and support they need from family, friends, coworkers and doctors, but fortunately this is starting to change.

What are the Symptoms of MCS?

Depending on the severity of sensitivity, symptoms can range from the subtle to the dramatic. MCS symptoms can include headaches, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, depression and irritability, anxiety and panic attacks, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, difficulties in breathing and swallowing, mental confusion, concentration and memory problems, asthma attacks, even seizures.

What Causes MCS?

MCS is brought on by chemical exposure. It can be a chronic exposure over many years, such as experienced by people who make their livings as housecleaners, mechanics, furniture refinishers or painters. It can come from years of working in a poorly-ventilated building with copier fumes, perfumes and chemical cleaning products. It can also be triggered by a sudden catastrophic event such as a large chemical spill or pesticide exposure. No one is born with MCS, but anybody can develop it at any time, with no warning.

What Triggers a Chemically Sensitive Person?

The most common triggers are petroleum-based solvents, volatile organic compounds (VOC's), pesticides and synthetic fragrances. Fragrances are often the most aggravating trigger and the hardest to avoid. One fragrance alone can contain up to 600 petroleum-based chemicals, and because it's considered a trade secret, manufacturers don't have to tell us what those chemicals are. Laboratory analysis of common fragranced products show that they contain extremely toxic chemicals, including chemicals on the EPA's Hazardous Waste list.

People with MCS are anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times more sensitive to synthetic fragrances than are healthy people. This is why the person with MCS can be devastated by a fragrance that someone nearby is wearing, while the person wearing the fragrance and receiving a far greater exposure is not bothered by it.

When a person with MCS says they can't be around fragrances, they don't just mean perfumes and colognes. Fragrance chemicals are found in soaps, shampoos, conditioners, cosmetics, lotions, sunscreens, deodorants and anti-perspirants, toothpastes, laundry detergent and fabric softeners, plastic garbage bags, household cleaners, kitty litter, air "fresheners", room "deodorizers", scented candles... the list goes on and on.

What most healthy people don't realize is that when they use scented products, they "outgas" toxic fumes everywhere they go! For example, scented laundry detergent or fabric softener leaves chemical residue on clothing that can trigger acute symptoms in a sensitive person several rooms away. Ditto for hair conditioners and other scented "personal" products. Just like second-hand smoke, when a product outgasses toxins into air that others have to breathe, it is no longer a "personal" product or a "personal" choice.

What Do People with MCS Experience?

For a person with MCS, the simplest daily activities such as working, shopping, going to church or a restaurant can be incredibly painful- both physically and emotionally. Oftentimes a person with MCS has to leave work suddenly upon exposure to a chemical, resulting in lost wages and sometimes lost jobs. With rapidly rising mental confusion and difficulty speaking, they simply cannot stick around to explain their situation politely.

They must ask co-workers to change their personal habits and this request is often met with disbelief and hostility. Employers and co-workers feel put-upon and often blame the person with MCS, accusing them of making unreasonable demands, being control freaks or mentally ill. They grumble about being asked to give up their cologne or pretty-smelling fabric softeners, and talk about their "right" to use perfumes, ignoring the chemically-sensitive person's right to breathe clean air. This resistance greatly adds to the stress that the person with MCS is already feeling. Many, many people with MCS lose their jobs and have trouble finding employment that they can tolerate.

Trips to the grocery store, church or synagogue, restaurant or movie theater may have to be terminated abruptly when someone nearby is wearing fragranced products. People with MCS can't be in a building that recently had its' carpet shampooed. Public restrooms stocked with "air fresheners" are a nightmare. Hospitals, doctors' and dentists' offices with their disinfectant chemicals, plastics and latex gloves are often too toxic for the person with MCS, making it difficult to get proper healthcare.

Persons with mild sensitivity might be able to perform the above activities albeit with some discomfort. Moderate sufferers may manage to get by, but come home feeling exhausted and require extensive rest in order to recuperate for the next day's onslaught.

People with severe MCS become housebound and isolated, unable to function in society or have any social life whatsoever. They must make extreme adaptations in order to cope. Often they move from place to place in search of a home that isn't too toxic to live in. They might not be able to to have any printed material or writing pens in their home because most inks are toxic. Just being near a newspaper or opening a phonebook can trigger an attack. They can't have carpeting, vinyl or laminate flooring because the glues are toxic, no synthetic fabrics, or any plastics, either.

No plastics? Think about it: plastics are in food containers, computer keyboards and monitors, countertops and cabinetry, and synthetic fibers such as nylon and polyester found in bedding, upholstery, draperies and carpeting.

How Can I Help Someone Who Has MCS?

First of all, don't take their requests as a personal insult. They're not reacting to YOU, they're reacting to chemicals you're using. It's not that they don't like your perfume, but that they can't tolerate the chemicals your perfume contains.

Ask them what triggers their symptoms, and if it's something you use, ask for suggestions of what you could use as a more healthful substitute. It can be as simple as using fragrance-free or naturally-fragranced shampoos, conditioners and soap. Use a clear deodorant stone or baking soda instead of scented deodorant. Switch to fragrance-free laundry products. Read labels carefully, because many manufacturers cheat by using "masking fragrances" in so-called "unscented" products. Stop using fabric softener- you'll be doing yourself a favor! It's not only one of the worst triggers for people with MCS, it's one of the most dangerous, carcinogenic products on the market.

If the person is bothered by perfumes and you like perfume, try switching to all-natural perfumes made with essential oils and absolutes. This is how perfumes were made for centuries before the advent of petro-chemicals. Even chemically-sensitive people often find that they can wear and enjoy natural perfumes.

Instead of using petroleum-based air fresheners, try using natural lemon-oil spray. Paraffin candles are made from the sludge at the bottom of oil refinery barrels. When they burn they emit the same pollutants as a diesel truck engine, and even when they're not burning they're still outgassing. Try using natural beeswax candles instead. Did you know that beeswax candles actually clean the air of indoor pollutants? Beeswax candles burn cleaner and longer and smell wonderfully of honey.

At home, in the workplace and public buildings such as schools, churches, temples, and restaurants, switch to non-toxic cleaning products- you'll feel better and save money. Plain white vinegar is a very effective disinfectant. Other good products include Orange-Oil cleaners, baking soda, non-chlorine bleach and Simple Green.

Accomodating a person with MCS can be a blessing in disguise. Instead of resenting their requests that you not use chemicals that trigger their symptoms, take this as an opportunity to make more healthful choices for yourself and your family. Remember: they weren't born with MCS; they got it by exposure to the same chemicals that you may be using. If it happened to them, it could happen to you or your own children. By reducing the number of toxic chemicals you use daily on your body and in your home, you reduce your own risk of developing MCS or other diseases such as cancer down the road.

Written by: Siri Amrit Kaur Khalsa

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