Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - the Role of Environmental Health Professionals

By Gist, Ginger L. | Journal of Environmental Health, January-February 1999 | Go to article overview

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - the Role of Environmental Health Professionals


Gist, Ginger L., Journal of Environmental Health


* "Sometimes these bouts of fatigue come on so fast and are so absolute that I've actually fallen off chairs that didn't have arm rests and crumpled to the floor where I stood."

* "I forgot commitments, I forgot things I had just read, I forgot where I'd parked my car, what people's phone numbers were, how to get to places where I was driving."

* "Not a day goes by that I don't miss the old life and the old me."

- Statements from Patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), also called environmentally triggered illness, twentieth-century disease, universal allergy, and chemical AIDS, was first described almost a half century ago when a Chicago allergist began to see a pattern of patients who reported becoming iii after being exposed to a variety of petrochemicals. Since that time many more cases of MCS have been reported, yet we still have no case definition for the condition and no medical test that can diagnose it. Treatment that is effective is, at best, difficult to determine.

Developing MCS is believed to be a two-step process. A person becomes sensitized after receiving a "major" exposure to an environmental chemical such as a pesticide, a solvent, or a combustion product. The sensitized person then begins to respond to low-level chemical exposures from ordinary substances such as perfumes and tobacco smoke. These low-level exposures are said to "trigger" a response. Over time, chemically unrelated substances may trigger symptoms. The symptoms reported by MCS patients vary a good deal but typically include chest pain, depression, difficulty remembering, dizziness, fatigue, headache, inability to concentrate, nausea, and aches and pains in muscles and joints.

Several populations have been identified as possibly being chemically sensitive, including Persian Gulf veterans, industrial workers, occupants of "sick buildings," and people who live near contaminated sites. The racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic characteristics of these groups vary greatly enough to suggest that a real health problem is occurring.

Recently, a federal interagency work group was convened to discuss MCS. Cochaired by Dr. Barry Johnson, assistant surgeon general and assistant administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and Dr. Richard Jackson, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, the work group included members from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of Energy, the U. …

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