The following is a personal account of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity by a member of South London Solidarity Federation. The author has made some additional points in response to comments which are included in the addendum below.
MCS is an adverse reaction to airborne chemicals, such as air fresheners, solvents, and scented cleaning products. Symptoms vary from nose and throat irritation, fatigue and headaches to full-blown immune system overload. It can be triggered by a one off or severe exposure to chemicals, pesticides or other toxins and become a long-term susceptibility to the low levels of exposure now common in many public spaces.
In 2016 campaigning in the UK succeeded in getting MCS recognised as a health condition, as an aspect of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. One possible reason for the reluctance of the UK authorities to acknowledge MCS was the number of Gulf War veterans who returned to the UK with MCS and other symptoms. Research and campaigning has been stronger in the USA. The US Environmental Protection Agency now accepts there are risks from indoor air pollution at work from Volatile Organic Compounds such as pesticides, solvents, cleaning agents and vapour from pressed wood products. (The US Federal Drug Agency has now initiated a ban on 'anti-bacterial' hand and surface cleaners, as they have been proved ineffective, recommending soap and water instead.) There has been some UK press coverage in 2016 of new research into how chemical fragrances from air fresheners can decay into formaldehyde in confined spaces. MCS in general needs more recognition and public understanding.
We are not told what is in a 'fragrance' - it's exempt from listing requirements, to conceal perfume recipes. It is difficult to find everyday household cleaning products, soaps and shampoos that do not contain mysterious 'parfum', and multinational corporations have vested interests in their marketing. Advertising links scent with cleanliness. Products with chemical additives that have replaced traditional cleaning aids like vinegar and soda in everyday use are mostly untested when airborne..
- My M.C.S. is relatively mild. Only about twice a year do I get a bout of symptoms from it that stop me from functioning for weeks or more. However to achieve this I mostly have to avoid trains and buses, modern public buildings like libraries, colleges and luxury apartment blocks, especially if carpetted, public loos, sports centres, swimming baths, hotels, minicabs, some pubs and cafes, launderettes, police stations, supermarkets, most washing-up liquids, washing powders etc.and the 'Lynx effect'.
It gets really nasty sometimes. I am self-employed and have to work in some places, like group homes, where MCS makes me vulnerable to indoor air pollution, sometimes through lack of awareness and sometimes as a bullying tactic - this summer I had to a leave a regular weekly session where a service manager was using air freshener to exclude me. I have also had my breathing filter scarf ripped off by a drunken associate who went on to bad-mouth me publicly because my response had been to kick him in the shins. A fellow M.C.S. sufferer who travelled from Germany to London for an internship had to give it up because perfume was pumped into the workspace.
There is a growing need for wider awareness of MCS in workplaces and institutions where sufferers may need support, as well as in social situations and political meetings.
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a controversial condition. I was skeptical about MCS until I began to notice symptoms inconsistent with any other explanation, and to meet other people with similar experiences. It is worth remembering that ME, or post-viral fatigue syndrome, was for a long time also a doubted condition. It has taken a long time to persuade people of its existence as a pathology, and there is still a lot to be done in terms of research into this. However the experience of ME sufferers has proved indisputable over the years.
There are inherent difficulties in testing for allergic-type reactions that manifest after a delay. This alone does not mean that such symptoms cannot be 'real'. And once you have eliminated other possible causes by elimination of suspected triggers, much as people have to do to isolate food sensitivity reactions, you naturally become reluctant to put yourself in a vulnerable position. It's possible that sometimes I avoid perfumes that are not actually triggers, and appear paranoid. Comprehensive labelling of additives would help a lot.
People seem less willing to accept that indoor air pollution can cause problems than that food additives or water contamination or chemicals absorbed through skin can. I see no logical reason for this. And hey, I also have some mental health problems - don't many of us at times? It is a philosophical minefield to try and unravel the complex strands of mind-body interaction though. I am disappointed that some people are so willing to jump to conclusions.
The health problems of some Gulf War Veterans are disabling to an horrific degree - mine pale into insignificance in comparison. There is also the experience of asthma sufferers whose sometimes life-threatening symptoms were initially triggered by pesticide exposure. Chemical sensitivity seems to be a spectrum, from total immune-system overload to mild hayfever. Fortunately I am not at the extreme end of it.
http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/community/stories/gulf-war-illnesses-ian-s-story-and-why-we-re-campaigning (WARNING: contains an account of a collapse that makes for difficult reading)
Co-sponsored by: The American Lung Association (ALA), The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and The American Medical Association (AMA)
'The current consensus is that in cases of claimed or suspected MCS, complaints should not be dismissed as psychogenic, and a thorough workup is essential. Primary care givers should determine that the individual does not have an underlying physiological problem and should consider the value of consultation with allergists and other specialists.'
'There also exists a chronically activated immune system, which may result from the initial insult or co-existent microbial, or toxin overload or a combination of the two. It seems that there is over-expression of aberrant RNA, derived initially from an enterovirus, protected by a viral type coat which in the presence of LMWRNase L leads to extreme ATP depletion... Pollution and vaccines have been suggested as a cause for the loss of control of HERV associated mRNA production. Following this hypercoagulability develops, causing problems in both blood and lymph microcirculation's. This hypercoagulability may arise from a combination of hereditary, immune mediated and oxidative stress pathways. We have chronic sympathetic system activation, from many causes.'
Isoniazid - one of the three drugs used to treat TB
'Isoniazid, also known as isonicotinylhydrazide (INH), is an antibiotic used for the treatment of ... Common side effect include increased blood levels of liver enzymes and numbness in the hands and feet. .... A range of radicals are produced by KatG activation of isoniazid, including nitric oxide'
Nitric Oxide Cycle, Superoxide and Peroxynitrite
'Dr Martin Pall has hypothesised in his book 'Explaining "Unexplained Illnesses": Disease Paradigm for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Fibromyalgia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Gulf War Syndrome, and Others' (2009) that the NO/ONOO- (Nitric Oxide) cycle may be a significant factor in some cases of CFS, FM, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) (see the Effects of Toxicity page for more information), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and perhaps even Autism. He suggests that the elevated Nitric Oxide and Peroxynitrite levels in these conditions is a shared root cause or factor, which is also comorbid in a large number of other well-accepted diseases, for example viral related illnesses, allergies and autoimmune conditions. This might also explain how some sufferers of one of these conditions may develop multiple instances of other inflammatory conditions concurrently, as they share a root driver.'