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home : features : features July 09, 2014

12/8/2012 10:00:00 PM
Scents and sensitivity: Odors can cause extreme discomfort in some
Yavapai Regional Medical Center

We live in a world where scents, odors and fumes of various kinds are often all around us. Compared to even 100 years ago, chemicals are overwhelmingly present in our environment - in the air, in fuels we use and in the perfumes and colognes we wear. Chemical scents are added to everything from soaps and cleansers to household items, food, home décor and as the final touch for your vehicle at the carwash.

For most of us, these scents pass by almost without notice. We have become accustomed to them to the point where they are simply taken for granted. But for some, these scents, fresheners and chemical odors can trigger reactions that can be debilitating.

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is a condition characterized by symptoms attributed to low-level chemical exposure. According to William Meggs, M.D., .at the Brody School of Medicine in North Carolina, "There is a significant percentage of people in our population who have a hyper-reactivity to common environmental chemicals - things like cigarette smoke, paint fumes, solvents, cleaning products and various other irritating chemicals."

The list of possible symptoms associated with multiple chemical sensitivity is almost endless and varies from one patient to the next. Most sufferers of MCS complain of at least some of the following:

• Burning, stinging eyes

• Wheezing, breathlessness, nausea

• Concentration and focus problems

• Headache, migraine, vertigo, fatigue

• Runny nose, sinus problems

• Sore throat, cough

• Skin rashes and/or itching skin

• Sensitivity to light and noise

• Muscle and joint pain

Although MCS is very real for the sufferer, the cause of MCS is hard to identify. Studies have been done to try to isolate causes, but there has been little in the way of solid success.

"Chemical sensitivity is often acquired after a devastatingly high exposure to chemicals," Meggs continues. Some Gulf War veterans have evidenced symptoms, as have others who were present on the site of the World Trade Center collapse. Still, such specific trauma is not present in the majority of cases.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recognizes MCS as a disability that can require a landlord to make "reasonable accommodations" when a tenant feels that the presence of chemicals or other odors are causing him or her to experience an MCS reaction. However, proving the exact cause of the MCS can be very difficult

The American Medical Association, and other authorities, do not recognize MCS as an organic, chemical-caused illness. An inter-departmental government task force, put together by the Department of Health and Human Services, concluded only that much more needs to be done to study and understand the problem.

Blind clinical trials have shown that MCS patients react as often and as strongly to placebos, including clean air, as they do to the chemicals they say harm them. This has led some experts to believe MCS symptoms are either due to odor hypersensitivity or are mainly psychological.

Whatever the causes, those who claim to suffer from MCS can experience extreme discomfort in the presence of chemical scents, odors and fumes. There are many things you can do to help those around you who are affected in this way. Providing unscented soaps in your home and office environments, refraining from wearing strong perfumes or lotions, and even saying no to the "new car smell" additive at the carwash are just a few ways to help create a more pleasant environment for everyone.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Thursday, January 03, 2013
Article comment by: Steve Ross

Thank you for posting this article. Hopefully we'll come closer in 2013 to getting a medical definition for MCS, resulting in recognition by the AMA. To the MCS Warrior who wrote, "I know there have to be more than just a couple of us in the quad cities," please contact www.ciin.org and www.healnatl.org and ask if they know of any EI's in your area. Surely you are right, there must be some. You can also subscribe to the free Arizona Environmental Health Bulletin, which has readership nationally, and post a notice there: healphxchapter@msn.com .

Posted: Sunday, December 23, 2012
Article comment by: another MCS warrior

I know there have to be more than just a couple of us in the quad cities. Anyone know of a group or interested in starting one to discuss local challenges, solutions and support?

Posted: Sunday, December 09, 2012
Article comment by: living with mcs

Much of the research that concludes mcs is not from damage or disruption of health caused by chemical exposure is funded by the chemical industry or led by researchers with chemical industry links or funding. They intend to disprove mcs. The so called placebos are not inert and the so called clean air is not clean air. More and more people are getting mcs and asthma, as our indoor air quality declines from ever increasing household and personal care product use. Skip the perfumes and colognes when Christmas shopping and spare your loved ones and us mcs folks.

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