“The chemical druthers” (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity)


Over the last year, I have experienced more frequent instances of muscle pain. Over the same time, my wife has had more headaches and my son has battled eczema. While the first two maladies could be seen as regular signs of aging and the third an understood medical condition, some persons would consider all of us to be victims of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. It may even be to blame for my cats shedding so much fur.   

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity purportedly results from modern developments, be they positive ones like treated water, negative one like air pollution, or neutral ones like synthetic clothing. Other possible culprits include cleaning products, paints, perfumes, tobacco smoke, tar, construction materials, gas stoves, pesticides, news print, and felt-tip markers. However, as there is no identifiable organic basis for this sensitivity, it so far has been impossible to test for, diagnose, treat, or even confirm the existence of.

Allergist Theron Randolph first championed the idea of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and he posited that it developed from humans’ inability to evolve a defense to synthetic chemicals. Were this true, however, nearly everyone would be suffering from it.

For those who do think it’s afflicting them, the anguish is real. The reactions range from mild annoyances to crushing disabilities. A highly-truncated list of symptoms would include fatigue, memory loss, muscle and joint aches, shortness of breath, asthma, skin conditions, seizures, blurred vision, sleep disruption, nausea, vertigo and dry mouth. More extensive lists created by those who purport to treat the condition will run for several dozen items. This is a strong indication that, rather than being a diagnosable medical condition, MCS is a catch-all phrase that can be considered the source of any discomfort. Even when a condition doesn’t have a known cause, as is the usually the case with Alzheimer’s or ALS, the conditions and treatment are generally the same for each patient. No one is going to consider a lingering cough to be an Alzheimer’s sign, nor will auditory hallucinations be interpreted as a consequence of ALS.

Further, treatment and end-of-life care for those with these diseases is going to be largely similar, though it will vary some by patient. By contrast, the treatment for MCS will vary by practitioner. Since there is no way to identify MCS or understand what causes it, there could be as many treatment plans as there are planners. As such, the recommendation can be as simple as eating more vegetables, as moderate as emptying the home of perfumes, sprays, and oils, or as extreme as fumigating one’s house and staying indoors with a filtered charcoal mask. Other suggested remedies are colon flushes, dietary supplements, dental amalgam removal, saline nasal rinses, and just about any other whim that hits the provider.

For those preferring a more evidenced-based approach, there have been controlled studies to try and determine a chemical basis for the symptoms associated with MCS. Through such trials, researchers learned that persons diagnosed with MCS were as likely to react to placebos as to the actual chemical. MCS is reported to occur at doses so low they are imperceptible to the senses. But when exposed to these negligible amounts in studies, subjects experienced no triggering of symptoms, nor a change in their vital signs.

Contrast this to amateur diagnoses of MCS, in which almost anything in the immediate environment can qualify as a trigger, and what it can trigger can likewise be voluminous. MCS has no consistent characteristics, uniform cause, or measurable feature. 

Dr. Stephen Barrett at Quackwatch, while careful to emphasize that the patients are genuinely suffering, thinks signs point to the afflicted experiencing “a psychosomatic disorder in which they develop multiple symptoms in response to stress. Many of these patients suffer from somatization disorder, an emotional problem characterized by persistent symptoms that cannot be fully explained by any known medical condition, yet are severe enough to require medical treatment or cause alterations in lifestyle. Some are paranoids who are prone to believe that their problems have outside causes. Others suffer from depression, panic disorder, agoraphobia, or other anxiety states that induce bodily reactions to stress.”

As such, those convinced they are suffering from MCS are highly susceptible to post hoc reasoning, subjective validation, and self-diagnosis. They should seek care from the likes of Barrett, who will compassionately lead them through what they need to hear, as opposed to riding on a perpetual carousel of a regimen that involves removing bodily fluids and gas stoves, overloading on vitamins, yoga, and intravenous infusions, avoiding pesticides, carpets, and gasoline, and opening windows while paradoxically avoiding the ubiquitous polluted air.

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