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multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is an expression that was developed within a community of medical professionals who thought they had identified a new kind of medical illness that is an effect of modern living. They called it ecological or environmental illness. Some people are especially sensitive to our treated water, polluted air, synthetic clothing, cleaning products, paints, perfumes, and other items that many of us are likely to come in contact with in our day to day activities. The only way to identify those who are especially sensitive to things in our modern environment is by their complaints and behaviors. There is apparently no organic basic for their sensitivity, which makes it impossible to develop something like a blood or allergy test to identify who is especially sensitive.

Theron Randolph (1906-1995), M.D., an allergist, seems to be the main person behind the origin of the concept of multiple chemical sensitivity. In 1965, Randolph co-founded the Society for Clinical Ecology (now the American Academy of Environmental Medicine). This organization and the notion of "clinical ecology" are largely ignored in the medical community.* The reason they are ignored is that multiple chemical sensitivity is not recognized as an organic, chemical-caused illness by most physicians and medical associations. Even so, people who either self-diagnose or are diagnosed by a "clinical ecologist" as having MCS suffer from real physical symptoms. Dr. Stephen Barrett writes:

Many people diagnosed with "MCS" suffer greatly and are very difficult to treat. Well-designed investigations suggest that most of them have a psychosomatic disorder in which they develop multiple symptoms in response to stress. If this is true—and I believe it is—clinical ecology patients run the risks of misdiagnosis, mistreatment, financial exploitation, and/or delay of proper medical and psychiatric care. In addition, insurance companies, employers, other taxpayers, and ultimately all citizens are being burdened by dubious claims for disability and damages. To protect the public, state licensing boards should scrutinize the activities of clinical ecologists and decide whether the overall quality of their care is sufficient for them to remain in medical practice.

Barrett may be justified in calling for more scrutiny of clinical ecologists, but it is likely that many medical specialists who focus on MCS sincerely believe that there are things in our environment that especially sensitive people react to in adverse ways. The reactions range from mild annoyances and headaches to symptoms so severe as to be disabling. The sincerity of clinical ecologists, however, is irrelevant to the issue of whether they are medically correct and is no excuse for not doing properly controlled studies to validate their claims. Also, since there is no medical test to identify MCS, the ease of diagnosis from unscrupulous individuals makes this an area open to fraud from people seeking special accommodations, applying for disability benefits, or filing frivolous lawsuits against restaurants, building owners, etc.

There have been controlled studies done that have aimed at validating the reality of a chemical basis for the symptoms observed in people who are diagnosed with MCS. These studies have found that participants are as likely to react to placebos as to real chemicals.* This does not prove that the symptoms are being faked, however. The symptoms are real in many people. The symptoms, however, vary widely, as do the alleged causes of the symptoms. Symptoms include:

....feeling tired, "brain fog" (short-term memory problems, difficulty concentrating) and muscle pain....difficulty breathing, pains in the throat, chest, or abdominal region, asthma, skin irritation, contact dermatitis, and hives or other forms of skin rash, headaches, neurological symptoms (nerve pain, pins and needles feelings, weakness, trembling, restless leg syndrome, etc.), tendonitis, seizures, visual disturbances (blurring, halo effect, inability to focus), extreme anxiety, panic and/or anger, sleep disturbance, suppression of immune system, digestive difficulties, nausea, indigestion/heartburn, vomiting, diarrhea, joint pains, vertigo/dizziness, abnormally acute sense of smell, sensitivity to natural plant fragrance or natural pine terpenes, insomnia, dry mouth, dry eyes, and an overactive bladder.*

William J. Rea, M.D., claims to have treated more than 20,000 environmentally ill patients. Rea says that they "may manifest any symptom in the textbook of medicine." That about covers it.

"Clinical ecologists" attribute MCS symptoms to such things as:

....urban air; diesel exhaust; tobacco smoke; fresh paint or tar; organic solvents and pesticides; certain plastics; newsprint; perfumes and colognes; medications; gas used for cooking and heating; building materials; permanent press and synthetic fabrics; household cleaning products; rubbing alcohol; felt-tip pens; cedar closets; tap water; and even electromagnetic forces.*

Ronald E. Gots, M.D., Ph.D., has reviewed the medical records of more than a hundred MCS patients. He describes MCS as "a label given to people who do not feel well for a variety of reasons and who share the common belief that chemical sensitivities are to blame. It defies classification as a disease. It has no consistent characteristics, no uniform cause, no objective or measurable features. It exists because a patient believes it does and a doctor validates that belief."*

See also electrohypersensitivity.

further reading

Edel, Dean. 2005. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Healthiness : Dr. Dean's Straight-Talk Answers to Hundreds of Your Most Pressing Health Questions. HarperCollins.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: A Spurious Diagnosis by Stephen Barrett, M.D. "Multiple chemical sensitivity" is not a legitimate diagnosis. Instead of testing their claims with well-designed research, its advocates are promoting them through publications, talk shows, support groups, lawsuits, and political maneuvering (such as getting state governors to designate a Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Awareness Week). Many are also part of a network of questionable legal actions alleging injuries by environmental chemicals.

Two Cases on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Case law generally rejects expert medical testimony of MCS....The learned professions are not immune to quackery. Some physicians entertain unvalidated -- and sometimes implausible -- theories. These believers may organize themselves into professional societies, issue certificates to their members, and publish their own peer-reviewed journals (that are ignored by the larger medical community).

Multiple chemical sensitivity on WikiDoc "Because of the lack of scientific evidence based on well-controlled clinical trials that supports a cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to very low levels of chemicals and the myriad symptoms reported by clinical ecologists, MCS is not recognized as an established organic disease by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, the American Medical Association, the California Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology. Many medical doctors who treat MCS are certified by the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which Theron Randolph founded in 1965 as the Society for Clinical Ecology.

Texas Medical Board Calls Dr. Alfred Johnson's Allergy Treatment "Nonsensical" by Stephen Barrett, M.D. Johnson diagnosed a patient with an "allergy" to diesel and car exhaust fumes and injected extracts of these substances to allegedly "desensitize" the patient. The Medical Board eventually reprimanded Johnson.

Last updated 21-Oct-2015
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