Multiple chemical sensitivity: Modern-day canaries in the mineshaft

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is generally defined as an adverse reaction to potentially toxic chemicals in air, food or water, at concentrations generally accepted as harmless to the majority of the population.

by Dr. Martha Grout — 

In the early 1950s, Dr. Theron G. Randolph noted that several of his patients had a “petrochemical problem,” in that they became ill when passing through the heavily industrialized areas of northwest Indiana and South Chicago. Randolph was a new breed of “clinical ecologists” who believed that chemical antigens are not always dispelled from the body and can lodge in fatty tissue, acting as continual irritants to the immune system.

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is generally defined as an adverse reaction to potentially toxic chemicals in air, food or water, at concentrations generally accepted as harmless to the majority of the population. Reactions can be triggered by a wide range of everyday exposures, including pesticides, perfumes, scented laundry, new carpet and flooring, chlorine, mold, formaldehyde and smelly plastics.

There are an estimated 80,000 chemicals in use today in our daily environment, and that amount is expected to grow four-fold by 2050. MCS is sometimes called “the ultimate 21st century illness,” and people who have succumbed can be considered the “modern-day canaries in the mine.” To many, it makes sense that humans would become weaker — physically and mentally — in the face of increased environmental contamination.

It appears that people with MCS have detoxification mechanisms that have been seriously compromised, most likely from a combination of environmental assaults superimposed on inefficient genetic detoxification pathways.

Genetic makeup is an important key; you can inherit a predisposition to MCS. Your liver detoxifies all manner of substances which you encounter daily. However, if your nutrient or enzyme supply is depleted or damaged, as appears to be the case in people with MCS, the liver is unable to break down toxic substances efficiently.

Women are more prone to MCS because of their “enzyme inventory.” An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase detoxifies carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol and chemicals. Women naturally produce much less of this enzyme than do men. Additionally, women have a greater total percentage of body fat, which is where chemicals are stored.

Those with MCS have far-ranging physical and mental symptoms — fatigue, concentration or memory difficulties, irritability, nervous tension, depression, daytime drowsiness, food cravings, insomnia, headaches, nasal congestion, muscle and joint aches, ringing in the ears, gastrointestinal distress, palpitations and more.

Patients often have a difficult time requesting medical help, as many allopathic physicians are unfamiliar with or do not believe in MCS. Some doctors still tell patients, “It’s all in your head.” Adding insult to injury, many doctors’ offices are loaded with offending chemicals, to which the doctors themselves may be too desensitized to notice.

Meanwhile, physicians frequently are baffled when they face patients with multiple complaints that do not fit into a known diagnostic disease category. It doesn’t help that regular laboratory tests (e.g., CBC, liver function tests, sedimentation rate or urinalysis) often appear to be completely normal.

Indicators for the illness include becoming progressively less able to walk down the detergent aisle without having a severe reaction; progressive intolerance for foods you could formerly eat; and an increased reaction to cosmetics products. Individuals with these symptoms can be tested to diagnose MCS. Recommendations may include immunotherapy, avoidance therapy and/or a rotation diet.

Segments of the federal government seem to be several steps ahead of the mainstream medical community in their willingness to accept chemical sensitivity as a real problem. In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act included MCS as a recognized condition and in 1992, the Department of Housing and Urban Development established disability status for the disorder.

The evidence that MCS is a real — and growing — problem is becoming irrefutable. In November 2007, the California Medical Association adopted a resolution on a “Chemicals Policy for California” that says, in part: “Numerous other nations, including Canada and the European Union, are adopting more proactive health-oriented chemicals policies, based upon scientific knowledge, assessment and accepted public health principles. … Therefore, be it resolved that the CMA calls upon the State of California and United States to implement a modern, comprehensive chemicals policy in line with current scientific knowledge on human health, and which requires a full evaluation of the health impacts of both newly developed and existing industrial chemicals now in use.”

It may be that the shift to understand toxins as causes of illness will be as important as it once was for science to understand germ theory.


Martha Grout, M.D., M.D.(H), has two decades in emergency medicine and a decade in homeopathic medicine. Her Scottsdale, Ariz., office, makes preservative-free antigens for testing and treatment of MCS. or 480-240-2600.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 27, Number 1, February/March 2008.

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