A new study reveals the impact that multiple chemical sensitivity can have on all areas of sufferers' everyday lives.
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is a condition in which an individual becomes ill after being exposed to chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air. Sources of such chemicals include everyday products such as household cleaners and personal care products. VOCs are also given off by household furnishings such as carpets, sofas, bedding, and furniture made from fibreboard. Vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke are also troublesome to those afflicted with MCS.
Symptoms of MCS can be triggered by minute amounts of VOCs even when the person is unable to smell the offending chemical. Symptoms vary but are typically neurological (e.g. dizziness, foggy thinking, confusion, headache) and respiratory (e.g. breathlessness, asthma, wheezing, coughing).
As the authors of this new study point out, there are currently no internationally accepted criteria for the diagnosis of MCS. This makes it hard for those affected to gain recognition of their illness or be provided with necessary care and financial help in the form of disability benefits. Despite the lack of established diagnostic criteria it is estimated that up to 15% of the population are affected to some degree in industrialised nations. People of all ages and races are affected and the condition can occur in both men and women, although women appear to be affected more frequently.
Although such significant numbers of people are affected the amount of research into both the causes and mechanisms underlying the condition and its impact on those affected is currently limited. The authors of this study, from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, therefore conducted research to determine how sufferers everyday lives are affected by MCS.
Six men and sex women between the ages of 24 and 78 who had suffered from self-diagnosed MCS for at least one year participated in the study. The participants were selected to provide a range of occupational status. The study was of a qualitative design which means the researchers were looking to discover information about participants' personal experiences and opinions. To this end a focus group was used that included two interviews with each participant.
The researchers report that MCS can severely impact on the everyday lives of those affected. Lifestyle, social life, and ability to remain in regular employment are all negatively affected to a significant extent.
The most common coping strategy the participants reported using was that of avoiding the chemical triggers of their symptoms. This involved creating a chemical-free home environment and limiting social activities where exposure to triggering chemicals may occur. Another larger survey conducted by Professor Pamela Reed Gibson of James Madison University, Vriginia, also found this to be the most common and effective treatment/management strategy employed by those with MCS (results from this study can be found here).
MCS sufferers really have no option but to adopt this strategy to provide a safe haven where they can avoid feeling ill all the time. Removing every source of VOCs in the home however can be a difficult task as so many everyday items give off these chemicals.
In another section of the Danish study the participants were asked about their experiences with the healthcare profession in relation to their MCS. Overall the experiences of reported were negative with participants finding that their symptoms were not even acknowledged by their doctors.
The authors conclude that "MCS may have serious implications for daily functioning." They go on to recommend that further research be conducted to determine the individual consequences of MCS and the social and psychological factors that may be associated with the illness. They state that such research is needed so that more satisfactory healthcare can be provided.
Source: Skovbjerg S Brorson S Rasmussen A Johansen JD Elberling J (2009) Impact of self-reported multiple chemical sensitivity on everyday life: A qualitative study Scandinavian Journal of Public Health [Epub Ahead of Print]