Browsing through the online news looking for stories about multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) yesterday, I came across a review of a play which features a main character with the illness.
The review features in the The Record, a local newspaper serving Troy and surrounding areas in New York state. The play is titled 'Sick' and features a 17-year- old character called Davey who suffers from MCS. Davey's family live in a New York apartment and protect him by turning their home into a chemical-free zone - something anyone who suffers from MCS knows is a necessity.
Reading the review got me thinking about the exposure MCS gets in the media and how it is portrayed.
It seems to me that there is a steady increase in awareness of the condition and it is beecoming more and more a part of the public consciousness. Just a few short decades ago virtually nobody had heard of MCS, now it regularly features in the news media, there have been TV documentaries about it, many books on the subject are available, and as the example above illustrates, actors are now playing characters with illness. All of this can only accerate the speed at which public awareness of MCS is growing.
This led me to think about how chemical sensitivity is portrayed in the media and entertainment industry. Any exposure helps to raise awareness of an illness which is certainly a good thing but if the illness and those who suffer from it are portrayed incorrectly or in a negative manner it is a huge injustice and could harm sufferers and their loved ones since these industries have such influence over public opinion.
The reviewer in The Record remains neutral on the subject of MCS and with the piece accompained by a picture of the play with Davey wearing a face mask I was hopeful the production would portray the reality of MCS. As I read the review however it turned out that a negative spin had been put on the illness. As far as I can tell from a single short review, Sick uses MCS and the character of Davey as a device to illustrate how people fall into line behind group opinion and values, Davey's father bowing to his wife's need to remove every last potential source of chemical exposure from their home for the sake of their son. The implication being that this is not required and Davey's mother is taking things to the extreme.
In a further slight on those of us who are affected by MCS, Davey is portrayed as enjoying the attention his condition affords him. As we all know, there is NOTHING to enjoy about suffering from MCS - it turns you life upside down and can take away everything you held dear, including your sense of identity.
In a quick internet search I found a Boston Globe article written by the Massachusetts Association for the Chemically Injured. They were responding to a previous article written in 2000 titled 'The smell test: Halifax stirs emotions with ban on scents'. The Association said that they "applaud any attention the media give the very real, yet poorly understood, medical condition of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity." However they go on to say that the original article was one-sided and portrayed MCS as purely "psychological or psychosocial."
Documentaries shown on the major TV networks still tend to give a lot of time to portrayals of MCS as a psychological disorder as well. I have spoken to a number of prominent figures in MCS research, treatment, and activism who have provided material for documentary makers about the true nature of MCS as a physical and disabling condition, only to find their testimony cut or used out of context. It seems documentaries that portray the reality of MCS are made independently by those who have seen the devastation it causes up close but these do't make it onto TV screens as there is no controversy and people don't want to hear the message that the products they use everyday may harm others. These documentaries therefore tend to be viewable only online on MCS awareness websites such as MCS International.
What are your experiences of MCS in the media? Are you seeing more exposure for the illness? Is it being portrayed in a more accurate manner or still as a psychological condition? Please let us know by leaving a comment below.
About: Matthew Hogg ("Maff")
Diagnosed with M.E./chronic fatigue syndrome aged only 11 years old and subsequently associated illnesses including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Despite his own struggles he has constantly sought to educate and support others suffering from such "invisible illnesses" through his website, The Environmental Illness Resource. He fully recovered from MCS using his own approach and holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nutritional Health.