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Chemical and electrical sensitivity sufferers need better health care



A Doctor at Work​Op-Ed

A Swedish study looking at use of conventional health care services by those affected by multiple chemical sensitivity and electrical sensitivity finds these patients are more comparable to the general population rather than patients with a diagnosed and treatable condition such as hypertension. But is this because the environmentally ill are less sick or because traditional health care has nothing to offer them?

The research conducted by scientists at Lund University, Sweden, was intended to ascertain the degree to which those with sensitivities to chemicals and electricity place a burden on traditional health care services. A secondary aim was to seek their opinions of such services.

Researchers sent out postal questionnaires to local residents to assess the prevalence of symptoms related to electrical and chemical factors. They received 13,604 completed responses. The questionnaire asked “Did you during the past 14 days experience annoyance that you associate with (1) fluorescent tube lighting (2) visual display units (3) other electrical equipment (4) breathing air that smells of chemicals (5) other smells and if so, how much annoyance did that cause you?” Possible responses were “No,” “Yes, some” or “Yes, very much”. The investigators then chose to focus on 315 individuals who reported annoyance from both any electrical factor and chemicals or smells, with at least one of the factors rated as "yes, very much" annoying.

The 315 environmentally sensitive persons were then compared with 1373 people treated with medication for high blood pressure during the past year as well as the general population in relation to their health care usage and opinion of conventional medical services.

It will come as no surprise to those of us who suffer (or have suffered) significant illness due to chemical and electrical factors that the multiple chemical sensitivity/electrical sensitivity (MCS/ES) group reported significantly lower levels of physical and mental well-being than both those with hypertension and the general population.

Multiple chemical sensitivity and electrical sensitivity can cause both wide-ranging and dibilitating symptoms that severely limit a sufferer's ability to function in a normal capacity. Many lose jobs and relationships and are left as involuntary recluses due to the aggravation to their already poor level of health they would suffer if they left their safe home environment - which is typically modified to be free from significant levels of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and electromagnetic radiation.

While the MCS/ES group in the study showed similar average total health care costs as the general population, the hypertension group placed a much higher financial burden on primary health care providers.

It is I feel, important to consider here that many cases of hypertension are the result of the patient's own choices and actions with regard to diet and lifestyle. Environmental illness in the form of chemical and electrical sensitivity cannot be regarded as such and individuals from all walks of life can and do fall victim.

Finally, the results of the study revealed that feelings of "unfulfilled health care needs", "of considering that the medical system neglected one's needs" and of "not being treated with respect", were all high in the MCS/ES group in comparison to the hypertension group and general population. Again, issues that any sufferer of MCS and/or ES do not need a peer-reviewed scientific study to inform them of. 

The results of the study however do provide environmentally ill individuals with some very useful information if we join the dots.

Most obviously, the findings provide a robust rebuttal to all those (in the medical profession and otherwise) who suggest those suffering from environmental illness are hypochondriacs who simply want attention or some form of financial gain. Having suffered from environmental illness myself and in the course of running The Environmental Illness Resource website ( I can say without question that this study reveals the truth in this area. People with MCS/ES just wish to be healthy and get their lives back.

Linking the broad dissatisfaction with traditional health care services among the MCS/ES group to the findings that this group place no greater financial burden on such health care services than the general population despite greater disability and well-being than people with hypertension reveals the most important thing - those suffering from MCS/ES do not receive the treatment, care and support they need from traditional health care services.

The research reveals that those with MCS/ES visit primary physicians more often than the general population but this does not translate into significant extra financial cost because the usual result is that such people are dismissed as hypochondriacs and malingerers and no testing or treatment is offered.

It was outside the remit of the Swedish study to determine if use of alternative medicine or private health care services was higher among the MCS/ES group than the others but I would personally wager everything that this is the case. Finding no help in conventional health care services those with environmental illness have no choice but to turn to alternative health care services and the financial burden is then placed squarely on their shoulders rather than on those of insurance companies or nationalised health care services.

I wish this study had gone further and examined health care use outside of the mainstream services and personal financial expenditure among MCS/ES patients compared to those with hypertension and the general population. At least the researchers acknowledge this would be the logical next step.

What is clear is that the environmentally sensitive need and deserve much better care from conventional health care than they currently receive.

Source: Eek F Merlo J Gerdtham U Lithman T (2009) Health care utilisation and attitudes towards health care in subjects reporting environmental annoyance from electricity and chemicals Journal of Environmental and Public Health 2009:106389 (Free Full Article)



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