While I do not have these sensitivities, I have met a few folks who do. One was a worker at a local food co-op. She said it was very difficult to find employment at places where she did not react to the chemicals in their environments.
This story also brings to mind how I was able to add hours to my part time non-faculty library position a few years back. The new hire (faculty) was unable to work, she had bad reactions to the new carpeting. It was the beginning of the academic year and the library was desperate to at least get the reference desk covered. So, I was asked, and I accepted.
This is a very long article, but it seems well researched. The power of the chemical/pharamaceutical industry in influencing policies was not totally surprising. However it is disturbing to see how far reaching it is with the cooperation of quite a few physicians and physician organizations.
It is also sad to see how folks with this condition are not taken seriously. I admit that I had not been as compassionate as I could have in the past.
Am thinking now, how are hospitals and other institutions open to the public addressing this? How responsible should they be in having buildings that are relatively free of sensitivity triggers? Would few triggering chemicals benefit us all?
By Ann McCampbell, MD, Chair, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force of New Mexico
Published in Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, January 2001, Issue #210
Movies like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action depict the true stories of communities whose members became ill after drinking water contaminated with industrial waste. Their struggles clearly show how difficult it is for people to hold corporations responsible for the harm they have caused. Whether individuals are injured by exposures to contaminated air or water, silicone breast implants, cigarettes, or other chemicals, their quest for justice is usually a David versus Goliath battle that pits average citizens against giant corporations.
When confronted with the harm they have caused, corporations typically blame the victims, deny the problem, and try to avoid responsibility for the harm caused. The corporate response to people with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) has been no different. People with MCS are made sick from exposures to many common products, such as pesticides, paints, solvents, perfumes, carpets, building materials, and many cleaning and other products. But the manufacturers of these products would rather silence the messenger than acknowledge the message that their products are not safe.
To that end, the chemical manufacturing industry has launched an anti-MCS campaign designed to create the illusion of controversy about MCS and cast doubt on its existence. What has been said about the tobacco industry could easily apply to the chemical industry regarding MCS, that is, “the only diversity of opinion comes from the authors with … industry affiliations (1).”
It is a credit to the chemical industry’s public relations efforts that we frequently hear that multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) is “controversial” or find journalists who feel obligated to report “both sides” of the MCS story, or attempt to give equal weight to those who say MCS exists and those who say it does not. But this is very misleading, since there are not two legitimate views of MCS. Rather, there is a serious, chronic, and often disabling illness that is under attack by the chemical industry.
The manufacturers of pesticides, carpets, perfumes, and other products associated with the cause or exacerbation of chemical sensitivities adamantly want MCS to go away. Even though a significant and growing portion of the population report being chemically sensitive, chemical manufacturers appear to think that if they can just beat on the illness long enough, it will disappear. To that end, they have launched a multipronged attack on MCS that consists of labeling sufferers as “neurotic” and “lazy,” doctors who help them as “quacks,” scientific studies which support MCS as “flawed,” calls for more research as “unnecessary,” laboratory tests that document physiologic damage in people with MCS as “unreliable,” government assistance programs helping those with MCS as “abused,” and anyone sympathetic to people with MCS as “cruel” for reinforcing patients’ “beliefs” that they are sick. They also have been influential in blocking the admission of MCS testimony in lawsuits through their apparent influence on judges.
Like the tobacco industry, the chemical industry often uses non-profit front groups with pleasant sounding names, neutral-appearing third party spokespeople, and science-for-hire studies to try to convince others of the safety of their products. This helps promote the appearance of scientific objectivity, hide the biased and bottom-line driven agenda of the chemical industry, and create the illusion of scientific “controversy” regarding MCS. But whether anti-MCS statements are made by doctors, researchers, reporters, pest control operators, private organizations, or government officials, make no mistake about it – the anti-MCS movement is driven by chemical manufacturers. This is the real story of MCS.
In 1990, the Chemical Manufacturers Association (now the American Chemistry Council) vowed to work to prevent the recognition of MCS out of concern for potential lost profits and increased liability if MCS were to become widely acknowledged
The pharmaceutical industry is also involved in the effort to suppress MCS. Drug companies, which usually work with the medical profession to try to help patients, are working to deny help for those with MCS. This is extraordinary, but can be explained by the fact that the pharmaceutical industry is intimately linked to the chemical industry. That is, many companies that make medications also manufacture pesticides, the chemicals most implicated in causing MCS and triggering symptoms in people who are chemically sensitive.
Pfizer and Abbott Laboratories make both pharmaceuticals (14) and pesticides (15), while BASF makes pharmaceutical ingredients and pesticides (16). Even Bayer, famous for making aspirin, manufactures the popular neurotoxic pyrethroid insecticide Tempo (active ingredient cyfluthrin) (17). Novartis, Ciba, Dow, Eli Lilly, BASF, Aventis, Zeneca, and Bayer are all members of the American Chemical Council (formerly the Chemical Manufacturers Association), as are other pharmaceutical manufacturers, such as Dupont, Merck, Procter & Gamble, and Roche (18).
A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine outlined a myriad of ways that financial ties with the pharmaceutical industry may influence physicians (27). “The ties between clinical researchers and industry include not only grant support, but also a host of other financial arrangements. Researchers serve as consultants to companies whose products they are studying, join advisory boards and speakers’ bureaus, enter into patent and royalty arrangements, agree to be the listed authors of articles ghost written by interested companies, promote drugs and devices at company-sponsored symposiums, and allow themselves to be plied with expensive gifts and trips to luxurious settings” (p. 1516)
Even though MCS has gone by that name for over a decade, industry associates would have you believe that it goes by a myriad of other names, so many that it must not be describing anything legitimate. In fact, if an article starts out with a long list of possible names for MCS, you can be almost positive it is going to be critical of MCS. Referring to MCS as a “phenomenon” rather than an illness and using the term “multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome” also tend to be code for “it doesn’t really exist” or if it does, “it’s all in people’s heads.” Articles using these names are usually accompanied by other myths and put-downs, such as MCS has no definition, no objective findings, and no known prevalence, and is “only symptom-based,” a “belief system,” or “chemophobia.” People with MCS are also frequently dismissed as having an “unexplained illness,” as if they, rather than their physicians, were to blame for not adequately “explaining” it.
Since 1996, however, the chemical industry has taken a bold new approach to the name for MCS. It has made a concerted effort to rename MCS “idiopathic environmental intolerances (IEI).” It is quite clear that its motivation is to get the word “chemical” out of the name. This would be analogous to the tobacco industry trying to change the name of “smokers cough” to “idiopathic respiratory paroxysms.” Anything to try to distance the disease from its products.
MCS IN COURT
Perhaps the area where the chemical industry is most aggressively fighting MCS is in the courts. This is not surprising considering the fact that ESRI was founded to assist industries involved in MCS litigation. MCS cases commonly involve workers compensation, social security, toxic tort, disability or health insurance, and disability accommodations. MCS can also arise in divorce proceedings, child custody battles, and landlord-tenant and other disputes. In lawsuits where chemical manufacturers are directly involved, for example, when they are being sued for harm caused by their products, it is clear that attacks on the plaintiff’s credibility and medical condition, including MCS, come from the manufacturers. It is often unrecognized, however, how much the chemical industry is also involved in suppressing MCS in other lawsuits, through filing of briefs, supplying “expert” witnesses, and distributing anti-MCS literature to attorneys and witnesses.
IMPACTS OF MCS
The impact of MCS on individuals and society is huge, both in terms of its potential severity and the number of people affected. Many people with MCS have lost everything – including their health, homes, careers, savings, and families. They are chronically ill and struggle to obtain the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, clothing, housing, and automobiles, that they can tolerate. Finding housing that does not make them sicker, that is, housing that is not contaminated with pesticides, perfume, cleaning products, cigarette smoke residues, new carpets or paint, and formaldehyde-containing building products, is especially difficult. Many people with MCS live in cars, tents, and porches at some time during the course of their illness. In addition, people with MCS usually have financial difficulties. One of the most unjust aspects of the anti-MCS movement is that many expert witnesses are paid $500 per hour to testify against people disabled with MCS who are seeking that much money to live on per month.
And this medical condition is not rare. Prevalence studies in California (56) and New Mexico (57) found that 16% of the respondents reported being chemically sensitive. Additionally, in New Mexico 2% of the respondents reported having been diagnosed with MCS — the more severe form of chemical sensitivities — and in California, 3.5% reported having been diagnosed with MCS and being chemically sensitive. Although women report being chemically sensitive twice as often as men, which contributes to its “hysteria” label, those reporting chemical sensitivities are otherwise evenly distributed with respect to age, education, income, and geographic areas. Chemical sensitivities are also evenly reported among ethnic and racial groups, except for Native Americans, who reported a higher prevalence in both studies.
Chemical Sensitivity Foundation – Dedicated to raising public awareness about multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) www.chemicalsensitivityfoundation.org
Human Ecology Action League -Concerned about the health effects of environmental exposures www.healnatl.org
National Center for Environmental Health Strategies -Working to protect the public health and improve the lives of people affected by chemical and environmental exposures www.ncehs.org
Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Report – Recommendations for constructing and maintaining public buildings to be more accessible for people with chemical and electromagnetic sensitivities, project of the National Institute of Building Sciences with funding from the federal Access Board –www.access-board.gov/research/ieq
Beyond Pesticides -Information and advocacy, identifying the risks of conventional pesticides and promoting non-chemical and least–toxic management alternatives www.beyondpesticides.org
Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides- Works to protect people and the environment by advancing healthy solutions to pest problems, pesticide fact sheets www.pesticide.org