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What is Chemical Sensitivity?

Chemical sensitivity (or multiple chemical sensitivity MCS, as it is sometimes known) has been described as a 21st Century disease. Reactions are triggered by pollution, chemical fumes given off by modern furnishing such as carpets, MDF furniture, paints, and wood treatment.  Unfortunately this is not recognised an illness in the UK, although it is believed by some to be a chronic condition affecting different parts of the body.

Chemicals enter the body by being ingested (in food, as additives, in water, from the hands, or as drugs), inhaled, injected, or by being absorbed through the skin. Any chemical that enters the body has to be 'detoxified' (broken down) and eliminated. This process is carried out by a range of enzymes and pathways in the body, notably in the liver, kidneys, and blood. One theory is that chemical sensitivity develops when these pathways do not work effectively enough to keep up with demand.

Chemical sensitivity sometimes appears to develop in people who are prone to other types of allergy. They may have a history of asthma, eczema, or hay fever in the past, or in close family members. In fact, some people with allergies are very sensitive, and will find that strong smells can cause respiratory problems anyway.

Some will have been prone to headaches from perfumes, or nausea from paint smells, for many years and this gradually develops into more serious chemical sensitivity. In other patients, illness follows an acute exposure to a high level of a particular chemical such as a pesticides used during crop spraying. This can act as a trigger, initially they react to the same chemical that set off their sensitivity (although at much lower doses); then they begin to react to related chemicals; then the sensitivity may spread to almost any chemical.

What sort of illness does it cause?

Multi-organ complaints are often reported. Most chemically sensitive people are grossly fatigued and have trouble with coordinating (brain fog) and lengthy concentration.

Headaches are common. Many tend to have skin rashes (urticaria and/or eczema), irritable bowel, musculoskeletal pains, asthma, and rhinitis.  Burning sensations are common.

Some patients manage to create a safe island within their own homes where they can keep fairly well and find leaving this environment makes them worse and they become frightened about doing so.

How does it make you ill?

The mechanism of chemical sensitivity is not known. As mentioned, it appears to be due to an alteration in the ability of the body to detoxify and get rid of chemicals, combined with an increased sensitivity to the effects of these chemicals on the body. Detoxification pathways rely heavily on vitamins, minerals and some amino acids to work effectively, and in some people there may be a link with low levels or inadequate absorption and use of these substances.

Getting Help

It is important that people who are experiencing these symptoms seek the right help. There are things that can be done to help reduce the chemical load on the body and improve detoxification pathways. However, this is a field that very little is known about, so care should be taken when looking for help. You may want to look at http://www.mcs-aware.org/ a charity dedicated to chemical sensitivity and http://www.actionagainstallergy.co.uk 


Last update: March 2012

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Last updated: March 2012

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