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From March 21, 2006                                                                                                        

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Cause of Poverty as Well as Ill Health
(Beyond Pesticides, March 21, 2006) In a special series focused on poverty and the environment, Grist Magazine identifies how people suffering from Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), not only suffer from ill health, but are also most often driven into poverty. Absent an official case definition, MCS refers to a broad range of adverse symptoms brought on by an even broader array of everyday chemicals. Symptoms from MCS are often provoked at exposure levels far below those that seem to affect the rest of the population -- levels virtually always present in our homes, workplaces, and social venues. They commonly include severe headaches, food intolerances, difficulty breathing, nausea, irritation of the eyes, ears, nose, throat, and skin, and disorientation or confusion, as well as many others.

According to the Chemical Injury Information Network (CIIN), a nonprofit education and advocacy organization for people with chemical sensitivities, MCS is a chronic condition with no cure. Unfortunately, mainstream medicine has been slow to recognize the role environment can play in the disease leaving many doctors either unaware of MCS or doubtful that it is a real condition. Those who do recognize the disease are often unfamiliar with treatment options.

Therefore, MCS patients are often subjected to visit multiple health-care practitioners, a process that can be both emotionally and financially costly. Ann McCampbell, a member of the board of the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Foundation and chair of the MCS Task Force of New Mexico, said "prior to 1988, I was a healthy, athletic physician who played drums in a rock band. A year later, I was severely disabled with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities.” Ms. McCampbell continued, “Like so many others with MCS, I could no longer tolerate where I lived and was forced to live outside in my yard, the car, or a makeshift shelter."

Like many others Ann McCampbell has not discovered what triggered her sensitivities, leaving her baffled. The disease limits the number of places that she and others with the disease can travel to outside of their homes. When she does she said she must avoid exposures to cigarette smoke, pesticides, perfume, vehicle exhaust, cleaning products, and other toxic fumes because she said they make her sicker.

The ubiquity of cosmetics is just one reason people with MCS remain segregated from society, though there have been some advancements on this front in recent years. Some workplaces and schools like The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington have instituted no-fragrance policies -- but in general, those with MCS cannot count on much help or protection from employers, landlords, the government, or the medical establishment.

The limitation of science is another issue with MCS. Only a few scientists are studying the disease and they are baffled as they struggle with trying to understand its etiology. Current theories on MCS range from a genetic predisposition to chemical injury, to neurological damage, to abnormalities in detoxifying enzymes, to a so-called "toxicant-induced loss of tolerance" to environmental stressors, in which one particular exposure to a toxic substance overwhelms a person's system and leaves them unable to cope with exposures to a wide range of other toxins.

Absence of a case definition for MCS is another impediment. The absence of a case definition is because doctors fail to agree on one. Failure to agree on a case definition has created a catch-22 scenario for those suffering from MCS making it more difficult to secure funding for MCS research and more research is what is needed to better understand, define, treat and cure the disease.

According to Cynthia Wilson, executive director of the CIIN, "Right now, one of the things MCS [researchers and patients] get hammered on is that there is no agreed-upon case definition, despite the fact that three attempts have been made to get the to accept one." However, activists like McCampbell, stress that a working definition of MCS does exist, and that the lack of a standardized case definition should not be used as an excuse to halt research or deny patients crucial accommodations.

According to Grist, the number of MCS sufferers could range from 9 million to 17 million. While some of the people included in the numbers are undoubtedly able to function with lifestyle adaptations such as removing carpet from their homes, filtering air and water, using ultra-eco-friendly cleansers and personal-care products, eating organic foods, and limiting contact with toxic substances like pesticides and solvents not all posses the financial capacity to do so.

In the film Homesick, Susan Abod, a Santa Fe, New Mexico based vocal artist and filmmaker with MCS, documents how people with MCS are affected by their search for safe housing. According to Ms. Abod, the ability to cope with the disease "has to do with access to finances and resources. ... If you do have money, you can always find another home, and you can refurbish it with safe products. But those of us who don't have access to a lot of money or who are renters or who have assisted housing from the government [face] a lot more limits."

CIINs, Cynthia Wilson agreed saying, "For lower-income people who do not have the wherewithal to move or to find safe housing, it is a big problem." Ms. Wilson continued, "Most people with MCS end up living in their cars." Others wind up in a friend's backyard, a stripped-down RV, or a canvas tent on public land. For that reason, the housing problem gets worse in winter, says Wilson, "because people can't just go camping, can't solve their problems by living outdoors." They also cannot take advantage of the traditional safety nets available to those who are homeless.

It can be even more difficult finding MCS-safe jobs. Even if a workplace itself is a tolerable environment (rare, given the ubiquity of toxic building materials), basic job-related interactions with the general public at times can be impossible. Some MCS patients find a way to work from home assuming they found safe housing, however, again that option is seldom available to poorer Americans forced to rely on low-wage, low-skill jobs.

TAKE ACTION: If you have MCS or know someone that does register with the “MCS” Beacon of Hope Hearts Across America Registry. The registry keeps a running account of the names, numbers and states where the chemically ill live, their needs for safer housing and other special accommodations.