Multiple Chemical Sensitivities

Researched and Written by Ronald J. Grisanti D.C., D.A.B.C.O.


We have reached the age of modern living through chemistry or, as the TV ads said in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s (with their lab coats and test tubes), "Better living through Chemistry." What has happened in modern industrial society, however, is the misuse, overuse, and inappropriate disposal of chemicals.  


We now know that many of these chemicals can be toxic. Some harmful exposures are from ignorance, some from oversight, some from complacency, and some are from criminal negligence. 


The result on individuals, certain groups, (like the Gulf War veterans), and entire communities is toxic injury. 


Toxic exposure, whether acute or long-term, creates an overload on the individual which can result in serious health problems, including multiple chemical sensitivity, other illness referable to many organ systems, and in some cases, cancer. 


Insidious breakdown in resistance mechanisms takes place; individuals are often unaware of their developing sensitivity.


What is multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)?

When the body is exposed to certain foreign chemicals, it may respond by producing antibodies to defend it against the foreign invaders.  


Virtually any substance can provide a reaction in some individuals.

When food we eat is grown in nutrient poor soil, watered with acid rain, sprayed with pesticides and treated with dyes, is it any wonder that chemical contaminants have been found in us?  


The following are statistics obtained in 1981.  Environment Canada reports that 1,000 new chemicals are produced annually.  There are 34,000 chemicals on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Effects list.   There are 1,500 suspected carcinogens in the work place. 


In metro Toronto, there are 25,000 industrial workplaces to be inspected by 25 occupational health and safety inspectors!   


There are 1,500 flavors permitted to be added to food in Canada and more than 1,000 flavors permitted to be added to cigarettes in Canada.   


There are 1,400 pesticides used in North America. There are 400 organic compounds found in the Great Lakes ecosystem, 200 of which have been identified in Lake Ontario water.

People do not realize it but you can very easily come in contact with fungicides through the handling of tobacco, packing boxes, grocery store items, wall paper paste, rubber, wool products and of course, sprayed crops.  


One out of five people are sensitive to formaldehyde which is a common factor in the onset of chemical hypersensitivity.   


Major sources of it can be found in urea formaldehyde resins in insulation, particleboard and plywood.   The evaporate slowly and remain active for months or even years.

You can also be affected through polishes and waxes, adhesives, rodent and insect poison, detergent soaps, hair sprays and settings, nail polish, photographic products, cosmetics, hospital mouthwashes and antiperspirants, embalming fluids, contraceptive creams, air deodorizers, U.S. maple syrup and milk.   


Another major source are methods of treating fabrics that we wear such as stripping agents, dyes, additives to feminine hygiene items with increase their absorbency, facial tissue, dry cleaning.

Watch out for synthetic phenols which are chemicals that are derived from coal, tar, petroleum.   Major sources of phenols are household cleaners like Pinesol, Lysol, mildew products, wash, shoe polish, synthetic dish and clothes detergents.   Phenols are used as antiseptics.   


They are also preservatives found in some allergy serums, nasal sprays, bronchial mists, cough syrups, eye drops, cold capsules, decongestants, first aid ointments, aspirin and acne medicine.   Phenols are used in hemp fiber products like carpet backing, area rugs, rope and twine.   


They are in cosmetics such as mascara, cream rouges and shadows as well as most hair care products.  Aphenolic resin can be found in the lining of some canned goods, in children's toys, refrigerator storage trays and thermal insulation.   


Phenols are also found in matches, printers and fountain pen inks, in most paints, photographic solutions, food additives, perfumes and shaving creams.  Not surprisingly, they are found in tobacco smoke.  Tobacco smoke has more than 200 chemicals in it. 


Natural occurring phenols are found in foods we eat and in natural objects in the world around us.  


For example, it is the toxic element in poison ivy and poison oak and it is present in thyme oil (used in the production of menthol)

Chemical allergies often manifest themselves as skin reactions.   


Other symptoms include watery eyes, ringing in the ears, stuffy nose, diarrhea, nausea, upset stomach, asthma, bronchitis, arthritis, fatigue, eczema, intestinal disorders, depression and headaches.   


Some people have a reaction immediately after encountering a chemical allergen whereas others may develop a rash 24 hours after coming in contact with the irritant.


It is a disorder characterized by recurrent symptoms referable to multiple organ systems, occurring in response to demonstrable exposure to many chemically unrelated compounds at doses far below those established in the general population to cause harmful effects. 

1.      Sensitivity to chemicals. By sensitivity we mean symptoms or signs as related to chemical exposures at levels tolerated by the population at large.

2.      Sensitivity may be expressed as symptoms and signs in one or more organ systems.

3.      Symptoms and signs wax and wane with exposure. It is not necessary to identify a chemical exposure associated with the onset of the condition. Preexisting or concurrent conditions, e.g. asthma, arthritis, or depression, should not exclude patients from consideration.

We have come a long way with modern chemistry. Our wood floors are being replaced, most often with carpets; old solid wood furniture is replaced with modern laminates, usually thin wood veneer, laminated over pressed wood. Among other things, this furniture exudes formaldehyde. 


Plain fir or pine boards for building (sheathing) were replaced with laminated plywood containing, at the very least, high levels of formaldehyde and often toxic wood preservatives. 


Plaster walls were replaced with drywall, which has its own contaminants -- and as dry wall mud became better, they added more chemicals. Wood shingles were replaced with tar and gravel. 


Clothing was no longer simply cotton, wool, nylon or rayon, as new chemistry brought forth polyesters, non-wrinkle fabrics; and mattresses and drapes that were treated with fire retardants, introducing even more chemicals. 


These new fabrics are loaded with chemicals, including formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a known toxin and this adds to the total individual toxic load.


At the same time, modern buildings were using large expanses of glass and closed air systems. The oil embargo/energy crunch in the 70’s brought about more efficiently sealed buildings; windows which would not open or were secured shut. 


Outside fresh air was cut-off or reduced in the fresh air intakes to save energy; air was recirculated with all its contents and contaminates. The systems would often be shut off at 5:00 and workers remaining in the building would be subjected to inhaling stale air. 


New carpeting, and laminated furniture was everywhere in these closed environments.


Foods and water contain more chemicals than in the past, including pesticides; multiple toxins are leaching into our water supply. Even products such as toothpaste contain more chemicals each year. 


Agricultural soils are being depleted of their nutrients and replaced with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides (nutrient depletion is one of the things that put people at risk for MCS). 


There are approximately 2,000 new chemicals introduced each year which are unregulated; their long term side effects are unknown. One such chemical brought forth in 1941 has only now, in the 1990’s, been given health and safety guidelines. Lag time is enormous.


In the name of progress we saw the growth of herbicides, pesticides and termiticides. You no longer had to put up with bugs in your yard, spiders in the attic, ants in your pantries or termites and beetles in your house, or even grasshoppers in your crops. 


Unfortunately, we overdid it. 


We finally discovered that the organochlorines such as DDT and Chlordane, were dangerous, cancerous and deadly, so along came the organophosphates. We are now using these products to spray for most anything from fleas to ants to termites. 


The so-called safe alternative has now been documented to cause a multitude of problems including very serious central nervous system problems. 


The long-term effects from these organophosphates, in the cognitive realm include impaired vigilance and reduced concentration, reduced information processing, and psychomotor speed, memory deficits, visual memory problems, speech problems, sequencing problems and problem solving difficulties are also seen. 


Problems with motor steadiness, reaction time and dexterity have also been documented.


After organophosphate exposure, electrocephalograms (EEG) are found to be abnormal and have persisted for one year in studies of primates.


Psychological symptoms such as anxiety, psychomotor depression, intellectual impairment, and unusual dreams, were observed in human exposure. The organophosphate class, which is the most commonly used pesticide and termiticide, can induce slow onset (pesticide induced) neuropathies, including Guillian-Barre syndrome, so this is no small matter. 


A high proportion of these patients exposed to these chemicals develop multiple chemical sensitivity.


So what are we talking about? 


We are talking about the process of environmentally triggered disease. Dr. William Rea, in his first volume on chemical sensitivity [William J. Rea, M.D., Chemical Sensitivities, Vol. I, (1992), wrote that "rapidly accelerated rate of growth of modern technology has been accompanied by a proliferation of a wide variety of new chemicals… 50% of global pollutants which enter the atmosphere (isolated from natural products or synthesized) are generated by man". He pointed out that in 1987 the American industry poured 22 billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the air, food and water.


In 1988 Dr. Rea was named the first professional Chairman of Environmental Medicine at the Robens Institute of Industrial Environmental Health and Safety at the University of Surrey in Guilford, England. 


In the introduction to his first volume on chemical sensitivity, he wrote "modern technology has given many conveniences and ability to explore the outer limits of knowledge…allowed us to travel to the moon,… this technology has led us to uncover secrets of the Universe and has brought into focus the severity of environmental pollution on earth; the Apollo astronauts emphasized the extent of this pollution when viewing the earth from space, although they initially called it the "blue planet", these astronauts saw at closer range pollution on all areas of the earth, which led them to state that "man has fouled his nest and this must be corrected."


The point, according to Dr. Rea, is that man’s well-being is a function of his environment; living in polluted surroundings adversely affects health. 


He also pointed out that as the number of dangerous environmental pollutants continues to multiply so do reports of numbers of people sensitive to these contaminants.


Cindy Duehring [in Environmental Access Research Network in an article called "Screening for Nervous System Damage From Chemical Exposure"] wrote that it was a most dangerous illusion that our society has brought forth, in the false belief, that the chemical ingredients in our everyday home and office consumer products, from cosmetics and perfumes to cleaners and carpets, have been tested for health effects to protect the public.  


Most of the chemicals have never tested and are not under any regulation. There are three new chemical compounds introduced in the United States every day.


Pre-marketing testing of compounds as potential neurotoxicants have serious deficiencies. Many of these neurotoxic compounds came into use before the passage of the Toxic Substance Control Act in 1976 and remain untested and are still not required to be tested.


The problem is compounded by disposal of chemicals. Everyday, several millions of gallons of chemicals are introduced into Lake Erie which is the source of drinking and bathing water for most cities from Cleveland, Ohio to Buffalo, NY (Rea).


Both organic and inorganic pollutants are a problem. Dr. Rea adds that "inorganic pollutants include ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxides, heavy metals and other metals. 


Organic pollutants include pesticides, formaldehydes, solvents such as toluene and xylene, drugs, terpenes, cleaning chemicals, cigarette smoke, combustible products, consumer products (e.g. clothing, building materials, hygiene products, etcetera) and biological compounds (mold toxins). 


The most toxic organic pollutants are those classified as halogenated aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons". He also adds that according to the EPA more than 4 million chemical compounds are currently recognized.


So what causes chemical sensitivity? 


According to Dr. William Rea, it can arise in several ways. Individuals who survive exposures may have lowered resistance to disease as a result of the condition of their nutrient pool brought on by exposure, and this can develop into symptoms of ill health. 


Upon later exposure, they may experience enhanced symptoms. Spreading can occur, which means that they either react to more chemicals or more organ systems are involved.


He discusses three major instances that have occurred in the 20th century, that have graphically illustrated that chemical sensitivity may be caused by a significant, acute exposure to toxic substances: in World War I when the troops were exposed to Mustard Gas with an aftermath and development of chemical sensitivity; Agent Orange syndrome where veterans had problems which persisted for years after their initial contact; and the incident of cyanate in Bhopal, India, which left an estimated 86,000 people injured, and "Several months later, many remained afflicted with recurrent symptoms that are today believed to be manifestations of chemical sensitivity." 


He also added that chemical sensitivity can occur subsequent to bacterial, viral or parasitic infection; however, he said that only 1% of his Dallas patient population have traced the origin of their illnesses to such an event. 

He has evaluated 20,000 people through the Environment Health Center in Dallas which he founded.


The manifestations of chemical sensitivity are multiple in nature. They can effect many organ systems, and which systems are affected most may well depend on the biological weakness of a particular system, or previous trauma. Enzyme pathways are affected. Liver detoxification pathways become overloaded. Mucosa of the body change. Blood brain barriers are affected (Rea)


Dr. Rea wrote that "at their onset, symptoms of chemical sensitivity are almost always reversible." This is a very positive statement; however, he added that when organ involvement increases, responses are more difficult to decipher and reverse. 


He adds that although these various illnesses involve multiple systems and organs, only one end-organ may ultimately be damaged as a result of repeated insults, and this can result in end-organ failure and extreme fixed named illnesses. 


He cites the example of a mechanic constantly exposed to car exhaust who could develop general symptoms such as aches and pains, malaise, headaches and fatigue. 


These symptoms might then continue for several months until finally renal failure or some other specific end-organ disease develops. He wrote that the factors that are influencing the onset of chemical sensitivity are total body load, the nutritional state, and bioaccumulation of toxic substances, as well as other factors.


Claudia Miller points out that many of the patients often attribute the onset of their illness to specific exposures (Vol. 10) such as repeated exposures to solvents, chemical, pesticides in sick buildings, or combustion products. 


Patients report more problems and greater difficulties indoors where air fresheners, perfumes, and cleaners are used and where there are such things as particle board and carpets which outgas. The outgassing releases VOC compounds. 


These patients are often funneled off to psychiatrists and psychologists by physicians who are not familiar with MCS. "From the patient’s perspective, they have lost their health, their livelihood, their friends and sometimes even family. Individuals with professional careers are likely to view their cognitive difficulties as most disabling," Dr. Miller added. They are often mislabeled as malingerers or given a psychiatric diagnosis.


Dr. Miller notes that chemical sensitivity has been reported among distinct demographic groups: industrial workers, sick building occupants, contaminated communities and individuals. A fifth group, Persian Gulf War veterans, is also mentioned. 


She says. "It is especially easy to overlook environmental causes if complaints are subjective and nonspecific, such as headache, fatigue, depression or difficulty concentrating.


 MCS patients have poor balance and/or clumsiness, a rare presenting complaint of depression. Studies of MCS patients point to the central nervous system as a major site of involvement.


In general patients with MCS suffer from a variety of problems that include concentration and memory problems, irritability, anxiety and depression, spatial confusion, insomnia, headaches, nausea, palpitations, chest pain, muscle spasms and aches, joint aches, difficulty calculating, fatigue, and confusion. Many have breathing problems, asthma, and carry inhalers or oxygen.


So what is multiple chemical sensitivity?  


It is a multi-system disorder usually brought on by toxic exposures which are acute, or low-level long-term exposure such as in sick building, which increases a person’s total toxic load, depletes nutrient stores, and causes problems in many systems and organs in the body. 


Upon re-exposure, the individual becomes increasingly sensitized, and often there is a spreading effect where they are bothered by many more chemicals (It often spread to food, medications, and molds), and many more systems in the body are involved. 


It almost always seems to affect the central nervous system, and the results that I am primarily interested in are the effects that it has on memory, concentration and learning. These are all dramatically impaired when a person is exposed. This is very important in terms of accommodation in a classroom or work situation. 


If exposed, a person may not be able to process what is said, or store the information processed in a lecture, for example. A child may not be able to learn.

It may be possible for them to sit in the corner of a classroom, wearing a charcoal filter mask, near an open door. 


It may be useful to have whole room filters. It may be possible to move the class. Certain classes are very difficult, such as chemistry classes, because a charcoal filter cannot get rid of all the chemicals. 


These persons/patients seem to take more time to do things than other people do; and giving them more time on examinations would be one kind of accommodation. 


Letting them sit as far away from other people as possible, near open windows, is also helpful. Videotaping a class may be an option.


Two young men (twins), now residing in Arizona, were having problems in high school, were very chemically sensitive, and were having trouble in their high school classes and could not pass. They were allowed to take the GED examination outdoors and were in the 99th percentile when tested in a clean environment.


So that is what MCS is. 


What it is not, is a psychiatric disorder, although a chronic illness of any kind causes anxiety and depression. Its manifestations are complex and multiple. We are really talking about toxic injury; MCS is just the tip of the iceburg.



© 2005  Ronald J. Grisanti D.C., D.A.B.C.O
NOTICE: This information is provided for educational purposes. Any medical procedures, dietary changes, or nutritional supplements discussed herein should only be undertaken on the advice of a qualified physician.

Ronald J. Grisanti, D.C., D.A.B.C.O
The Grisanti Center for Integrative Medicine
4200 East North Street, Suite 14 • Greenville, SC 29615
(864) 292-0226 • FAX: (864) 268-7022