Thursday, July 23, 2015

No, Doctor, It's Not All in My Head!

Does going to the grocery store fill you with dread? Do you stress about someone showing up at your home? Do you avoid public places whenever possible? You don't? Good for you! Unfortunately, I have to answer "yes" to all those questions. I have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and it sucks.

What is MCS? In broad terms it means an unusually severe sensitivity or allergy-like reaction to many different kinds of pollutants including solvents, VOC's (Volatile Organic Compounds), perfumes, gasoline, diesel, smoke, "chemicals" in general.  MCS is considered idiopathic, which means that the mechanism that causes it is not understood. 

Most people, especially doctors, don't believe that MCS is real. At this time, many in the medical community do not accept multiple chemical sensitivity as a genuine medical disorder. Credible sources, such as the CDC and the American Medical Association, do not recognize this as a medical diagnosis, nor is there any official medical definition because symptoms and chemical exposures are often unique and vary widely between individuals. The video Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: How Chemical Exposures May Be Affecting Your Health is a great "primer" for understanding MCS and it's impact on the people who suffer from it.

A study led by the University of Washington discovered that 25 commonly used scented products emit an average of 17 chemicals each. Of the 133 different chemicals detected, nearly a quarter are classified as toxic or hazardous under at least one federal law. Only one emitted compound was listed on a product label, and only two were publicly disclosed anywhere. The article was published, in 2011, in the journal Environmental Impact Assessment Review.

The study analyzed air fresheners including sprays, solids and oils; laundry products including detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets; personal care products such as soaps, hand sanitizers, lotions, deodorant and shampoos; and cleaning products including disinfectants, all-purpose sprays and dish detergent. All were widely used brands, with more than half being the top-selling product in its category. All products emitted at least one chemical classified as toxic or hazardous. Eleven products emitted at least one probable carcinogen according to the EPA. These included acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, formaldehyde and methylene chloride.

Dr. Anne Steinemann, Professor of Civil Engineering, and the Chair of Sustainable Cities, from the Department of Infrastructure Engineering, Melbourne School of Engineering, is a world expert on environmental pollutants, air quality, and health effects. She investigated and compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted from 37 different products, such as air fresheners, cleaning products, laundry supplies, and personal care products, including those with certifications and claims of 'green' and 'organic'. Both fragranced and fragrance-free products were tested.

The study, published this year in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health found 156 different VOCs emitted from the 37 products, with an average of 15 VOCs per product. Of these 156 VOCs, 42 are classified as toxic or hazardous under US federal laws, and each product emitted at least one of these chemicals. Findings revealed that emissions of carcinogenic hazardous air pollutants from 'green'-fragranced products were not significantly different from regular-fragranced products. In total, over 550 volatile ingredients were emitted from these products, but fewer than three percent were disclosed on any product label or material safety data sheet (MSDS).

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrances are considered the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. As a health problem, this sensitivity alone affects more than 2 million people, and studies suggest that sensitivity is on the rise. Experts theorize that one reason fragrance allergies appear to be increasing is that fragrances themselves have become such a prominent part of our world. According to the AAD, some 5,000 different fragrances -- and countless other fragrance combinations -- are used in products today.

"Sensitivity is a general term under which you can have a true allergic reaction, but you can also have irritant reactions, meaning the problem with fragrance could be that it's an irritant. With others, it could be an allergic reaction. It's just not well known what actually is occurring when these reactions develop," says dermatologist Marjorie Slankard, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Columbia Eastside, a division of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

If you are reading this with skepticism, because you don't have a problem with fragrances, or other chemicals, consider this: I didn't always have a problem with them, either. Most people with MCS weren't born with it.  For me, it all started when a co-worker came to work wearing White Diamonds perfume. A brain-piercing migraine, inability to breathe, and overwhelming nausea were my immediate response to that initial exposure. That was 15 years ago and, since then, the list of offending products has grown to include paints/varnishes, laundry products, cleaning products, air fresheners, personal care products, and most perfumes and colognes. I seldom leave home, and when I do it is always with the dreadful expectation that I will run into someone who is wearing a product that will cause an adverse reaction.

We need to demand full disclosure of ingredients on all products sold and we need to demand products that are made with proven-safe ingredients. I prefer to use homemade products similar to those used prior to the chemical boom that began in the 1970's. Wellness Mama is one of my go-to sites for all kinds of recipes and useful information. Here are some more of my favorite sites:
Rodale's Organic Life
Real Simple
Chemical Sensitivity Foundation

Aside from the obvious detrimental environmental consequences, chemical exposures can only have a detrimental human consequence, as well. More people are developing sensitivities each year, so I believe that this issue will become more widely accepted, and hopefully, more fully studied. Be kind to yourself and your fellow man by limiting use of fragranced products whenever possible. MCS could happen to you, or someone you love.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

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