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How do we name it?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is the term currently most used for this disorder that’s not well understood. But since people who suffer from it also become sensitive to a wide range of substances in addition to chemicals, (foods, pollens, molds, animals...), I prefer the term Environmental Illness

A new class of disease

Nicholas A. Ashford and Claudia Miller, who have just published the second edition of Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, argue that the reason medicine may be having so much trouble understanding EI is that it is in fact a whole new class of disease. Medical science understands infectious disease, immune disorders, and cancer -- and now we have EI, a “toxicant-induced loss of tolerance” — or maybe we should now call it TILT?

“Miller draws an analogy with infectious diseases. Such diseases are initiated by the same general disease mechanism -- infection with germs -- but there are numerous types of germs. And infection results in all kinds of illnesses that cause an enormous range of symptoms affecting every organ system in the body.”

Similarly, an individual with EI can end up with (among other problems) mucous membrane irritation; gastrointestinal dysfunction; joint pain and muscle aches; respiratory conditions such as asthma; fatigue, migraine, depression, memory loss, and/or difficulty concentrating.

A two-step process

Ashford and Miller describe the condition as a “two-step process, in which a substance such as a pesticide or solvent promotes loss of tolerance. That exposure is generally acute, as in a chemical spill [or in the exposures suffered by victims of Gulf War Syndrome] but it may simply be repeated or continuous lower level exposure.” (More later on how low levels can sensitize.)

“Subsequently, extremely low levels of chemicals [and other irritants], levels that do not bother most people and were never a problem for that individual before, trigger symptoms.” Substances that provoke problems in this second step may or may not be related to the ones that initially sensitized the person. One frequent common element is aromatic compounds — from the natural, as in orange peel or pine needles, to the synthetic phthalates which offgas from vinyl — but many triggers are hard to categorize.

Neurotoxins to blame

In addition, Miller and Ashford are concerned about some very common chemicals, including organophosphate, carbamate, and pyrethroid pesticides; certain anaesthetics; and organic solvents like toluene. “All these chemicals are neurotoxins, and as a rule, we have not factored neurotoxicity into the regulatory screening regime very much.” There is virtually no protection from these toxins in our laws, because this class of danger has simply not been addressed. Ashford says he and Miller think these neurotoxins are “a prime mechanism by which this condition [EI] occurs.”

Jay W. Seastrunk II, MD provides another description of the mechanism.

All quotes on this page are from two articles in the September 21, 1998 issue of Chemical and Engineering News: “ Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Reexamined,” by John D. Spengler and Annette C. Rohr (pp. 105-106); and “Breather Beware?” by Sophie L Wilkinson (pp. 57-67).

© copyright Catherine Holmes Clark, 1999