Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS)

Originally Published: July 21, 2000 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: October 26, 2012
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Dear Alice,

I think my mother has Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, if such a thing exists. It started when she got a bad allergic reaction to a certain brand of carbonless copies at work, but has since ballooned into an allergic reaction to just about everything imaginable.

I am really confused as to whether she has a real disease or not. Sometimes she has spent the last two years doing almost nothing but seeing doctors, fighting with Workman's Comp to continue paying for her 'disability,' etc.

Alice, your answers have always been straight to the point, and I need a straight answer now. Does Multiple Chemical Sensitivity really exist? Is it all just mental?

Dear Reader,

Much like the chronic pain condition fibromyalgia, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is a controversial medical issue. MCS symptoms are highly variable, but they’re usually characterized by allergic reactions that occur with low-level chemical exposure. The broadness and lack of research about MCS makes it difficult to give anyone a "straight answer" on MCS diagnosis. Regardless, considering how uncomfortable she is, your mother’s condition warrants medical assessment and treatment.  

Some practitioners believe MCS is actually a psychological condition. This is plausible to some providers because there is usually no objective evidence of organ damage in patients who believe they have MCS. In fact, some research has found that MCS patients have had severe reactions to placebo test conditions, which support the psychological hypotheses. Anxiety and mood disorders are often present in MCS patients before they start to show symptoms. Still, some studies claim to have determined a genetic predisposition to MCS regardless of psychological disposition.

MCS is a medically unexplained illness that evokes mild to severe allergic reactions upon exposure to various natural and synthetic chemical substances. The most common chemicals that incite reactions include cleaning products, cigarette smoke, gas and paint fumes, perfumes, and tap water. Although some doctors and government agencies consider MCS a debilitating sickness, other institutions such as the American Medical Association do not acknowledge it as a legitimate medical illness.

MCS is also known by several other names: environmental illness, total allergy syndrome, 20th century disease, idiopathic environmental illness, and chemical AIDS. MCS is most frequently acknowledged and treated by doctors who consider themselves “ecologically oriented,” which means their treatment philosophies are more holistic and environmentally centered than more traditional medical models.

The debate surrounding MCS is affected by several social and economic factors. The recognition of MCS as a clinical diagnosis or an organic disorder by the medical community would place responsibility for the illness on the environment, making employers and insurance companies liable for any associated costs. Additionally, critics of MCS as a clinical diagnosis raise the suspicion of entrepreneurial activities, especially companies that tout MCS products and services that have no proven beneficial results.

It sounds like your mother has seen a number of health care providers. Has she been to an allergist? Seeing an allergist may help narrow down the chemicals to which her body reacts. Speaking to a counselor may also be helpful to your mother — dealing with a long-term (and complicated) health condition can be difficult. And how are you doing? Watching a parent go through something like this can be hard — you also may find it helpful to talk this out with a trained professional. If you (or your mother) are members of the Columbia community, schedule an appointment with Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). If you are a student on the Medical Center campus, try reaching out to Mental Health Services.

Take care,

Alice