An Introduction to Chemical Sensitivity

June 3rd, 2001

by Barbara Rubin

The human body is miraculous in its diversity and complexity. However, today?s technology creates many products for our daily use from materials which are not compatible with our biochemistry (e.g. petrochemicals in plastics or fuels; pesticides). Our bodies have a natural capacity for removing poisons from our systems since we normally create toxins as part of the food digestion process. These ?detoxification? pathways in the body are now overworked in helping us remove our modern synthetic chemicals from our bodies before they can harm us. Industry and federal regulators like the EPA decide upon how much of a chemical it would take to harm the average healthy adult (male) and produce/market such products accordingly. It is generally explained that ?the dose makes the poison?. However, the existence of the chemically sensitive person tends to belie this theory.

The condition known as MCS or multiple chemical sensitivity, means that serious adverse health reactions occur when such persons come in contact with toxicants (poisons), even in amounts which are usually accepted as ?safe? for the public at large. The person with MCS was probably able to tolerate these products before a concentrated or prolonged exposure to a particular toxicant or sensitizer (e.g. pesticides, gas leak, formaldehyde) overwhelmed their immune systems. This results in the inability of the body to remain well while attempting to rid itself of even tiny amounts of these common poisons upon subsequent exposures.

Many who develop chemical intolerance can point to some exposure?related injury which began this course of events. Others are not aware of a specific exposure. It is hypothesized that continuous (chronic) exposure to low levels of chemical agents can cause susceptible persons to develop MCS. The term ?allergy? does not really apply here because it makes no sense to say you are allergic to poison as if it were ragweed or a bouquet of roses. Allergies refer to adverse effects from substances which are otherwise harmless to people like wheat and wool. Chemical sensitivity or chemical intolerance refers to adverse effects to items which are known to be poisonous to all people.

The mechanisms by which chemical intolerances develop are still being researched. It may be that sensitization to certain substances has occurred, a documented phenomenon with such items as Dursban pesticide and formaldehyde (see MSDS sheets). It may also happen that the body can no longer manufacture enough of the protective substances it needs to defend itself against such materials, interfering with the processing of a wide range of toxicants including synthetic fragrances, inks, cigarette smoke etc.. Some of us are congenitally deficient in necessary substances such as the enzyme paroxonase, vital in detoxification of certain pesticides, maintenance of cardiac blood vessel integrity and other functions.

How widespread is this growing phenomenon? Studies in three states indicated that approximately 16 percent of sampled adults reported unusual sensitivities to various chemicals. Only 6 percent of respondents had already been diagnosed with MCS. There are many others who suffer from unexplained symptoms which may also come under this heading when more closely scrutinized. Physicians are often puzzled by the multi?systemic nature of symptoms. Exposures can cause digestive and respiratory ailments. Neurological problems such as motor incoordination, reduced sensation or memory impairment might be added to the mixture given continuous exposures. A very significant number of persons in our society are being effected by this ?emerging disease? process and are at many different stages in the illness.

The person with chemical injury or MCS must make lifestyle changes to a degree which accommodates the severity of their condition. Some may just need to avoid a few trigger substances like not wearing synthetic fragrances or buying paints with reduced VOC content (volatile organic compounds). Others more severely damaged may need to be isolated from much of the mainstream world given the proliferation of chemicals in so many products. Looking at the home of a person with this disability can be very revealing as to the nature of their illness.

Do they have a conventional mattress with its? foam interior or flame retardant and anti?stain treatments on the covers? Perhaps they had to trade in such furnishings for a cot with canvas sheeting or a bed with organic cotton batting made without such chemical additives? In their bathrooms, will you see a box of aromatic mint leaves to sweeten the air? It is doubtful you will find aerosol cans of air fresheners or ?plug ins? which can contain many diverse chemicals with known respiratory and even neurological effects. Do they use boric acid gels and baits to limit pest problems or mint oil as an insect repellant? You won’t find cans of commercial insecticides intended to destroy the nervous or digestive systems of insects as they do the same things to humans!. Check the closet for clothes made of cotton and linen instead of polyesters and acrylics. The kitchen may have organic foods and glass or stainless steel pots. You probably won?t find non?stick coatings on them.

Avoidance of dangerous substances is the main treatment for MCS, Other interventions can be done to bolster a flagging immune system and increase tolerances to a degree. However, MCS can be progressive if repeated assaults are made on the patient with toxicants, eventually causing brain injury and damage to multiple organs such as hearts, lungs and kidneys. People can, and do, die from this disease.

We need to continue research to find out why some humans are more susceptible to chemical injury than others. We need to examine the long term effects of chemicals upon people showing no short term sensitivity to such materials yet develop infertility, endocrine disorders, cancer or autoimmune diseases later in life. The rising rates of such illnesses in our country must be accounted for in terms of biochemical stressors caused by our manipulation of the environment. Perhaps instead of ?the dose makes the poison?, reality will show it is the duration of exposure that dictates the effects chemicals will have on us individually. It is likely that the study of the chemically injured can lead to important advances in human health on a universal level. We also need to rethink our assumption that the human body is meant to withstand these chemical assaults for convenience and profit. Such large numbers of affected people cannot be termed ?acceptable risks?. Safe alternatives exist for many consumer goods but until demand is higher for them, industry will not market them on any appreciable scale.

Copyright 2001, Barbara Rubin

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  1. Nancy Keefe

    Nancy Keefe
    1811 Greenplace Terrace
    Rockville, Maryland

    January 27, 2004

    Last evening my husband, who is a physician, and I viewed a program, Fear Factor Part Four Couples Reality. When the MC announced that the stunt planned for this evening’s entertainment required young couples to jump into a tank filled with cow intestines, cow tongue and other cow entrails including cow brains, my husband looked over and said two words: “Mad Cow.”

    The rules were set by the MC. One person was to be plunged into the water tank containing the cow entrails when the other person threw a ball at a target. It was set up like a dunk tank in a carnival. The submerged person, wearing goggles, would dive to the bottom of the tank and find the five cow tails. He would put them in the mouth of his partner, who was waiting outside the tank. The partner would then carry the cow tail to the bucket, repeating the action until five cow tails were collected. The winner’s prize is a trip to Spain to see the “Running of the Bulls.”

    The MC and the other couples commented several times on the terrible smell in the tank. Needless to say this stunt demonstrates a complete disregard for the health and safety of these young people as well as presenting a totally disgusting and humiliating experience for all to see. They have been exposed to disease, which does not exhibit itself for several years. In addition, they have been put in a situation which would lower their self esteem, all for the sake of a cheap trip. What does Dr. Phil have to say about that? This is what the leading network, owned by the General Electric Company, sponsor of The Today Show, has to offer its viewers in Prime Time. Even small children have the opportunity to see young Americans make fools of themselves and risk disease, all for a buck.

    I called NBC in New York and left a comment on a Public Relations line. The number is 212 664 2333. Then I called NBC news at 202 885 4111 and complained to them as well. The young man I spoke with in Washington said they had just gotten two new physicians for the program set (I am not sure how that is a response to my complaint). He also said that his Mom is a physician. I suggested he call his Mom and ask her what she thought of such a stunt.

    It is difficult to believe that a physician worth his salt would allow these couples to do such a foolish stunt no matter how small the risk is to their health. Mad Cow Disease is not a joke. It is a true reality. In addition, it makes me wonder how many other “stunts” which have been tried may be as dangerous and appalling.

    For NBC to air such an episode shows a blatant disregard for civility. It is an outrageous insult to us all. It reflects poorly on Americans’ taste in entertainment. As a stockholder in General Electric, a company my father-in-law worked for for over 40 years, I am voicing my overwhelming disapproval of this type of program.

    Mad Cow has been around for no short time. Why in the world would they air this, given the present concerns with this tragic disease? It is beyond understanding.

    Thanks so much for reading this — The NBC Network and General Electric need a wake-up call.

    Nancy Keefe

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