Chemical sensitivity, a complaint that is becoming increasingly high profile, is a chronic medical condition that can be severely disabling. It is also known as Chemical Injury Syndrome (CI), Environmental Injury Syndrome (EI) or Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT). Individuals who aquire TILT can have numerous symptoms and these can last a lifetime.
The term relating to chemical sensitivity that is most telling of its origins is the name ’20th Century Syndrome’. This name sums up the condition: a man made and very recent medical condition, a by-product of the industrial revolution and of the world increasing its reliance upon chemicals in everything from our food and home to our face wash.
Common Triggers of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS)
Common triggers for the condition include tobacco, cleaning products with a heavy ‘perfume’ scent (this is usually artificial), pesticides and carpets. We all know that these are not good to get on our skin, or to inhale, but most of us do on a regular basis and as such this condition affects people around the world of every race and socioeconomic level. However some people are able to tolerate higher levels than others of these chemicals. What is triggered can appear to be an allergic reaction of some kind, or it can be much more serious.
MCS Symptoms Affect All Members of Society
Symptoms of chemical sensitivities can sometimes be hard to identify and often, people have lived with a condition for such a long time that diagnosing the cause isn’t easy. Many of us eventually accept that sometimes we wheeze or break out in a rash thinking there is no solution.
Common symptoms include: asthma, breathing difficulties and chest pain; tiredness and inability to concentrate; rashes, hives or dermatitis; neurological symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea and vomiting; anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Although many of these would be considered to be illnesses in their own right, 20th century syndrome could go a long way to explaining the causes of these illnesses which are an otherwise poorly understood phenomenon of the recent decades.
This condition of MCS is wide ranging in its symptom profile as well as in the severity of symptoms, and it is thought that some people have a genetic predisposition to having a physical reaction. This physical reaction also in many cases leads to psychological problems such as anxiety and depression, which may be a product of living with such a debilitating condition, or a direct affect on the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. More serious medical complaints include irregular heartbeat, impaired breathing, seizures, central nervous system damage and depleted immune system.
All ages are affected by 20th century syndrome, but children are particularly vulnerable and experience a specific profile of symptoms that are easily recognizable. These characteristics include hyperactivity, red or swollen cheeks, moodiness and lack of concentration. These are all experienced by children at one point or another and so should not raise panic in anxious parents; however it is important to take notice if these symptoms coincide with some sort of chemical exposure. Maybe symptoms coincide with bath time, or when they eat a certain food and it is especially important to note when symptoms arise at the same time as any of the above mentioned, such as wheezing or diarrhea. This awareness is crucial because prolonged exposure to the trigger can lead to more serious symptoms over time.
The four symptom categories
The symptoms mentioned above already can be broadly characterized by the means of affecting the body as well as the severity of the outcome. These are termed as follows.
Nasal irritation illness
The mucous lining of your nose is extremely sensitive. It is what we use to smell, but it also easily absorbs chemicals, which we may or may not detect consciously, that are present in the environment around us. When these chemicals are hazardous, the level to which this affects us can be a simple niggling annoyance, or in the case of very toxic chemicals (the kind that are present in household products, carpets and paints that circulate the air) they can penetrate the mucous membrane and begin to affect our brains and our bodies. In some cases, we form an acute awareness by sensing a burning or stinging feeling in the nose. However, low-lying levels of chemicals may go unnoticed and accumulate until other symptoms present such as runny nose, dizziness, vomiting or even panic attacks.
Direct contact with household chemicals can trigger many significant health problems. Whilst there is still no concrete link between breathing in some household chemicals commonly present in the air and toxic effects on the body, this research field is drastically underfunded at present so the best approach is simply removing these chemicals from the home. Indeed, many of us have experienced difficulty breathing or headaches when working with common cleaning products such as bleach or over cleaner and prolonged exposure may well have damaging effects. Chemicals such as isocyanate are thought to be capable of triggering an immune reaction that leads to allergic symptoms. Isocyanate is also known to bond to proteins and so an allergic reaction with no clear cause may be an indicator of some serious underlying factor such as hazardous chemicals present within the body. There are also a wide range of chemicals, such as formaldehyde which is given off into the air of our homes from cleaning and personal care products, that are known to irritate the respiratory system and as such are considered to be a cause of chemical sensitivity. These factors can cause a developing allergic reaction that increases in severity with each exposure to hazardous chemicals.
Long term toxic exposure
As the name suggests, we can cause long term damage to our bodies – including our reproductive system – by maintaining exposure to harmful chemicals. Acute contact can be very harmful, however the effects of prolonged low levels of exposure can also have serious health implications and can even lead to premature death.
We are becoming increasingly aware that what may begin as an annoying rash or allergic reaction to a trigger chemical, can evolve into more serious health problems such as immune compromise – it is not difficult to see that when your immune system is constantly struggling to battle allergens, it comes under some stress over time. This can lead to an increased risk of contracting infections and illnesses as your immune system copes poorly with its work load. The important thing to note is that identifying the infective chemical is the key to managing your chemical sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean turning your house into a sterile cocoon (in fact this has been shown to increase the risk of allergies) – it simply means removing from your environment whatever is giving off the chemicals that irritate your skin or affect your breathing. Replace your chemical based soaps and washing powders with natural alternatives; look for chemical free household cleaning products and chemical free personal care products. In additions, if you suspect odors from paint, furniture or carpets, repaint your home with a natural alternative (they exist!) and replace your synthetic carpets and furniture with those made of natural fibers or wood.
And, if you haven’t already by the time you finish this article, quit smoking!
Stay Chemical Free!