What Is MCS?

What Is MCS?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) is an illness which is triggered by exposure to substances in the environment. Individuals with MCS have reactions to chemicals at concentrations that are far below what is tolerated by most people. Symptoms can occur in more than one organ system in the body, such as the nervous system, the lungs and the vascular system (heart problems). Exposures can come through the air, from food and water, or through the skin. As a person with MCS becomes more and more sensitive, their symptoms often become more severe and increasingly chronic, often affecting more bodily functions. No current medical test is currently available that can determine whether or not someone has MCS. So far, the most reliable test seems to be a quantitative EEG, but it is not widely available, it is expensive, and many doctors and insurance companies don't recognize its diagnostic capabilitites. The SPECT scan (done by a knowledgeable doctor) is also gaining some credence, although it cannot definately define MCS in any one person. It is estimated that about 15% of the population suffers from a form of MCS, although not everyone is disabled by it.

It doesn't seem to matter how you get MCS: an intense exposure to a toxic chemical, long-term exposure to low levels of toxins, or a genetic disposition to it. Once you get it, the pattern seems to be the same for most people. After a period of time, it takes lower and lower concentrations of trigger chemicals to provoke a reaction. Usually, an ever-increasing number of chemicals triggers reactions, a phenomenon known as "spreading."

No one knows why people get MCS. Many people claim to have the cure for it, but it is MY OPINION that once the body's ability to detoxify substances is compromised, it rarely bounces back. I have yet to meet anyone who has been "cured" of MCS; I have met people who have gotten better, but none who have returned to their former state of health. Most people cope with this by avoidance of chemicals (the majority of people I talk to are reactive to petroleum-based chemicals--more on this below--but it is possible to be sensitve to other substances, such as lime or chlorine). This means ridding your home of toxic carpeting, no more painting, no cars idling in attached garages, no more scented laundry detergents, and many other changes.

Many of the chemical triggers belong to a class of chemicals known as "volatile organic compounds" (VOC). These chemicals are usually derived from petroleum and readily evaporate into the air at room temperature. "Safe" airborne levels of these contaminants can make healthy people sick. Examples of VOCs include solvents, paint thinners, epoxy glue, and nail polish remover.

Both the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Social Security Administration (SSA) have recognized MCS as a disabling condition, although it is very difficult to get a diagnosis from a physician. If your doctor gives you a hard time about MCS not being a "legitimate" illness, ask him/her to look at ICD codes #981 and all the sub-categories for that number, along with #987.x (there are numerous appropriate numbers here). This is an illness that is as valid as diabetes or leukemia, and it gets a number for billing just like those diseases. If you go to website http://66.17.18.109/flashcode/home.jsp, you can research this for yourself, and/or print out a copy for your health care provider. With the unfortunate plight of the Gulf War veterans looming over the traditional medical system, there is hope that there will be more information available for physisicans and their collective consciousness will be raised.

Many thanks go out to the Multiple Chemical Sensitivity in the Workplace Task Force, c/o NY Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, 33 Central Avenue Albany NY 12210 (518)426-8246, for providing the outline for this information.

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