Maxima Skelton reviews the many ways we can be affected – and the many different symptoms.
MCS as it’s known in the “trade” is difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to live with. This is partly because so little is known about it within routine medicine. Strictly speaking it’s not an allergy but it is a condition that is only too familiar to many of our customers. It is in fact the reason that The Healthy House came into being 26 years ago.
Rather than preaching to those who know they are chemically sensitive, I’d like to explain a little to those who may be sufferers themselves and not know it or may have a family member whose unsolved symptoms could be a reaction to chemicals.
Being chemically sensitive myself, I know that when I’m reacting to something I can be more than usually difficult and irrational to live with! Reactions for others may be quite different and can in fact be almost anything from lethargy or ‘flu-like symptoms to asthma and depression.
I recently really fancied and subsequently bought a beautiful scarf that I knew to be polyester. I don’t usually wear polyester and I always wash everything new before I wear it but this time not only did I buy polyester but I put it on without even washing it. The next morning I was what my North American husband would kindly refer to as a “basket case”!
I was tearful and depressed and had a list of reasons why I should feel depressed (knowing intellectually that although they could be true, they were not the reason for my misery). In the back of my mind I knew the scarf was the culprit. Here is where most people would start to wonder if I was seriously deranged. I am lucky that I have a very kind and understanding husband and as a family we have lived with this condition for nearly 40 years. If someone in your family is exhibiting symptoms that haven’t been solved or you know to be chemically sensitive, you may want to understand more about how chemical sensitivity can affect one’s life.
What causes MCS?
MCS can be caused by a single exposure to a high concentration of a chemical or constant low level exposure which could be to something you use every day. The result can often be the same, meaning that you then become so sensitive that you react to much smaller doses of a chemical than would be detected by most people. MCS can be very debilitating but might we be reacting to things that others should be aware of? In my case and that of our daughter we were both sensitised through the chemicals we used in our woodworking business in Canada, though I also remember reacting with ‘flu- like symptoms after watching sheep being dipped on my uncle’s farm in the early 1960s.
Has psychiatric help been suggested?
This becomes a little bit of a joke to those of us who have appeared to need psychiatric help. Why would this even be suggested? There are several reasons:
- Some of the symptoms of MCS are behavioural – ie they affect the way we behave and how we feel about ourselves. Some of us can become very depressed when exposed to certain triggers. We can also behave in a somewhat irrational way, one minute behaving quite “normally” the next being quite irrational and difficult to reason with.
- MCS can cause lethargy and fatigue and a whole host of vague symptoms. If the doctor finds nothing physically wrong, and you keep reappearing in the surgery, you may be prescribed anti-depressants or it may be suggested that you need psychological or psychiatric help.
- Many people who suffer badly from MCS live alone and sadly some have become alienated from their family. This sounds very harsh but MCS is difficult to empathise with unless you’ve had first hand experience.
Might you or someone close to you be chemically sensitive?
Our daughter (then aged three) and I were lucky enough to see a doctor in Ottawa in 1981 who specialised in environmental medicine. He diagnosed us both with chemical sensitivity. If you suspect that you may be suffering with MCS there are private clinics in the UK such as The Burghwood Clinic(1) or Breakspear Medical(2) where you will be seen by a doctor specialising in environmental medicine. Alternatively you can contact the BSEM (British Society for Environmental Medicine)(3). They may be able to put you in touch with a doctor in your area.
If you are not in a position to do this because of the cost or the distances involved then read on and learn more about what can trigger symptoms.
Potential everyday triggers of MCS
- Synthetically perfumed products affect most chemically sensitive people. Reactions can be anything from ‘flu-like symptoms to asthma or depression. Unless you have made a conscious decision not to buy or use perfumed products then the chances are that all your toiletries, laundry and cleaning products will be perfumed. This can be an ongoing irritation to anyone who is sensitive. If you get up having slept in sheets washed in perfumed detergent or fabric conditioner, shower using perfumed shower gel, wash your hair in perfumed shampoo, use perfumed deodorant then get dressed in the clothes that retain the smell of the detergent, you will never be free of this constant irritation. Many people are unaware that they are engulfed in a bubble of perfume. This not only affects them but the people around them. And most of the products that are synthetically perfumed will contain many other harsh chemicals and preservatives that many people find hard to detoxify.
- Fragrance sachets or fragrance freshener sprays. Our daughter recently booked her family into a bed and breakfast. Having tried to settle their baby and then started reacting with a sneezing fit, they had to move. When she asked the proprietor whether they had used fragrance fresheners, she said they hadn’t but they had sprayed the pillows and bedding with a well known brand of “fabric refresher”.
- Commercial wall and oil-based paints. Many people suffer from a headache or migraine when they paint the house, accepting that this is just what happens. Many paints and varnishes contain harsh and toxic chemicals that can even affect people who aren’t chemically sensitive.
- Easy care sheets and bedding. Most people find easy care bedding very convenient without realising that the treatment that gives the fabric the low maintenance benefits contains formaldehyde, which is a brain toxin. This can offgas while you are sleeping, particularly when the bedding warms up at night.
- Carpets, carpet underlay, upholstered furniture and soft furnishings that have been treated to be stain and mildew resistant. Most houses nowadays contain all these things, which can offgas a variety of chemicals into the air. Most people who have lived with chemical sensitivity for some time will also be living with old sofas and chairs that they can tolerate but the majority of families replace their furnishings regularly bringing in fresh chemicals.
- Synthetic foam rubber. One of the worst offenders for me is synthetic foam rubber. I realised this after camping out in Canada many years ago on a foam rubber mat and waking with puffed up eyes and feeling very depressed. After that we removed the foam rubber underlay throughout our house in Canada and for the first time since we had moved there I didn’t struggle to stay awake during the day. Now if I sit on a foam rubber seat for any length of time I usually find myself falling asleep! If I sleep on a foam rubber mattress I feel extremely depressed, a feeling which cannot be relieved even on holiday and out in the sun. Consequently we always check to see what the mattresses are made of if we are staying somewhere overnight. One of the reasons foam rubber is so bad is that it continues to offgas and in fact offgases more the older it gets and the more it deteriorates. This is because the rubber disintegrates, offering a much larger surface area to offgas.
- Water. Though there are many others, chlorine is probably the most usual contaminant in water that chemically sensitive people react to. This can adhere to ones skin and lungs and cause skin irritation, asthma and symptoms of chemical sensitivity.
- Weedkillers and farmyard sprays. Even what used to be thought of as reasonably safe weedkillers can affect chemically sensitive people. I spoke to one lady who knew when it had been used a mile down the road because of her reaction to it.
- Diesel and petrol. The fumes from both diesel and petrol can be a trigger for symptoms of MCS. Household gas. Household gas, whether bottled or piped in from the mains can cause a lot of problems if you are chemically sensitive. This is particularly prevalent in kitchens with a gas hob which exhausts fumes into the room.
- PVC and plastics. Another source of formaldehyde, PVC can have a very strong smell particularly if it’s a cheaper product such as a cheap blow up child’s toy or a shower curtain. Some people even react to hard plastics. We usually recommend that any new plastic machine should be run in a separate room for a few days to get rid of its new smell.
- PVC windows and doors, MDF cupboards and kitchen cabinets, acrylic sealants. All these products can be a problem for very sensitive people. Some find that their symptoms get worse when the heating goes on because both PVC and MDF offgas more as they warm up. Synthetic clothes and those that have been treated.We always avoid acrylic clothing and always wash a new garment or new bedding first before using it.
- Moulds give off volatile organic compounds which is why chemically sensitive people may be particularly susceptible to reacting to moulds and mildew.
What you can do to help yourself
We can give you general tips on where to start to reduce your exposure to the chemicals in your everyday life. Some situations are more difficult and more costly if you find you have carpets and furniture you cannot tolerate.
- Replace all laundry and cleaning products with safer products
- Replace toiletries and toothpastes with natural and organic toiletries
- Replace sheets and bedding with organic bedding
- Ask friends and family to refrain from using fragranced products when visiting
- Use an air purifier that removes both particles and chemicals from the air
- Use a drinking water filter to remove chlorine, heavy metals and organic compounds
- Use a shower filter or bath dechlorinator to remove chlorine from your shower and bath or a whole house water filter system to remove chlorine and other substances from all the water in your home
- Use organic paints and varnishes when redecorating
- Use a mask when you need one to protect you from particles, odours or fumes
Make sure as much as possible of your food is organic since additives, sprays and flavour enhancers may all cause symptoms or long term health issues.
I do often consider the positive side of being chemically sensitive in that from a very early age our own children and we as a family benefited from living in a virtually chemical free home with untreated or organic bedding, filtered water and air, natural wood and organic paint. It also gave us the opportunity to set up The Healthy House to help other people suffering from chemical sensitivity and allergies who otherwise would have difficulty finding products they could live with.
You can shop online at www.healthy-house.co.uk or call 01453 752216.
This article first appeared in Allergy Newsletter No. 120. Summer 2017.