|Occupational Health and Safety
Hazardous Substances: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome
What is it?
If you work in a building and have symptoms like these that happen when you spend time in the building, and get better after you
go home or on the weekend, you may be experiencing the early signs of multiple chemical sensitivity:
- Burning eyes, nose
- Cough, sore throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Sinus pain
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Memory loss
- Abdominal pain
- Aching muscles or joints
- Skin disorders
Unlike a cold or the flu, symptoms do not clear up within days. After weeks or months of exposure, symptoms may become chronic
and only get better after a very long time away from the building.
If this has happened to you, you could be experiencing what is often called "environmental illness" or "multiple chemical sensitivity"
or "sick building syndrome". These are all terms to describe the problems of exposures to chemicals that adversely affect our health.
Once you have been sensitized to chemicals at work, your sensitivities often broaden to a wide variety of chemicals that in the past
did not bother you. These can range from perfumes to paints, from carpets to fuels.
Which workers are affected?
Multiple chemical sensitivity can happen to workers in a wide variety of workplaces, from retail to office, from universities to
hospitals, from factories to construction. Low level exposure of chemicals given off by a wide variety of sources including solvents,
paints, cleaning products, carpets, wall coverings, photocopiers, new clothing, and medicines can result in sensitivity developing
among some people. These exposures are usually far below the maximum allowed under health and safety regulations but, since
they occur over time, the sensitivity builds up in the exposed person. Remember, these regulations were set for each individual
chemical, while we are often exposed to a "chemical soup" in workplaces. Sometimes one big exposure to a chemical can start the
One of the most well-known examples in Canada occurred in Atlantic Canada among the hospital workers employed at the Camp Hill
hospital in Halifax. Some of those workers, our members, are still unable to return to work. The culprit? Fundamentally, the hospital
had very poor ventilation. The ventilation system was under-designed to save the employer money.
How do we get sick?
How does multiple chemical sensitivity affect the body? We breathe in many substances, we eat food with chemical additives and
many sensitizers get into our bodies through our skin. Perfumes, soaps, shampoos, deodorants and hair sprays, for example, are
designed to be worn and used or absorbed onto and into our skin.
Our bodies have evolved through millions of years living in a chemical-free world. Recently, we have invented new chemicals that we
are biologically not equipped to handle. The chemical industry keeps inventing new products and the last thing they want is to
acknowledge that their profitable products may be causing us substantial harm.
How can co-workers help?
It is very important that individuals who do contract multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome are believed, even though we may not
know the precise chemical cause of the problem. People must be believed and reassured that it's not "all in their head".
How is it treated?
There is no real treatment for the syndrome other than removing the person from exposure to harmful chemicals. Their bodies will
heal themselves over time with rest, good nutrition, exercise when ready to rebuild unused muscles, and social support. Remember,
people may have become sick over a period of months or years so they will not get well overnight. Small amounts of chemicals that
never bothered them before may now cause problems at minute amounts. This sensitization may last many years.
The solution to the problems of multiple chemical sensitivity include these prevention measures:
- Better general ventilation. Workers need fresh air.
- Local exhaust ventilation for sources of contaminants such as photocopiers.
- Natural fibres for floor coverings and furniture.
- Natural wall coverings rather than those that contain formaldehyde
- Environmentally friendly cleaning products
- Indoor plants to help clean the air
- Banning pesticides, especially indoors, or at least severely restricting their use and using organic pest control wherever
If workers do contract multiple chemical sensitivity, they need:
- The right to timely investigation of health complaints and resolution of workers' compensation claims
- The right to be believed even though the precise original cause of the syndrome may never be determined
- The right to participate in support groups with fellow sufferers
- The right not be harassed or discriminated against in job assignments and promotions
- The right to job security, integrity and reasonable accommodation
- The right not to be exposed to sensitizers such as cigarette smoke and perfumes
Once people have become sensitized through this workplace exposure, they can develop sensitivities to a wide variety of workplace
and non-workplace chemicals from food additives to vehicle exhaust, from carpeting to caffeine, at levels so low that other people
can barely detect them. We must ensure that these sensitized individuals are protected to the greatest extent possible.
For an excellent book on multiple chemical sensitivity, read Nicholas A. Ashford and Claudia S. Miller, CHEMICAL EXPOSURES; LOW
LEVELS AND HIGH STAKES. Second Edition. (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998). ISBN 0-442-02524-6.
Other names for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Environmental Illness (or EI); Sick Building Syndrome; Chemical or Environmental
Hypersensitivity; Chemical Injury; Gulf War Syndrome; and Environmental Sensitivity Disorder
Multiple Chemical Sensitivity
A Chronic Condition Characterized by:
- multiple symptoms (many and variable)
- in multiple organs (min. 2, usually 4+)
- affecting multiple senses (usually 2 to 4)
- triggered by multiple chemicals (and often also by other stressors & stimuli)
- waxing and waning with exposures at or below levels previously tolerated
Multiple chemical sensitivity is often associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia
Persons with multiple chemical sensitivity may become sensitized to these chemicals:
|Aerosol air freshener
Carpet cleaning products
Deodorant and anti-perspirant that are perfumed
Nail polish remover
Perfumes and body sprays
Perfumed shampoo and other hair products
Pesticides and herbicides
Public restroom deodorizers
Tar fumes from roof or road
Varnish, shellac, lacquer
Adapted from Lax MB, Henneberger PK. Patients with multiple chemical sensitivities in an occupational health clinic: presentation and
follow-up. Arch Environ Health 1995; 50:425-31.
For more information, log on to: www.mcs-global.org
Source: CAW Health, Safety & Environment Department