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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance)

It is known that chemicals cause many human diseases. Some of the chemicals that have been documented to be dangerous to human exposure include:

  • Tobacco smoke. This is the major cause of lung cancer.

  • Asbestos. This causes mesothelioma (an unusual tumor of the linings of the chest and abdominal cavity), lung cancer, asbestosis, and an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer.

  • Kepone. An insecticide that can cause infertility in men and neurological disorders.

  • Dibromochloropropane. A pesticide that can cause infertility in men.

Exposure to certain chemicals may cause reactions similar to those experienced with allergies. Chemicals that may cause sensitivity include synthetic and natural substances found in:

  • Carpeting

  • Plastics

  • Perfumes

  • Plants

  • Paint

  • Cigarette smoke

There are many other chemicals under investigation, and the problem continues to grow because of the ever-increasing production of organic chemicals.

While certain chemicals like those above are known to cause toxicity or adverse reactions including allergies, some people have sensitivities to a wide spectrum of environmental agents. These people have been dubbed to have multiple chemical sensitivities or idiopathic environmental intolerance.

What is multiple chemical sensitivity?

Multiple chemical sensitivity is under debate in the medical community at this time. Some healthcare providers question whether it exists and whether the underlying illness is not medical but rather psychiatric, and that the symptoms are caused by anxiety. Others acknowledge it as a medical disorder triggered by exposures to chemicals, electromagnetic forces, or other environmental triggers. This often begins with a short-term, severe chemical exposure, such as a chemical spill, or a longer-term exposure.

It is reported that once exposed, low levels of chemicals found in everyday materials, such as soaps, detergents, cosmetics, and newspaper inks, can trigger physical symptoms in people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

What are the symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity?

The following are the most common symptoms of multiple chemical sensitivity. However, each person experiences symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Headaches

  • Rashes

  • Asthma

  • Muscle and joint aches

  • Fatigue

  • Memory loss

  • Confusion

Is this a recognized clinical diagnosis?

At this time, it is a controversial issue as to whether it is a clinical diagnosis or not. Many in the medical community lean towards these symptoms being physical manifestations of psychiatric illness rather than a primary medical illness. While others in the medical community along with organizations agree that multiple chemical sensitivity is a negative physical reaction to certain chemicals. There is debate as to whether multiple chemical sensitivity should be classified and diagnosed as an illness. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Perez, Eric, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2018
© 2000-2018 The StayWell Company, LLC. 800 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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