Chemical Sensitivity: Complaining Can Be A Good Thing

The first U.S. conference devoted to multiple chemical sensitivity, held earlier this month in Santa Fe, N.M., delivered a big boost to the effort to increase public awareness of the ailment.

The first U.S. conference devoted to multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), held earlier this month in Santa Fe, N.M., delivered a big boost to the effort to increase public awareness of the ailment.

MCS affects millions, although many people are unaware they have the condition, or that it even exists, according to John Wilson, president of the Chemical Injury Information Network, the group that organized the event. Lack of public awareness is perhaps the root of the MCS problem.

Defining MCS is problematic, because its effects are broad and varied. For those with chronic MCS, symptoms include asthma, sinus and respiratory problems, digestive disturbances, skin rashes, blood diseases, neurological disorders and brain damage. For those with chronic MCS, these symptoms can occur after only brief exposures to almost any chemical. For those with chronic MCS, regular employment is generally out of the question.

Multiple surveys indicate that 25 to 33 percent of the population has MCS, but those with chronic symptoms are a subset of this, with estimates varying between 4 and 15 percent of the general population.

"According to my practical experience, 80 percent of the chronic conditions stem from occupational exposures," said Dr. Grace Ziem, Ph.D., a specialist in occupational medicine with 34 years of experience who has a doctorate in public health from Harvard University.

It is usually repeated exposures to chemical hazards that trigger the chronic ailment, according to Ziem.

MCS is basically a permanent condition, so Ziem stressed prevention as the best medicine.

"Early warning signs of over-exposure are not taken seriously enough in this country," Ziem warned. "Those who are the most assertive and complain the most, end up being the least disabled."

Buildings with poor ventilation and bad indoor air quality are often the cause of the condition. Because working class people tend to be less assertive, Ziem believes they are more prone to the disease, which she termed, "a really horrible illness."

She advised industrial hygienists to make both workers and upper management aware that respiratory irritations can be early warning symptoms of MCS. If action is taken early, a permanent disability can be prevented.

by James Nash

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