Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Insights Into Environmental Illness

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The inconvenient truth is that Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is caused by substances upon which industrialized economies depend, including agricultural chemicals such as pesticides

(Article endorsed by Canadian School of Natural Nutrition)

Note: In October 2003, Vitality published my first article on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). It would be helpful for you to read that article first. It is posted at:

What has happened in the area of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) over the past 15 years? A lot, and most of it is good. However, for those whose lives were ruined by toxic chemicals, finding help still remains a challenge, and restoring the health of their damaged central nervous systems remains problematic and slow.

Thankfully, what has become far less of a challenge is finding cleaner, safer environments that don’t trigger an extreme reaction in sensitive individuals. Most hotels now use unscented products and offer organic and even gluten-free food options. Public awareness of the problem has increased immensely as has accommodation for the afflicted. For example, you are no longer considered a nutcase if you identify yourself as sensitive to scents. Best of all, the availability of nontoxic choices in groceries, clothing, toiletries, laundry detergent, building materials, bedding, furniture, carpets, and more has dramatically increased. No, it’s not perfect, but as a former MCS patient I can say that I’m far less likely to come in contact with food, drink, or fragrances that knock me over.

Up here in Ontario’s wild countryside, where my husband and I moved three years ago, we can get everything organic and environmentally safe in local stores. Even gluten-free bread is available. That was not the case even 10 years ago when I had to transport everything – from fluoride-free toothpaste and unscented, biodegradable laundry detergent to organic foods – along with us on summer vacations with our family.

This update is by no means comprehensive, and that in itself is good news: I can barely keep up with new developments. All this research is done by medical doctors and is published in the mainstream literature. I was once among the few lone voices crying in the toxic wilderness. Now it’s a chorus of health professionals, doctors, and lawyers. (Mind you, now we have new health threats to contend with – cell phone radiation and genetically engineered foods, for example. So Vitality won’t run out of material to report on, anytime soon.)

Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

MCS is a family of diseases, the best-known of which are Fibromyalgia / Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome, and Cacosmia (the MCS variant in which people lose all tolerance for scents, toxic or otherwise). Common symptoms include acute intolerance to light and noise and chemical and natural smells of all kinds, extreme fatigue, muscle pain, swollen joints, muscle weakness, shortness of breath evolving frequently into asthma, anemia, chronic urinary tract infections, nausea, diarrhea, migraines lasting days, tingling in hands and feet, irregular heartbeat, watery and itchy eyes, generalized itching, depression, and more. Most symptoms are now known to overlap with the world’s fastest spreading infectious disease – Lyme – which can be successfully treated with antibiotics, but MCS cannot.

And the inconvenient truth is that MCS is caused by substances upon which industrialized economies depend. This situation began some 200 years ago when coal-fired industries caused asthma, allergies, and cancer to appear in unprecedented numbers. Since then, tens of thousands of even more toxic substances have become part of everybody’s environment — with a predictable increase in corporate and public attempts to avoid responsibility.

The problem with MCS is that it challenges the way we run our world. It challenges the chemical industry in the same way that cancer research challenged the tobacco industry. Both brought their products to market before their safety was established, and both have to face the fact that these products are not safe, and never will be. In addition to industrial toxic chemicals and tobacco, the last decade has also shown up the pharmaceutical industry for the toxicity of so many of their products. That toxicity usually comes from substances also used in pesticides and industries that can cause MCS.

When a person carries an MCS diagnosis, the competing interests of insurance companies, employers, and government programs often erect seemingly insurmountable barriers for the applicant. Treating environmental illness requires sophisticated and highly individualized detoxification and nutritional support protocols.

Reports Coming In from All Over the World

The international consensus statement on MCS syndromes was published in June 1999 (Archives of Environmental Health vol. 54/3). Ironically, in that same month the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario found environmental medicine expert, Dr. Jozef Krop, “guilty” of diagnosing MCS and reprimanded him for it, ordering him to inform his patients that whatever he told them was based only on his personal opinion, and not on scientific evidence. Yet there was plenty of scientific evidence on MCS 20 years ago, all published in mainstream journals and taught in medical schools. The CPSO reprimand which Dr. Krop received was therefore appalling.

As discussed in the October 2003 article mentioned at the start, the Ministry of Human Resources had offered to work with our group to help MCS-afflicted Canadians. To our surprise we were informed a few months later that they would give us $5,000 to assist with research costs and would be willing to formally commission a report for the government. The fine print, however, stated that we would have to guarantee not to release this report to the press or discuss it in any public forum.

The doctors in our group, who had been struggling for years to help chemically injured patients, were absolutely outraged. I was so furious I decided to write a report on MCS myself at my own expense. It took several months to produce. Then I released it, in October 2003, to the federal government and to the public through every possible channel. Several thousand copies got into patients’ hands. It is mostly still relevant today and you can email me for a free copy (see Resources at end). Meanwhile, the outraged doctors got together as well, and the result of their efforts was the May 2007 report released by the Human Rights Commission on MCS which also includes the facts about harm produced by Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMFs). It recommends that both types of environmental illness be covered by our health insurance system (OHIP) and be treated as real health problems, not dismissed as psychosomatic aberrations.

In 2004, Ontario’s College of Family Physicians published a masterpiece of a report on the effect of pesticides on children, which led then Premier McGuinty to ban the use of cosmetic pesticides in 2008. Most Canadian provinces have done the same.

Simultaneously, many legislative steps were taken in the European Union and research proliferated here and abroad. For example, Martin Pall, a professor of Biochemistry and Basic Medical Sciences at Washington State University, and a member of the Human Genome Project, initiated the International Consensus Criteria on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in 2007. During his work for the Human Genome Project, he identified more than 300 regulatory genes which are specifically vulnerable to environmental toxins and disabled from performing DNA repair and proper development activities when exposed to these poisons. Those chemicals have to go if life is to continue.

In 2011, Women’s College Hospital produced a report that everybody suffering from MCS should read, entitled: “Environmental Sensitivities – Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Status Report, Environmental Health Clinic, Women’s College Hospital.” Also in 2011, the Canadian Environmental Law Assn., Ontario College of Family Physicians, and the Environmental Health Institute of Canada published a review on what exposure to hazardous chemicals does to cause chronic disease. It is an excellent tool for people working to clean up toxins in schools.

In 2015, the pesticide Roundup (glyphosate) was declared a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), and California made labeling that product as such legally mandatory in June 2017.

The latest news is that a super-sensitive test has been developed at the National University of Singapore to detect even minute traces of pesticides in food products. This is important because pesticides not only affect the central nervous system, as MCS patients know, but also kill the microbiome which is why MCS patients have abnormalities in their gut flora consistent with such toxic exposure.

One of the most significant drivers for change has been consumer demand. When people ask for fragrance-free products, pesticide-free foods, and so on – the industry hops to it. And fast! The power of consumer demand cannot be overstated.

The importance of these developments is that the MCS issue has legal traction. Regulatory and medical dinosaurs must and do yield to legal action and either evolve or become extinct. Of course, all this does not mean that a golden age has arrived. In the mid-1800s Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that childbed fever, the major killer of women back then, was caused by doctors not washing their hands after doing autopsies or examining women who already suffered from childbed fever. Many more women died in the next two decades until this finding was accepted and hands were routinely washed.

Progress takes place one funeral at a time, as somebody once said. Today, communication and liability laws move very fast indeed. And change, therefore, happens also very fast. In fact, it was one of our grandchildren (who will graduate from law school this summer) who figured out that the lack of a good water filtration system in our country home was the cause of my husband’s skin problems. This was due to the chlorine, fluoride, toxins in rainwater from Sudbury’s factories, and bird poop in our water supply. She was right. This generation immediately thinks of such matters. After we installed a state-of-the-art ultraviolet light system recommended by our plumber to clean the water, my husband’s skin cleared up presto. The young ones are way ahead of us already.

Sources and Resources:

  • American Academy of Enviro Med:
  • Matthew & Wilton Law Office 416-860-9889 specializes in claims issues
  • Canadian Environmental Law Association:
  • Environmental Health Clinic, Women’s College Hospital, 76 Grenville Street, Toronto
  • J. Krop, MD, Healing The Planet One Patient at A Time: A Primer in Environmental Medicine, Kos Publishing, 2002, available through Jozef Krop’s EcoHealth and Wellness Centre (905) 816-9657
  • T.G. Randolph MD, An Alternative Approach to Allergies, Harper Collins, 1990
  • Dr. Sherry Rogers, Detoxify or Die, Sandkey Co., 2002
  • A. Bell, Poisoned: How a Crime-Busting Prosecutor Turned His Medical Mystery into a Crusade for Environmental Victims, Skyhorse 2017

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• For a free copy of Helke Ferrie’s 2003 report on MCS to the Government of Canada’s Minister of Human Resources, email her at

Helke Ferrie is a medical science writer with a master's degree in physical anthropology. Her specialty lies in investigative research into ethical issues in medicine and the politics of health. She started her investigative journalism career in the mid-1990s, looking at issues of medicine and environment. She has been a regular contributor to Vitality Magazine ever since. Helke has also authored books on various subjects including: "Ending Denial: The Lyme Disease Epidemic", "What Part of No! Don't They Understand: Rescuing Food and Medicine from Government Abuse", and "The Earth's Gift to Medicine".

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