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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Resources

This site was first posted on April 6, 1997 and last updated on September 20, 2010

Q & A about MCS, based on reactions I've received to my requests for MCS accommodations. Most of my accommodation needs concern the use of artificial scent, so that is the emphasis in this Q & A. Unfortunately, others' reactions to raising these issues can be quite defensive, even if you raise them in a calm, respectful way.

What is multiple chemical sensitivity?

Multiple chemical sensitivity is heightened (or "hyper-") sensitivity to a variety of commonly used chemical products. People with MCS experience physical reactions to products like cologne, after shave, scented hair products, dry cleaned clothing, air freshener products, latex, etc. The types of reactions include difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and migraines, among others. The types of reactions people experience - and the substances to which they react - differ widely. In arranging accommodations for MCS (as for any disability), it's wise to consult with the individual with MCS.

Isn't saying that you have MCS just a pseudo-medical way of saying that you don't like cologne?

No. In fact, up until my chemical sensitivity began to manifest itself clearly, I loved cologne and scented products, and used them regularly. It isn't that I dislike cologne - it's that it dislikes me! When I'm around it, my nose and the areas around my eyes start to swell. Later, a migraine may hit. Sometimes for days.

Aren't requests for people to refrain from using cologne or after shave an invasion of people's private hygiene

[I've heard this one repeatedly.] If used as intended, the wearing of cologne or after shave near another person is meant to be a shared experience. That is, use of these products automatically and intentionally engages others in the experience. Unfortunately, for some of us this experience is a toxic one. Wearing cologne or after shave is about as "private" as listening to music on a city bus without headphones. When used as intended, cigarettes cause all sorts of health ills. Similarly, when someone near me uses cologne as intended, there are negative health consequences for me. And the more I'm exposed throughout a given day, the more sensitized I am to the next exposure, and the more sick I get. People like me with MCS pay a large price for others' use of scent (or, as I've seen it written, per-FUME).

Can't people with MCS just stay away from the things that make them sick?

Only until you experience MCS can you imagine the pervasiveness of chemical-based scented products in most people's environments. What would be more reasonable: (a) for creating conditions under which people with chemical sensitivities can work, study, and otherwise function safely, or (b) oblige these people to remove themselves to (increasingly hard to find) environments that are "safe?" You may be tempted to pick the latter, but consider this idea: what if the increase in chemical sensitivity is a harbinger of things to come for the general population? Perhaps our experience is a signal that too many mildly toxic chemicals are introduced daily to humans, and that the threshold for reaction to these in the general population is slipping lower continually? Even if this proves not to be the case, many people who don't experience hypersensitivity to scented products find them to be overused (ever find yourself stuck next to the man or woman in the bus or in a meeting who was bathing in scent?) and bothersome. However, the most compelling argument for accommodating a request to refrain from the use of scent is that the ability to breathe safely should be more important than adornment with scent.

I will share one regimen that has reduced my incidence of migraines and overall chemical sensitivity dramatically: daily use of a neti pot for nasal irrigation. If you are not familiar with this, there are many good web resources about it. Here is the Wikipedia page about nasal irrigation. I find that using a neti pot daily in the morning and at night not only keeps sinus infections at bay, but that my frequency of migraines has decreased from one per week to about four or five a year! For me, this regimen has been a god-send.

That said, this is only one individual sharing what has worked for her. There is no one approach for dealing with chemical sensitivity that works for everyone, including the use of the neti pot. But if you have not looked into it, you might find nasal irrigation soothing and helpful.

If you choose to try nasal irrigation, neti pots are sold at Whole Foods, even at places like Rite-Aid or other chain pharmacies. You can also find many kinds (ceramic, glass, plastic, or metal) of neti pots online. In my opinion, the special salt mix that is sold widely for use in nasal irrigation is expensive and unnecessary. I use a teaspoon of non-iodized salt (available in nearly every large supermarket) mixed well with comfortably warm tap water - I cover the openings of the neti pot and shake it about a dozen times to mix it.

I still experience greater sensitivity to fragrances and such than others seem to, as I am usually aware of even small traces of them. When someone is wearing strong fragrance my eyes, nose and throat still react. But my daily sensitivity has become noticeably less acute overall. And it is an enormous blessing to be able to go long stretches of time without being immobilized by painful migraines! So it is not a cure-all even for me, but it has improved my quality of life.

Here's some links to MCS resources:

The Environmental Illness Resource is a good general resource about environmental conditions including MCS.

MCS for Beginners

MCS Referral & Resources

Chemical Injury Information Network

Please read before you e-mail me:

I don't devote much time to becoming an MCS expert, and cannot answer most scientific or legal questions about it. So, I do not offer myself as a all-purpose resource or "human search engine" for all aspects of MCS (legal, theoretical, or medical), therefore many questions (e.g., "Where's an MCS support group in my area?" "How can I set up a job from home?" "Can you refer me to a good doctor/lawyer for __?" or, "Is __ legal?") are best directed elsewhere.

With the limited time I have available, I've tried to be of service to others with MCS by collecting the information above and by describing my responses to specific questions. What you see on this page is pretty much what I have collected in the way of MCS resources. If you have any of these types of questions that I've listed above, please take the time to thoroughly explore the resources I've collected rather than asking me first.

The best use of my e-mail address is either personal correspondence (e.g., "Barbara, how have you coped with MCS in X situation?" or to engage me in discussion about hidden disabilities in general -- other than legal aspects), to inform me of dead links on this page, or to inform me of new MCS on-line resources. I am always happy to receive messages about these. Sorry if this note seems terse or overly long, but I'm getting queries from folks who aren't using the resources I've set out before contacting me with questions that I am not in a position to answer. Otherwise, I really do like hearing from others who are dealing with MCS!

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