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Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

MCS is a disorder triggered by exposures to chemicals in the environment, both outdoors and indoors. It is the almost inevitable consequence of toxic episodes for a substantial number of people. At best, its sufferers are never truly well, never truly ill - at worst the severity of MCS can be prostrating. As a result of what is known as the "spreading phenomenon", patients may react with increasing sensitivity to a variety of products which are totally unrelated to the original antigen. The worst affected in this group may find it necessary to isolate themselves, having become unable to tolerate the minutest of exposures to the common chemicals present in daily life, such as perfumes, tobacco smoke, and vehicle exhaust. The good news is that it is possible to adapt to MCS.

The bad news is that, at the present time, there is no known cure, although some medics may prescribe a regime of therapy, including massage, heat depuration, antioxidants, special diets and so on to alleviate the worst extent of the problem. Beyond this, the only recommendation is, avoidance, avoidance, avoidance, of the exposures which are known to precipitate symptoms. Some lucky people eventually recover but most never return to being completely well and their health continues a downward spiral.

It has been estimated by the American National Academy of Sciences that some 15% of the US population is adversely affected by chemicals and the general opinion is that the numbers are growing. There is no reason to suppose that the situation is any different in Australia, where many chemicals which have long since been banned overseas are still freely being used. Independent research into the mechanisms that cause MCS has been inadequate, while that which has been done is very often skewed because it is financed by industries which benefit from chemical proliferation.

MCS is an insidious complaint which can affect every part and system of the body with instant or delayed reactions. Its effects range from mild, flu-like lethargy, to full scale coronary, respiratory and gastric symptoms. Sufferers also experience fatigue, mood swings, forgetfulness and an inability to concentrate. As MCS worsens, reactions become more severe and increasingly chronic. Many patients with this condition have to isolate themselves for fear of recontamination which may result in an exacerbation or recurrence of their symptoms. Special diets are often necessary. Nutritional supplements which may be necessary quite often trigger a new set of symptoms.

Substances involved in the development of this disease can range from petroleum products and industrial chemicals, through formaldehydes and anaesthetics, to pesticides and herbicides. The variety of causal agents is almost endless. Very often, due to what is known as the "spreading phenomenon", serious reactions can develop to substances which are either related to, or completely distinct from the original antigen. Thus, for instance, someone who has become ill through exposure to pesticides may find that they have become sensitive to tobacco smoke, perfumes, and foods which they were previously able to tolerate. Many of the chemicals which trigger MCS symptoms are known to irritate or to be toxic to the nervous system.

Illness may occur through one massive exposure, or by repeated small doses, but the final results are all too similar. Unfortunately, because the media is heavily into drama, it is only events such as chemical spills, fires or explosions that are deemed newsworthy. Fleeting attention is paid to the human component in these incidents. As a result, the long term consequences of human contamination are only occasionally glimpsed, which has led to the term "iceberg syndrome" being coined by chemical victims, who are only too aware that the public sees just the visible tip of a human tragedy of monumental proportions.

Survivors of mechanical accidents may find themselves bruised, scarred or more seriously injured, but their return to a semblance of pre-trauma normality is almost always assured through the intervention of modern medical and prosthetic techniques. This is not the case for sufferers of chemical contamination, who often never recover to enjoy normal health. The ramifications of their disease extend to every quarter of their existence, affecting their earning capacity, family and community life. They are additionally disadvantaged because they are seldom able to display outward signs of their injuries or illnesses, and become vulnerable to abuse as bludgers or cranks. Their offspring are often at risk because of the reproductive effects of exposure to chemicals.

Since there are no germs to signify its presence, this disease is not easily or readily identified by doctors. Consequently, sufferers are often tagged as malingerers or as being in need of psychiatric help. These views are naturally reflected by the lay community with destructive impact on the chemically ill, who find themselves stranded without sympathy, support, or recourse to the law for compensation in the absence of medical testimony.

The thousands of patients around the world who are suffering from MCS are tired of hearing that their symptoms are due to "idiopathic" responses to imaginary events. The most strenuous denials of the reality of MCS seem to emanate from chemical manufacturers and users, regrettably including mainstream medical practitioners. They cast about for evidence to undermine the idea of MCS, a predictable reaction of those whose products and theories may be suspect, and who may have much to lose. To protect their position, they are not averse to using pejoratives, seeing ridicule as a weapon, and they are prepared to go much further. Their denials, however strenuous, cannot erase the truth. A few short years ago, it was incredible that man would walk upon the moon, and such a prospect attracted scorn. The story of ill founded cynicism and scepticism has been consistent throughout the ages, dating from the dawn of mankind.

Yet even now, irrespective of doubters or theorists, several common mysteries exist which defy explanation, but are taken for granted, such as electricity and magnetism, gravity, why the sun rises in the east, or for that matter why it rises at all.

It is time that the sceptics and cynics realised that, in bending facts to fit their theories, or clinging desperately to fixed and familiar ideas, they themselves appear ridiculous and insecure. They would do well to abandon their biases and narrow prejudices, rather than wasting time and energy on self indulgence. Scientists and medics have much to gain by forsaking their ivory towers for the realities that are there for those who choose to see them. It is fatuous nonsense to claim that MCS doesn't exist simply because no germs can be found, or no currently acceptable explanation made to fit the condition. There are countless people worldwide who belong to organisations and institutions such as the Australian Chemical Trauma Alliance. They all claim to suffer from the same symptoms, and the language and geographic barriers that separate them exclude the possibility of a global conspiracy.

Yet their experiences are written off by vested interests as "anecdotal" evidence, simply because their condition does not neatly correspond to expectations or existing theories of disease. These patients are only relating what has happened to them.

It is no use applying to humans extrapolated data obtained in laboratories using rats and mice, who cannot complain that they have a headache or feel miserable. Many of the chemicals that are involved in the development of MCS are only tested on these laboratory animals, the wider community being used (generally without appreciating the fact) as a final testing ground. This in itself is scandalous. It is the easiest thing in the world to convene a cosy gathering of "experts", none of whom suffer the condition themselves, to make weighty pronouncements about something they have never personally experienced. Time will duly reveal and normalise recognition of the connection between chemical exposures and the development of MCS. Already, signs are becoming evident of the adverse effects of a plethora of materials that have invaded the environment since the end of WWII.

Many of these commonplace substances were thought to have contributed to and enhanced the convenience of modern life. Only now is their negative impact being understood, with a declining human reproductive capacity and an epidemic of children's disabilities and dysfunctions resulting from parental exposure.

It is an innate understanding of most chemical victims that everyone succumbs eventually, and that chemically induced illness is only time and dose dependent. Some collapse immediately after apparently harmless exposures that may seem not to affect others. Those others may take years to develop cancers and other illnesses as a result of a prolonged series of exposures to environmental chemicals, none of which may have had an instantaneous effect. However much the apparently impervious members of society may sneer at their more sensitive colleagues, the fact that all humanity stems from the same biological sources is undeniable. Everyone is vulnerable, and instead of sneering, those who are not presently affected should give thanks that they have managed to escape until now the fate that has befallen their less fortunate fellows. There, but for the grace of God, go they.

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