Susan Guyette

It can happen to anyone—and does. It happened to me, even though I considered my lifestyle healthy. This article focuses on the most common form of environmental illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, commonly known as MCS. MCS results from toxic exposures causing neural or nervous-system damage and is a life-changing, 24/7 illness. The earlier the diagnosis, the more reversible the illness is. For this reason, recognizing early symptoms is essential for protecting yourself.

The occurrence of MCS is rapidly increasing—now at 11 to 16 percent of the United States population—in varying stages of the illness. (Source: Rocky Mountain Environmental Health Association.) How is this happening? The proliferation of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and toxic emissions is responsible for most exposures.

Today, there are over 20 million chemical compounds, with the number increasing by more than one million each year. Synthetic chemicals manufactured in the United States number over 80,000, and estimates are that less than 2 percent have been tested for toxicity, as required by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Signs that MCS from chemical exposure is developing in an individual include nervous-system reaction to chemicals, impaired sleep, fatigue and becoming ill from eating, breathing or absorbing small amounts of pesticide. Adverse reactions to cigarette smoke or perfume are often early symptoms.

Toxic burden, or load, builds in the body by cumulative small exposures, or, in some individuals, a large exposure can precipitate the illness. MCS is not an allergic condition—a common misperception. The EPA estimates an average U.S. daily household exposure of over 432 synthetic chemicals and that indoor air can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air. Children are at the greatest risk because their nervous systems are still developing.

How can you protect yourself? You can avoid building toxic load by paying close attention to what you eat, what you breathe and what you put on your skin—the primary ways toxins enter the body. A path of conscious green living is your best bet. Here’s a quick guide:

What You Eat

AVOID: pesticide-laden food, including coffee and tea; preservatives and additives; processed or fast foods; feedlot animals and farmed fish raised with fungicides; soft drinks, nonorganic fruit juices and unfiltered or chlorinated water.
CHOOSE: organic foods, filtered water, organic tea and coffee.

What You Breathe

AVOID: new paint and new construction unless LEED-certified; harsh cleaning chemicals, mold, dry-cleaning and perfume; pesticide-coated buildings (bug spray); new cars and new synthetic curtains, carpets, pillows, bedding and synthetic clothing (polyester, acrylic, acetate, etc.); gas fumes and herbicides for gardening. Workplace chemicals include printer fumes, permanent markers, chemical cleaners and other industry-related chemicals.
CHOOSE: zero- or low-VOC paint, tile or green carpet; natural-fabric clothing or used synthetic clothing that has outgassed (smell gone); natural fabric bedding, curtains and rugs; and used furniture. See Prescriptions for a Healthy House by Paula Baker and Erica Elliott for guidance.

What You Put on Your Skin

AVOID: mainstream cosmetics and lotions (a virtually unregulated industry), acetone in fingernail polish remover, fingernail polish, perfumes, scented soaps and shampoos (formaldehyde is used to preserve the scent); synthetic clothing; and insect repellent.
CHOOSE: evaluated-as-safe cosmetics, soaps and shampoos.
Remember that blood vessels in the skin carry toxins into the bloodstream. See www.ewg.org for an extensive list of safe beauty products. Nails absorb chemicals in nail polish and nail-polish remover. High chemical soaps and fabric softeners can also be absorbed into the skin.

Besides the Danger to Mother Earth

A few daily green choices can prevent this serious illness and avoid the cumulative effects on Mother Earth. Often, the next question for the shift is, “How can I afford better quality products?” Conscious spending and finding affordable organics helps the budget. Small, daily choices make the critical difference. For example, buy fewer material possessions and of better quality; find whole, organic foods instead of processed or fast foods; buy the better detergent sold at natural food stores, and skip the fabric softener; buy a used car; and buy used clothes or furniture that have outgassed. Some choices that are widely available in New Mexico save money and compensate for the more expensive, less toxic. You can make the shift on the same budget, and often for less.

Many of us who have experienced neural damage assumed government protection, or that someone was monitoring or at least warning us of toxic danger. But that is a false assumption. Corporate interests heavily influence the lax U.S. standards of regulation. If you want to keep up with chemicals that are being banned, check out the Canadian and European—particularly German—news on this. Corporate interests in the United States frequently block efforts to educate physicians on the illness, leading to misdiagnoses and prescribing of drugs that only exacerbate the condition.

Use the clues in this article to detect early MCS symptoms, and seek assistance from an M.D. with a specialty in environmental medicine, a clinical ecologist, or a naturopathic doctor (N.D.). There is no “pill” to get well. Remember: The nervous system and the immune system are linked, so addressing the early signs are essential to maintaining overall good health. Other early clues relate to poor immune function such as increased allergies, arthritis and frequent colds. When MCS is diagnosed and treated through detoxification, these additional illnesses tend to disappear.

Health-maintaining steps recommended by physicians specializing in treating MCS are 1) avoid toxic exposures, 2) detox regularly to reduce toxic load, and 3) lead a green lifestyle as free of additional exposures as possible. Look for directories of providers on the Internet. Take these steps early to avoid a debilitating, ongoing illness. People with advanced MCS often cannot work in a standard workplace, go out to public places or participate fully in life.

Together, our cumulative daily decisions affect the overall health of the planet. Follow the conscious green path to vibrant health.

Susan Guyette, Ph.D., is of Métis heritage (Micmac Indian/Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural tourism, cultural centers, museums and native foods. She is the author of Sustainable Cultural Tourism: Small-Scale Solutions; Planning for Balanced Development; and co-author of Zen Birding: Connect in Nature. susanguyette@nets.com