CISRA’s Synergy Health Newsletter

Issue 3. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: Video Review and Comments (1998)

“Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: How Chemical Exposures May Be Affecting Your Health,” a 90-minute video, produced by Alison Johnson, MCS Information Exchange, 2 Oakland St., Brunswick, ME 04011 (for more details on ordering see below).

Review by J. C. Waterhouse, Ph.D.

Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) is an increasingly common condition in which even small amounts of environmental chemicals and foods cause a wide range of symptoms. Substances ranging from pesticides, cleaning products, new carpets, gasoline, building materials, and paint, to foods, medications, perfumes, cosmetics, air fresheners, inks, chlorine, fabric finishes and newsprint are among the items that may cause reactions. The reactions are quite diverse and may include one or more of the following symptoms: headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, joint and muscle pains, sinus problems, asthma, rashes, extreme fatigue, tinnitus, anxiety, cognitive problems, mood swings, and even seizures and irregular heartbeats. There is a great need for a better understanding of this condition by doctors, researchers, employers, government officials, the chronically ill and the general public. The new 90 minute video “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: How Chemical Exposures May Be Affecting Your Health,” produced by Alison Johnson, in collaboration with an award-winning filmmaker (Richard Startzman), does an excellent job of presenting the information from the viewpoint of patients as well as researchers.

The experiences of 17 patients interviewed in the video illustrate the wide variety of men, women and children from diverse backgrounds who can be affected by the illness. Most became ill in the midst of productive careers, sometimes following an occupational exposure to chemicals, as in the cases of a pesticide applicator and a contractor who were interviewed. Others had more chronic low levels of exposure; some worked in a so-called “sick building,” in which indoor air containing toxic chemicals and/or mycotoxins from molds caused several people in the building to become ill. A Gulf War veteran is also included, since there is a growing belief that a large contributor to Gulf War Syndrome may be the wide array of chemical exposures.

The growing research on MCS, after years of neglect, is also presented through interviews with six nationally recognized researchers in the field. Both PET and SPECT brain scans, presented by Gunnar Heuser, M.D., provide compelling objective evidence that chemical exposures can produce debilitating symptoms in MCS patients. Brain scans are also shown by Gerald Ross, M.D., demonstrating how blood flow, glucose and oxygen consumption dramatically decrease in particular areas of the brain of a chemically sensitive patient. These scans closely resemble those of patients with brain damage from toxic chemicals, while differing from those in psychiatric illnesses. The TILT theory, Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance, introduced by Claudia Miller, M.D., Associate Professor in Environmental Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center is also included. This theory proposes that the first step to the development to MCS is “initiation,” which occurs through a single large chemical exposure or a series of smaller exposures. During initiation, susceptible people become sensitized to a variety of chemicals. After this sensitization, their symptoms are “triggered” by more and more different types of chemicals at even very small levels that would not have bothered them before. In addition, Iris Bell, M.D., Ph.D., discusses laboratory research, including animal research, and William Meggs, M.D., Ph.D., discusses asthma and its relationship to multiple chemical sensitivity.

Also in the video, Dr. Nicholas Ashford, a professor at M.I.T., notes how many recent studies in both animals and humans have supported the physical basis of MCS. In fact, he finds that the studies that seem to support psychological causes are flawed because they mistakenly assume that the existence of psychological symptoms means there is a psychological cause (i.e., psychogenic). This is an unfounded assumption, since many neurological conditions, from brain tumors to Alzheimer’s can produce psychological and emotional symptoms, yet clearly do not have a psychological origin. Dr. Ashford and others contend that research in MCS has been slow in making progress primarily because of the opposition of the chemical industry through its influence on government research funding priorities, as well as the tendency of industry-sponsored researchers to promote views favorable to the chemical industry.

Increased sensitivity to chemicals is not uncommon. In two different surveys, greater than 15% of the general population said that they were “unusually sensitive to chemicals.” Chemical sensitivities seem to be especially common in fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome and might even be more common than suspected, since masking often makes the reactions harder to detect. The phenomenon of “masking” occurs when there is a constant exposure to foods and inhalants causing overlapping reactions that make it difficult to detect the individual items that are affecting the person.

To obtain the video and other information from MCS Information Exchange:

Send $20.00 plus $3.00 shipping and handling for the video to: Alison Johnson, MCS Information Exchange, 2 Oakland St., Brunswick, ME 04011 Besides the video, Ms. Johnson has brochures and booklets, as well as survey results covering many different treatments tried by MCS patients. She also has additional video cassette tapes that include more detailed discussions with the experts featured in the MCS video. If you just want some general information on MCS, you can obtain it by sending her a $1 donation and an SASE with your request.


Further speculation on the relationship between fibromyalgia/CFS and MCS (also referred to as “environmental illness” or “allergy/sensitivity”) may be found in past and future articles in CISRA’s Synergy Health Newsletter. For example, in the first issue (Fall, 1997), I discuss possible relationships between Dr. St. Amand’s theory of fibromyalgia and environmental medicine approaches to fibromyalgia. I believe it is instructive to compare chemical exposure to other factors that are thought to trigger fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. One example of a common fibromyalgia trigger is physical trauma to the neck, as might occur in a car accident, and lead to the development of severe fibromyalgia pain in the neck, as well as other areas. Later, relatively minor stresses on the neck might be a problem and require the patient to be careful about certain motions. Analogously, a chemical exposure might cause injury to the brain as shown in SPECT scans and thus produce symptoms. Exposure to even low levels of chemicals might need to be avoided in these cases, just as the car accident victim might need to restrict his motion to avoid exacerbating his neck pain. The difference is that the fibromyalgia patient who unknowingly has MCS is unaware of the everyday chemical exposures that may be the source of his symptom exacerbations. The varied and undetected chemical exposures in everyday life leading to sudden exacerbations are likely to cause a lot of confusion and misunderstanding for the patient, their family members and doctors, unless they are well-informed about MCS.

Fortunately, for many sufferers, with awareness, avoidance, time and proper treatment, sensitivities often decline. Treatment methods that may help include desensitization, air filters, filtering masks, choosing fragrance-free and pesticide-free products and foods, food allergy/sensitivity detection and treatment, and a general avoidance of chemicals (some experts say breathing through the mouth rather than the nose is preferable if one is unavoidably exposed to a reactive inhalant that may affect the brain). There is even anecdotal evidence that guaifenesin treatment of fibromyalgia reduces food and chemical reactions (e.g., see case history in Winter/Spring, 1998 issue of CISRA’s Synergy Health Newsletter). Although these treatments may help a great deal, many patients are still extremely sensitive and debilitated and much more research is needed to help all the patients with this disorder. New research is being published every year with evidence for and speculation on the varied mechanisms, both immune and non-immune, that may account for MCS. In the meantime, this video can do a great service in educating public officials, insurance companies, employers, family and friends so they will understand the need for research, as well as economic and social support for the many people suffering from this devastating illness.

Some Sources of Additional Information on MCS:

1. Ashford, Nicholas, A., Ph.D., J.D., and Claudia S. Miller, M.D., M.S. Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes, 2d ed., John Wiley, 1998, (800-255-5945). This book is an in-depth account of the medical and epidemiological research on MCS.

2. Lawson, Lynn, Staying Well in a Toxic World: Understanding Environmental Illness, Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, and Sick Building Syndrome. Lynword Press. Make your check out to Lynn Lawson for $18.95 (includes s&h) and send it to Staying Well, P.O. Box 1732, Evanston, IL 60201. This is a patient-oriented practical guide to MCS.

3. Radetsky, Peter, Allergic to the Twentieth Century, Little
Brown & Company, 1998. This book is a journalistic account of MCS, the people, the research and the political lobbying by the chemical industry.

4. Randolph, Theron G., M.D., and Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. An Alternative Approach to Allergies. 1989. Bantam, New York. This is a classic work on the subject of food and chemical sensitivities that is available as an inexpensive paperback from the AAEM (see below) and elsewhere.

For books, treatment, resource and physician information, contact:
American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM), at their new address: 7701 East Kellogg, Suite 625, Wichita, KS 67207, 316/684-5500; web site:, or MCS Referral & Resources, phone: 410-362-6400,

Editorial Note (2006): For my current views on what I believe is likely to be the most effective approach to reducing food and chemical sensitivities and their associated symptoms and conditions, see the transcript of a talk I gave before a Support Group in 2005. I give an overview of what has helped me most, with an emphasis on a new approach, called the Marshall Protocol (MP). For many, the MP seems to be able to reverse the immune dysregulation responsible for food and chemical sensitivities.

Editorial Note (2008):  Check Alison Johnson’s web site for changes in offerings, prices, addresses etc..

Written by synergyhn

October 30, 1999 at 4:41 am

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