What is Environmental Intolerance or Environmental Illness?

Are you, your children or someone you know bothered by perfume or cologne? Does the smell of fresh paint or other building supplies cause headaches or other physiological symptoms?  Does anyone you know find scented products, such as laundry detergents, fabric softeners or soaps irritating?  Have you had health issues related to mold exposure?  If so, you or someone you know likely has an environmental intolerance, also known as Environmental Illness (EI) or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).  It is estimated that between 34 and 50 million people in the United States suffer from “unusual” sensitivities to common environmental chemicals with about 3% (~10 million) medically diagnosed with EI/MCS.  For some, this is a debilitating disease as everyday activities such as going to the grocery store, working in an office or simply using a public restroom become impossible due to the chemicals encountered and resulting physiological symptoms and potentially life-threatening reaction.

EI/MCS is an autoimmune disorder that can fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  Symptoms and the degree of symptoms vary from individual to individual, but can include:

asthma chest pain nausea breathing difficulties
headaches gastrointestinal pain heart palpitations eczema
memory loss muscle pain dizziness sore throat
depression extreme fatigue confusion severe diarrhea
thyroid disorders difficulty concentrating sinus problems anaphylaxis

Building supplies and chemicals in everyday products are a trigger for many with EI or MCS.  The following products can provoke the onset of symptoms for suffers of this disease:

  • air fresheners and deodorizers
  • body spray
  • cleaning products
  • construction/remodeling materials (carpet, glues, sealants, paints, treated wood products)
  • electromagnetic field radiation (EMF) from cell phones, cell towers, computers, electrical lines
  • electronics, including copiers and printers
  • home furnishings (contain fire retardants, formaldehyde, stain-resistant chemicals)
  • laundry products (dryer sheets, soaps, softeners)
  • lawn and garden care products (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers)
  • microbial toxins, such as mold, mildew and mycotoxins
  • new clothing
  • permanent markers
  • personal care products (i.e. deodorants, shampoos, conditioners, hairspray, after-shave lotions, skin moisturizers, soaps and more)
  • plastics
  • smoke (cigar, cigarette, e-cigarette, natural gas, pellet stoves, wood burning)
  • vehicle exhaust

For those not suffering from EI/MCS, this is a difficult disease to understand.  A noticeable smell may not be apparent and yet an individual with EI/MCS may experience anaphylaxis or other reactions.  A comparison can be made to someone with a severe peanut allergy.  For someone with severe peanut allergies he or she may go into anaphylactic shock simply by ingesting trace quantities of airborne peanut particulates.  Similarly, highly sensitized EI/MCS individuals will experience similar “allergic” reactions to trace amounts of chemicals.  For these people, life is far from normal.

Frequently Asked Questions about Environmental Intolerance or Environmental Illness

Q. I know people who have allergies to foods or pollen but I don’t know anyone who has a reaction to coming into contact with fragranced products.  Is this a real concern?

A. It is a very real concern. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity can suddenly appear in an individual who never had issues with chemical fragrances in the past. It can result in individuals experiencing an array of symptoms including, but not limited to, asthma, nausea, difficulty breathing, headaches, diarrhea and eczema. In extreme cases, some diagnosed with MCS cannot work or take part in daily routines most of us take for granted, such as grocery shopping or attending public events due to the inevitable encounters with fragranced chemicals. It is an illness not fully understood, but is actively being studied by the medical community. Those with MCS may find an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. A few statistics include:

  • 3 in 10 people in the US find scented products on OTHERS irritating
  • One in three people in the US experience adverse health effects from synthetic fragrance exposure
  • 15% of the US population is hypersensitive to common everyday chemicals
  • It is estimated between 34 and 50 million people in the United States suffer from “unusual” sensitivities to common environmental chemicals
  • 15% of Americans have lost workdays or a job due to fragranced product exposure in the workplace

Q. Can’t people with chemical sensitivities take allergy medication?

A. While research continues, no medication currently exists and the only reliable way to avoid reactions for those with chemical sensitivities is to avoid the triggers. This often requires cooperation of others.