Allergic to the world: can medicine help people with severe intolerance to chemicals?

Whether it’s organic or psychosomatic or something in between, multiple chemical sensitivity can cause chronic illness, and its sufferers often feel abandoned

Sharon calls herself a universal reactor. In the 1990s, she became allergic to the world, to the mould colonising her home and the paint coating her kitchen walls, but also deodorants, soaps and anything containing plastic. Public spaces rife with artificial fragrances were unbearable. Scented disinfectants and air fresheners in hospitals made visiting doctors torture. The pervasiveness of perfumes and colognes barred her from in-person social gatherings. Even stepping into her own back garden was complicated by the whiff of pesticides and her neighbour’s laundry detergent sailing through the air. When modern medicine failed to identify the cause of Sharon’s illness, exiting society felt like her only solution. She started asking her husband to strip and shower every time he came home. Grandchildren greeted her through a window. When we met for the first time, Sharon had been housebound for more than six years.

When I started medical school, the formaldehyde-based solutions used to embalm the cadavers in the human anatomy labs would cause my nose to burn and my eyes to well up – representing the mild, mundane end of a chemical sensitivity spectrum. The other extreme of the spectrum is an environmental intolerance of unknown cause (referred to as idiopathic by doctors) or, as it is commonly known, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). An official definition of MCS does not exist because the condition is not recognised as a distinct medical entity by the World Health Organization or the American Medical Association, although it has been recognised as a disability in countries such as Germany and Canada.

Continue reading...