Week of 7/11/04

Dear EarthTalk: What is “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity” and what causes it?

— Sara Morris, Houston, TX

People suffering from otherwise unexplainable medical problems such as headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, and even chest pains may have everyday chemicals to blame. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a medical condition whereby such symptoms can be attributed to the combined exposure to synthetic pollutants commonly found in detergents, perfumes, pesticides, solvents and even some foods and medicines.

While MCS goes by many other names—including “Environmental Illness” and “Total Allergy Syndrome”—perhaps none captures the essence of its causes and effects quite as well as “20th Century Disease.” Between 1940 and 1980, the production of synthetic organic chemicals worldwide increased from less than 10 billion pounds per year to more than 350 billion. MCS has been called “an allergy to modern life,” literally a physical reaction to many of the common chemicals now widely distributed.

No longer rare, MCS reportedly affects 10 percent or more of Americans. Nevertheless, the medical community rarely takes the condition seriously. “Because MCS does not fit any of the three currently-accepted mechanisms of disease—infectious, immune system, or cancer—traditional medicine has not known how to explain MCS, and so has often labeled it “psychogenic”—originating in the patient’s mind,” writes Dr. Peter Montague in Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly. “This has left MCS sufferers in limbo. Told they are crazy, or imagining their disease, or making it up, they find themselves passed from physician to physician without any satisfactory answers and often without relief from their very real distress.”

According to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “There is insufficient scientific evidence to confirm a relationship between any of these possible causes and symptoms.” While OSHA does not verify the legitimacy of MCS, it does offer some relief by regulating the use of cleaning products and other air quality contaminants. But some of the most ubiquitous MCS offenders—perfumes and air fresheners—are not subject to testing for toxics, and as such remain unregulated.

“It”s oxymoronic to talk about perfumes and other fragrances that can be used by people with chemical sensitivities,” says Albert Donnay, director of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Referral & Resources. In order for perfumes and air fresheners to give off a scent or be effective, he explains, they must contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Even “all-natural” products give off some VOCs. “People with chemical sensitivities have to give up wearing perfume products, and people that do wear perfume need to be sensitive to the needs of people with chemical sensitivities. It”s not much different than smoking, only you can see second hand smoke,” adds Donnay.

CONTACTS: Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly, (888) 272-2435, www.rachel.org; Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), (800) 321-6742, www.osha.gov; Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Referral & Resources, (410) 889-6666, www.mcsrr.org/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the special environmental threats to Native Americans and their lands?

— Amber Wilkie, Jackson Hole, WY

Like other minority and economically disadvantaged groups in the United States, Native Americans struggle disproportionately with environmental problems. Native lands in particular are impacted by the mining, forestry, oil and gas drilling industries, and in recent years have been increasingly targeted for nuclear waste storage. According to David Conrad, executive director of the National Tribal Environmental Council, “some of the biggest pollution sources that affect Native American lands are from federal facilities, usually defense-related, and located on or near tribal lands.”

“Basic necessities such as safe drinking water and sewage treatment are often in short supply on reservations,” says the website of Environmental Health and Safety Online (EHSO). And many of the 565 recognized tribes throughout the U.S. are located in remote areas without municipal landfills. Waste, from both legal and illegal dumping by residents and non-residents alike, can accumulate to levels that pose direct health hazards while polluting waterways and contaminating fish, a staple of many Indian diets.

For example, the abnormally high cancer rates among the Pacific Northwest”s Columbia River Basin tribes can be attributed to the widespread contamination of area salmon and trout. In 2002, researchers from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found 92 pollutants—including heavy metals, PCBs, banned pesticides such as DDT, and chemicals produced during chlorine bleaching of paper pulp—in the area”s fish. With tribal members in these areas eating fish at rates greater than six times the national average, they are at especially great risk from such contaminants.

The issue largely boils down to economics. Since 1993, the EPA”s General Assistance Program has helped many tribes nationwide, through grants, to deal with solid waste, groundwater and soil contamination, air quality and other problems. And some tribes have used their newfound wealth from gaming and casinos and other industries to pay for their own environmental protection programs.

But wealthy tribes are the exception, rather than the rule. “Most tribes are running much smaller scale gaming operations and a good deal of the revenue generated is still going back to the initial investors,” says Charlene Dunn, tribal coordinator with the EPA’s Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. “In any case, that doesn’t allow us to abrogate our responsibilities to tribal governments. [The EPA] is still responsible for providing them with adequate environmental protection.”

CONTACTS: National Tribal Environmental Council, (505) 242-2175, www.ntec.org; Environmental Health and Safety Online, ehso2004e@ehso.com, www.ehso.com; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Tribal Programs, www.epa.gov/indian/programs.htm