How I Learned to Understand Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS)

When I was in grad school, we always knew when the med students had anatomy and physiology cadaver lab.

That day, the whole school stunk from formaldehyde. Even though there were a lot of precautions taken – since it was a school of naturopathic medicine – and there was a relatively heightened awareness of how toxins affect the body, the fumes would make their way across the campus.

I was pregnant that year and was hyper-sensitive to smells. I would develop severe nausea and headaches, even when I was in a different wing of the building, when the cadaver lab was in use, and I had no choice but to bolt outside. It happened weekly and it was a major pain in the neck. I missed class, had to make up work and I am sure it did not help me to get on the good side of my professor. I loved her but she worked with cadavers every day and could no longer smell the formaldehyde. She would look at me like I was from the moon. She couldn’t, of course, force a pregnant woman to just deal with the fumes in that environment, but letʼs just say she wasnʼt thrilled about my special needs.

I have a B.S. in Biology and an M.S. in nutrition from a top school. I have had awareness of these issues for years and have focused on purity of food and environment. Having healed from severe chronic digestive and immune function illness (Crohnʼs Disease) through nutrition, herbs and holistic practices, and as a mother to four beautiful, precious, compassionate children, I am rather aware of the dangers of the toxins that we are exposed to every day. I canʼt, therefore, explain why I had no concept about how debilitating MCS (multiple chemical sensitivities, formerly known as Environmental Illness) can be.

I really didn’t understand it until a close family member became devastatingly ill with it. It started off with a little bit of sensitivity but over the course of about a year, it became full blown due to what I now know to be known as “spreading”. When I say full blown I mean she canʼt leave her house because everything makes her feel like she is going to die. When I say everything, I mean perfume, shampoo, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, cleaning sprays, off gassing carpets, off gassing mattresses and shower curtains, vinyl windows, fluorescent lights, treated paper (i.e. magazines) just to name a few. She can not fly to visit us, she can not have repair people come into her home, she can not go anywhere lest there be air freshener in a public bathroom. Truly debilitating, isolating, and devastating.

I look back at my temporary experience as a pregnant woman trying to avoid toxic exposures to my baby, and try to imagine it. Itʼs like that but every day and everywhere. I am aware that I can not even imagine what it is like.

Where can she go?

Where can she live?

Where can she be that she does not have to live in constant fear and anxiety of exposure?

Who can she relate to that will not look at her like she is crazy and overly neurotic and emotional like my professor did (even though she tried her best not to)?

I know this is a big struggle for those living with and healing from MCS. I know there are communities building and knowledge is spreading. I am not an MCS sufferer, but I love someone who is. I want to say to you, I get it. Well, at least, I am trying to.