Color & Control:

Learning About Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

By Melanie Langille

We live in a world where synthetic chemicals surround us and chances are, we come in contact with hundreds of them every day. Many (like medicines) are helpful, or make life more convenient but, a lot of the ones that we’re using have not have been tested for safety, and the effects that they might have on our health. For the majority of us, coming in contact with certain materials on a day-to-day basis goes unnoticed. However, for the over one million Canadians affected by environmental sensitivities (also known as multiple chemical sensitivities or idiopathic environmental intolerance), the effects of exposure can be debilitating, or even, life threatening.

What is environmental sensitivity?

Environmental sensitivity (ES) is an umbrella term that includes a variety of reactions to chemicals or other environmental factors at exposure levels that were previously tolerated, or that are tolerated by the general population.

The exact cause of ES is still a topic of research and investigation. It is a complex condition that is likely to have many contributing factors. Researchers and the medical community are beginning to agree that ES appears to be linked to chemical exposure in the form of an acute exposure to large amounts (chemical spill, pesticide spraying), or chronic, long-term exposure to lower amounts, such as repeated exposure to pollutants in our air, water, soil, food, and consumer products. Once the illness is initiated, even low levels of the substance can trigger a reaction, and a person can develop sensitivities to a whole range of different substances.

Reactions and triggers

A person’s symptoms can be triggered by breathing in, eating or drinking, or touching the offending substance. Reactions commonly include headaches, seizures, coughing, wheezing, abdominal pain, muscle weakness, hives, and an irregular heartbeat. Common ES triggers include:

• Smoke
• Gasoline and diesel (fumes and/or exhaust).
• Newspaper inks • Glues, paints, and adhesives
• Pesticides and fertilizers
• Fragrances • Mould
• New furniture and carpeting
• Some building materials, (such as pressed wood).
• Food additives

Managing Environmental Sensitivities

ES is characterized by the reaction that occurs when a person is exposed to an irritant. The reaction tends to go away when the irritant is removed. But, because chemicals are all around us, managing ES can be difficult when the triggering substance can be found in a variety of locations; on food, in drinking water, in the air, at home or in the workplace. Even more challenging is finding ways to avoid triggers that have not been identified or triggers that linger in the body for an extended period of time.

There is no cure for ES, but it is possible to minimize symptoms and reactions by trying to avoid or minimize exposure to contaminants. Some people find keeping a journal of daily activities and symptoms helpful in identifying personal triggers. Other tips for managing ES include:

• Removing all known/suspected triggers from your bedroom.
• Avoiding processed foods and choosing fresh and organic.
• Asking service providers to avoid using scented products
• Requesting the first appointment of the day to avoid lingering scents from other customers.
• Asking friends, relatives, and employers/employees to go scent-free.

‘Multiple chemical sensitivity’ was recognized as a disability by the Canadian Human Rights Commission in 2007 and, as such, everyone is entitled to protection. Employers and service providers must also maintain accessible and safe facilities.

Managing toxic exposures in Canada

Scientists have been making connections between chemical exposure and human health effects for decades, but it was not until 2006 that Canada’s federal government began incorporating this science into public policy and recognized the risk factors.

In 2006, Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan (CMP) was launched jointly by Health Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada to assess the chemicals in use in our country. At that time, 4,300 chemicals were identified as priorities for attention by 2021. Each of the priority chemicals is now being assessed, and decisions are being made on how to further manage those that are found to pose a risk.

While this is a lengthy process, it’s clear that our current assessment strategies last updated in 1999, are not keeping up with the latest scientific findings. (The current assessment methods are based on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA, 1999)).

What you can do

Working together, there are many ways each of us help to prevent illness, reduce the risk of toxic exposures and push for changing the policies that currently allow the use of toxic chemicals.

Step 1: Implement a scent-free policy in your workplace. Excellent “how-to” resources can be found online at Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety and the Environmental Health Association of Québec.

Step 2: Reduce your personal exposure to chemicals, and teach others to do the same. The Foundation for Resilient Health provides a free program to help you learn where toxic chemicals are commonly found in the home. Healthy Habits for Healthy Humans is designed to be delivered in schools or other community settings (in person or virtual!) with easy to implement actions to reduce toxic exposures.

Step 3: Contact your MP and ask for stronger public policy to protect Canadians from toxic exposures. Keep an eye out for House of Commons petitions you can sign to support policy change.

Melanie Langille is an environmental scientist who lives with environmental sensitivities. She’s the mother of two, and the Program Director for the Foundation for Resilient Health.

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