By Daniel J. Vance
"After three years now of being inside my home, I have no more friends," said Mandy (not her real name), 54, of Arizona. "I can't go out to eat, visit friends, see a movie. I don't even know what books are popular unless I turn on the TV."
Some doctors might call her a hypochondriac. Even so, Mandy says she most certainly is not imagining what her body does when exposed to minute amounts of environmental chemicals. She belongs to a growing number of people claiming Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) as a disability.
Though some doctors believe MCS exists, the majority doesn't, including a number of medical associations that have said no evidence yet exists of any cause-and-effect relationship between exposure to minute amounts of chemicals and reported symptoms.
But try telling that to Mandy. "(My MCS) began after going undiagnosed with bacterial pneumonia in 1997," she said. "That lowered my immune system. After that I became sensitive to perfumes, and from that had migraines, vomiting, was bedridden, and made emergency room visits."
In February 2001 she could no longer work for a Phoenix mutual fund because coworkers wore fragrances. Over time, she also became extremely sensitive to car fumes, laundry detergent, pesticides, and fabric softener. She recently started an MCS support group in Phoenix of 100 members and belongs to another 650-member online support group.
Mandy and her husband soon will be moving to a MCS-designated community abutting Arizona's Petrified Forest. "Chemically sensitive people are clustered in a three-square-mile area there," said Mandy, adding that she knows of a dozen other "chemically free" U.S. communities. Her new home will have glass and metal furniture, and tile walls and ceilings.
"Almost everyone thinks I have a mental illness," she said. "My older sister won't talk to me. For a while I wore a carbon respirator mask outside, but people literally ran away from me (in fear)."
MCS proponents gained some momentum in 2000 when the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia, voted their city "scent-free," and again in 2003 when Holy Cross football coach Dan Allen publicly claimed MCS. Women comprise about 85 percent of people presenting. Because MCS isn't officially medically recognized or defined, no one knows the number of people claiming it, but it could be millions. To those people making substantial lifestyle changes to cope, MCS certainly is very real and disabling.