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11 September 2003

More than 12% of Population Reports Extreme Sensitivity to Low Levels of Common Chemicals

Study Published Today in Environmental Health Perspectives Finds 1.8% of Population Loses Job as Result

[RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC] Approximately 12.6% of the population suffers from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), a condition in which they experience reactions from exposure to low concentrations of common chemicals, according to a study published today in the September issue of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP). Of those reporting such hypersensitivity, 13.5% (or 1.8% of the entire sample) reported losing their jobs because of it. Extrapolated to a U.S. population of 290 million, today’s study means as many as 36.5 million Americans are suffering from MCS, and more than 5.2 million may lose jobs as a result.

MCS is a condition in which individuals have an acute hypersensitivity to the chemicals in everyday substances, including household cleaning agents, pesticides, fresh paint, new carpeting, building materials, newsprint, perfume, and numerous other petrochemical-based products. Individuals with MCS may experience headaches, burning eyes, asthma symptoms, stomach distress/nausea, dizziness, loss of mental concentration, and muscle pain. Some individuals also suffer fever or even loss of consciousness.

Participants in today’s study, all residents of metropolitan Atlanta, were surveyed at random. Those who reported MCS were later interviewed in more detail to understand how the syndrome affects their daily lives.

“MCS can produce a wide range of symptoms, and individuals with hypersensitivity can encounter great difficulty functioning in normal working and living environments,” the study authors write.

MCS is often triggered, or initiated, by an acute one-time exposure to a specific toxic agent, or chronic exposure to one or more toxic substances, even at low levels. After initiation, a wider range of substances can cause subsequent reactions.

A second study in the same issue of EHP discusses how MCS patients responded to various treatments. Patients responded best to having a relatively chemical-free living space, avoiding chemical exposures, and prayer. Certain treatments, including use of common antidepressants, were rated more likely to harm than help.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Jim Burkhart, science editor for EHP, says, “There are clearly large numbers of people suffering from MCS. At one point, people theorized that this condition might have a psychological basis, but this study also indicates that very few patients had any mental illness prior to MCS. Unfortunately, over 37% reported emotional problems after their physical symptoms emerged. This is a significant public health issue.”

The prevalence study was conducted by Stanley M. Caress of the State University of West Georgia and Anne C. Steinemann of the Georgia Institute of Technology. The study on treatment efficacy was conducted by Pamela Reed Gibson, Amy Nicole-Marie Elms, and Lisa Ann Ruding of James Madison University.

EHP is the journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


Adams, Brandon (2003). More than 12% of Population Reports Extreme Sensitivity to Low Levels of Common Chemicals. Environmental Health Perspectives. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Caress SM, Steinemann AC. State University of West Georgia (2003). A review of a two-phase population study of multiple chemical sensitivities. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2003 Sep;111(12):1490-7. PMID: 12948889 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE] PMCID: PMC1241652.