While researching multiple chemical sensitivities, or MCS, I read an interesting analogy that was repeated over and over again and involves a bit of a history lesson. While today’s coal miners use modern day technology to detect unsafe levels of chemicals, canaries were used in the past. Miners would enter the mines with canaries who, at signs of distress, indicated that the mines were unsafe and the miners had to return to the surface immediately. Those with MCS have been deemed by some to be the canaries for our generation. With the increase in exposure to multiple chemicals, particularly since World War II, and the construction of houses to retain heat and lowering of regulated ventilation rates to save money in the 1970’s, it is possible that the increasing number of cases of MCS is a warning sign to all of us.
So what is MCS? It is a chronic condition where a person experiences symptoms when they are exposed to low levels of certain environmental agents or chemicals that most people are able to tolerate. Some have mild symptoms and are able to carry on a relatively normal life but for others the disease is debilitating and even leaving their homes becomes difficult to impossible.
Much controversy exists around MCS. One of the reasons is that the levels of chemicals or environmental agents that affect those with this illness do not bother the rest of the population. Another issue is that it is not well understood how MCS affects the body or why it develops in the first place. Despite the controversy, the fact remains that 2-3% of Canadians have been diagnosed with MCS, and it is thought that there may be many who are undiagnosed. Did you know that number of people with MCS in Canada is very close to the number of Canadians with Type 2 Diabetes (3-4%) and is greater than those with breast cancer (1%), AIDS (0.4%), and MS (0.24%) combined?
Since learning about this illness I’ve become more aware of scents and what I am exposed to in the places I visit. I’ve even found myself being more cautious of what products I use. While I know it’s unrealistic to believe that we will be able to remove all the chemicals and environmental agents that those with MCS react to, I do think it is possible for us to all be aware that this disease is real and make a genuine effort to help accommodate those with this illness. After all, if those with MCS really are the canaries of our generation, isn’t it possible that making changes now may benefit all of us in the long run?
Photo retrieved from: http://www.msha.gov/CENTURY/CANARY/PAGE2.asp
- Mine Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). A pictorial walk through the 20th century: Canaries. Retrieved from http://www.msha.gov/CENTURY/CANARY/CANARY.asp
- Marshall, L., Bested, A., Molot, J., Kerr, K., & Bray, R. (2011). Environmental sensitivities-multiple chemical sensitivities status report: Advances in knowledge and current service gaps. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/assets/legacy/wch/pdfs/ESMCSStatusReportJune22011.pdf
- Women’s College Hospital. (2012). Environmental Sensitivities. Retrieved from http://www.womenshealthmatters.ca/health-resources/environmental-health/environmental-sensitivities/