The Charity for Environmental Illness



ymptoms are wide ranging and vary from person to person. Depending on the duration, type and strength of chemical exposure, reactions can be mild or totally disabling. They usually occur to minute quantities of substances at levels far below those considered to be toxic.

Most symptoms occur within minutes of exposure. They can include: nausea, wheezing, shortness of breath, shivering, headaches, mood swings, hyperactivity, dizziness, sweating, palpitations, muscle pain, skin rash, loss of mental capacity, confusion, disorientation, lack of coordination, exhaustion, collapse and loss of consciousness.

For example:

  • Nausea and wheezing due to perfume, washing powder or shampoo fragrances.
  • Collapsing when the gas cooker or boiler is switched on.
  • Uncontrollable shaking near carrier bags, bin liners or when using the telephone.
  • Violent rages or crying when exposed to newspapers, books or magazines.
  • Severe rashes and muscle pain after contact with soap or household cleaners.
  • Becoming disorientated and losing co-ordination after taking a shower, using a computer or cooking with strong spices.

The after-effects of chemical exposure can last hours, days or weeks. Individuals may suffer flu-like symptoms, swollen glands, ulcers, rashes or exhaustion and many sufferers complain of persistent 'brain fog'. The effects of exposure are often cumulative, so a high exposure one day can lead to worse chemical intolerance the following week. Because of the escalating effects on health, some individuals do not appear to react at the time of exposure, but can suffer symptoms hours or days later.

People who are continually exposed to low-level toxins may be unaware of their chemical sensitivity. Because they are constantly reacting to substances, they are unlikely to notice specific reactions. As their health deteriorates, they may suffer a variety of seemingly unrelated physical and mental symptoms. These might include:

  • Irritation of mucus membranes in the eyes, nose and throat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Pains in the chest
  • Cough
  • Exhaustion or general weakness
  • Stomach and bowel complaints
  • Pains in the muscles and joints
  • Skin complaints or itching
  • Numbness
  • Headaches
  • Irritability
  • Seizures
  • Depression
  • Memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Decreased verbal fluency
  • Poor balance
  • Clumsiness
  • Problems with cognitive flexibility, calculation, short term memory, attention or concentration.

Continually reacting to substances commonly results in chronic fatigue, loss of mental capacity and a decline in general health. Many MCS sufferers also become hypersensitive to a vast range of foods. Avoidance of further chemical exposure is vital to improving levels of sensitivity and general health.


Classification of MCS Symptoms

As it can help to have a label for an illness, we have included the following classification of MCS symptoms. Adapted with permission from The Chemical Injury Information Network, P.O. Box 301, White Sulphur Springs, MT 59645 (USA)


Able to work. Frequently has many symptoms, some of vague nature. May find petrochemicals and other environmental exposures such as auto exhausts, cigarette smoke, and cleaning materials to be unpleasant or produce uncomfortable feelings but able to work effectively.


Able to work at home or with controlled environment at work place. May have to use gas mask or charcoal mask and air purifier filter system. Exposure to inciting agents causes acute symptoms which may alter functional capacity (severe headache, muscle pain, poor concentration, memory loss, etc.). May have to change job or work conditions if environmental pollution is severe enough.


Unable to work effectively, even with environmental control, using avoidance, masks or filters. On some days, may be able to work 30 to 60 minute shifts several times a day if in a very controlled environment. Reacts to chemicals such as insecticide, phenols, chlorine, formaldehyde, perfume, petrochemicals, etc. Has severe mental and physical symptoms which may or may not clear. Public exposures such as church, post office, cinema or shopping are not tolerated. Visitors to home must clean up significantly. Can usually care for self in a home situation. May be able to drive if car is made free of inciting agents, sealed, and has charcoal air filters. Has difficulty with other family members or guests in home who bring in aggravating exposures on clothing, printed material, hair, etc. Adversely reacts to many medications. May have to move if existing home has uncontrollable outdoor pollution, is new and has not out-gassed, or has other significant problems of mould, flooring, or other incitants. Requires a clean room, carpet-free, cleared of inciting agents, special heating and air filtering. Must wear natural fibre clothing specially laundered.

TOTALLY DISABLED (Universal Reactor)

Requires assistance to function in rigidly controlled home environment. Reactive symptoms have spread to virtually all environmental agents including chemicals, foods, pollens, and moulds. Has mental and physical symptoms that are incapacitating, although frequently not structurally described. Total and very restrictive environmental control required in home and vehicle. Cannot tolerate family or help who have outside exposures with even small contamination of clothing or hair with odours. Visitors usually are too toxic to be tolerated indoors. Usually requires several moves to different areas of the country to find tolerable climate which is also chemical free. May require unusual and extensive measures to make a tolerable clean refuge area to sleep in. Has difficulties with virtually everything in environment (universal reactor).

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