Environmental Illness? Nonscents!

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the Halifax Daily News  ·  Mcs

I value honesty, but I’ve never mastered the art of kindness. This column won’t be kind, but it will be honest, and that’s better than the alternative.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), also called environmental illness, is a psychosomatic condition. The symptoms might be real, but the perceived causes are not. Fragrances are a prime example. MCS sufferers believe these chemicals make them sick, therefore they do. Fragrances have become nocebos (the opposite of placebos).

MCS is dressed in a lot of new jargon, but underneath it’s just old-fashioned hypochondria. Scent-free policies are relatively new, however. They’re also feeding the psychosis and allowing it to spread. And the general public is being told to accommodate more and more demands. The kinds of soap, deodorant, mouthwash, hair products and moisturizers we use are no longer our choice. Perfume and aftershave are completely off limits to us. What’s next? A bylaw banning toothpaste? By order of Halifax regional council, citizens will brush with baking soda only, or hold their breath.

Lily-livered politicians, week-kneed school officials, gullible business operators and an apathetic public have landed Halifax in the grips of mass hypochondria. In Wednesday’s column, I criticized scent-free policies that have gone unchallenged despite the lack of credible scientific evidence proving fragrances make people ill. MCS sufferer Sandra Moser promptly responded with a lengthy e-mail that included a list of 17 chemicals and the symptoms they "may"or "can" cause.

For anyone wanting to develop chemical sensitivities, here’s a sampling of how it’s done: "acetonitrile (is) found in perfume, dyes and pharmaceuticals. It can cause irritation of the mucous membranes, weakness, headaches, tremor, numbness and nausea. High concentrations can cause convulsions and death."

Don’t Swim in the Stuff

Now, whenever you catch a whiff of perfume, close your eyes and click the heels of your ruby slippers. You’ll soon suffer from several of these symptoms. You’re also welcome to make up a few of your own. To avoid convulsions and death, however, don’t go swimming in the stuff. That might not be as easy as it sounds; we all know how deceptively inviting those large vats of acetonitrile can be. Moser’s list of chemicals was intended to provide scientific proof, but what about the other 2,983 chemicals found in fragrances? Compounded by the infinite number of chemical combinations, the commonality between fragrances gets so obscured, being allergic to all is like being "allergic to everything beginning with the letter F," says myth-buster Michael Fumento. (I highly recommend you look him up at fumento.com.)

Chemophobes are quite adept at baffling with bulls---t. Throw around five-syllable words; cite studies involving a handful of mice that were fed chemicals in doses several hundred thousand times what a human would be exposed to; put it in an attractive, easy-to-read press kit, and presto, you have tailor-made proof. Junk science has paved the road to mass hysteria because reliable scientific evidence, generated by epidemiology, takes years to gather. Fortunately, the fruits of this labour are now ripening.

MCS has been rejected as an organic disease by the American Medical Association, the American Medical Council on Scientific Affairs, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, and (my favourite) the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

Meanwhile, most Canadian authorities have simply avoided the issue. It’s the Canadian way, eh? What’s more, their silence has spawned an industry, and lobby groups have become self-perpetuating bureaucracies. Take Moser, for instance. Her e-mail was sent on behalf of Citizens for a Safe Learning Environment, which boasts that 80 per cent of metro schools are now scent-free.

This darling little policy is also creating a whole new generation of hypochondriacs. But what are we to do? Activists and professional victims are forces to be reckoned with. Again, Moser provided a sampling of how it’s done: "Had there been a scent policy in the school where I worked, I may still be teaching," she wrote.

"As it is, I developed severe allergies to fragrance chemicals," she added. "I am not a whiner. I cannot handle fragrance chemicals because of the allergic reaction." (Does repetitiveness qualify as whining?)

No Smell, No Symptoms

Regardless of which of the 3,000 chemicals MCS sufferers believe they’re allergic to, Fumento noted that tests done at a chemical senses centre in Philadelphia showed masking the odour prevents reactions. In short, no smell, no symptoms. It’s not surprising, then, that a soon-to-be-published report covering several years of research by psychiatrist Dr. Donald Black shows an excess of mental illness was found in MCS sufferers.

And although the symptoms they experience are so inconsistent they defy proper assessment protocols, Washington University medical professor H. James Wedner has detected one dominant feature: most are middle-class white women, financially able to exit the environment that’s making them sick. Evidently, poor folks can’t afford to suffer from this illness.

If we really cared about MCS sufferers, we’d stop feeding their delusions, and tell them the truth. Kindness isn’t doing them, or us, any favours.