A Quarter Of Americans Suffer From Chemical Sensitivity And It's Getting Worse Fast

Scented candles and essential oils may be promoted as natural and healthy, but they can trigger reactions among those with chemical sensitivities just like paints or insecticides. Africa Studio/Shutterstock

A survey of more than 1,000 randomly selected residents of the United States has found that chemical sensitivity has increased dramatically in the last 10 years. One in four participants reported they were sensitive to common chemicals such as those in paints, cleaning supplies, and air fresheners.

Nearly half of this group identified themselves as having been medically diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), suggesting the diagnosis is far more widespread than previously recognized. Study author Professor Anne Steinemann of the University of Melbourne regards the findings as further evidence we need to cut back on chemicals that are hurting people.

Steinemann told IFLScience she conducted the first survey of how widespread chemical sensitivity is in America a decade ago. Common symptoms reported included dizziness, migraines, and breathing difficulties.

When she repeated it in 2016 using a representative sample of 1,137 people, she found the proportion reporting adverse health effects since 2006 had jumped from 11.6 to 25.9 percent. More than three-quarters described these as sometimes being severe enough to be disabling. The rate among adults diagnosed with MCS leapt from 3.9 to 12.8 percent. Almost one in eight people in the survey had been diagnosed with MCS, something that has slipped beneath the radar of health authorities.

Although some of the increase might be attributed to rising awareness of the problem, Steinemann is convinced there has been a real rise in those affected. She told IFLScience this is probably both because the responsible chemicals are becoming more widespread and because the effects are cumulative.

The frequency Steinemann has now reported in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine was similar in urban and rural areas, and across many demographics. Contrary to the perception that women are more affected than men, however, Steinemann found sensitivity was particularly high among males aged 25-34.

The health effects are dire, with 61 percent of those with MCS reporting missing work days as a result of exposure to triggers such as fragranced consumer products.

Steinemann advocates eliminating the chemical triggers wherever possible, particularly moving to “fragrance-free workplaces, health care facilities, and schools.” She notes that when she tested air fresheners and other fragranced household products marketed as environmentally friendly, she found the same hazardous and petroleum-based chemicals in them as the mainstream options, suggesting they are likely equally triggering. She proposes “going back to the cleaning products our grandparents used”, such as vinegar and bicarbonate of soda.

An important limitation of the study is that the data was based on self-reports. Still, cutting out unnecessary sensitivity triggers can be important for society as a whole. Steinemann refers to a recent study showing that the same common chemicals now make up as much urban pollution as car exhausts. “People with MCS are like human canaries,” she said in a statement. “They react earlier and more severely to chemical pollutants, even at low levels.”

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