Book Review,

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, A Survival Guide

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, A Survival Guide
By Pamela Reed Gibson
New Harbinger Publications
5674 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, California
ISBN: 1-57224-173-X
Copyright 2000

This is a very remarkable book - and summed up very well by a review paragraph on the back cover -

"Professor Gibson has written a book of solid scholarship and compassionate understanding about an illness that desperately needs both. This is a highly readable work offering inspiration and a wealth of knowledgeable advice to those afflicted with this difficult and frequently misunderstood modern health problem. It is a remarkable thing. A book about MCS by a psychologist who knows the illness is not psychological."

By Lynn Lawson

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is an encyclopedic survey of what is known about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) that ranges from the historical to reviews of the physiological and psychological hypotheses to extensive presentations of how lives - both sufferers and significant others - are impacted by it.

The author presents summaries from some studies -

Meggs, Dunn, Block, et al. (1996), a survey of rural households:

Of 1027 people, one-third reported chemical sensitivity, with major irritants being perfumes, pesticides, cig smoke and fresh paint. Chemical sensitivity without category was as common as allergy without chemical sensitivity (16% versus 18%) was present in all income, race, education, age groups and caused 3.9% of respondents to be ill every single day.

And a study by the State Department of Health in New Mexico:

In New Mexico, Voorhees (1999) found 16% of people reported being sensitive to chemicals, 2 percent had been diagnosed with MCS, 2 percent had lost a job or career because of the sensitivities.

And a study done by the State Department of Health in New California:

Kreutzer (1999) in a California random sample, found 15.9% reported being "allergic or unusually sensitive to everyday chemicals" and 6.3% had been diagnosed with the problem. These studies show chemical sensitivity to be fairly evenly distributed by age, marital status, job, education level and geographic location.

This translates like this: if 4% of the US population is becoming ill every day from chemicals - that means over 11 million people have moderate to severe chemical sensitivity. If 2% lost their jobs because of this health conditon, that is 5 1/2 million people. The economic/social costs are so very high.

There are several chapters that deal with the physical environment, which includes a pertinent section: "If the Treatment does not Kill You" which mentions the many physical barriers and medical ignorance or arrogance issues that so many people with MCS deal with. Especially important is presentation of studies that rate the harm ratings of several common psychiatric drugs - 52 to 75 percent of the respondents in one survey rated them harmful!

"Another section goes into "Alternative Therapies" that is an extensive survey of the many approaches that have helped some people, such as chiropractic, acupuncture, rolfing, and many others. This section includes another survey of the perceived effectiveness of several such therapies

An utterly revolutionary section deals with several of the psychological aspects of MCS, such as "Coming to Terms with Chronic Illness and Disability" that first, accepts that MCS exists, and second has many positive techniques to really come to grips with the many realities of the condition. A very illuminating section deals with the many problems with the current psychiatric perspectives about this health condition, such as experimenter bias, and projecting psychiatric labels onto the MCS patient.

The author presents the following criteria that she requires to be satisfied before an MCS patient can be classified as psychiatrically disturbed -

And goes on to claim that none of these criteria have been demonstrated, or for that matter, have been seldom investigated.

Another section deals with the personal perceptions about having MCS that limit personal growth. A pertinent illustration is the following possible personal ad looking for companionship -

"Woman with chronic illness who cannot go to restaurants, theaters, movies, parties, or any public building that has been sprayed for insects or where others are wearing fragrances is seeking potential dating partner who does not smell for chemical-free outings and share boring food. Sex for me is a thing of the past, and I'm often in pain. I can't wear makeup or get my hair done, but I'm beautiful on the inside."

Another section presents many coping or self-nurturing strategies to improve one's health and self esteem. Such as writing new scripts, making a positive attitude list, making a "done" list, reading children's books(!), personal letters, affirmations for developing positive thinking patterns, having animal companions, and many more.

The social/workplace area gets an extensive treatment. With discussions about the Americans with Disabilities Act, what can often be done in the workplace to accommodate MCS sufferers instead of resorting to the common assumption "nothing can be done", applications for disability benefits and the many hoops that various agencies impose. A section even goes into some of the considerations for filing damage litigation.

Another section presents some of the activism type of activities one can participate in to increase public awareness and acceptance of MCS as well as help other sufferers. There are several inspiring biographies of people with MCS who have been prominent in bringing MCS to its present state of medical and social understanding.

The final chapter discusses the cultural perceptions and biases that MCS sufferers, and our society, have to recognize and hopefully, move past. The threats to the very powerful industries, such as the chemical and perfume, are explored in detail. Another barrier is some of the provisions of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) treaty where local legislation interfering with global commerce can be challenged.

The book wraps up with several appendices that cover such areas as research methodologies, product sources for MCS support, and an extensive Further Reading list with references to much more information about MCS.

And very importantly, this book begins to undo some of the social and medical mischief that has been committed for the past several decades by a lot of people in the psychology/psychiatry fields running to the nearest available media outlet and characterizing people with MCS as nut cases behind their backs.

Reviewed by E. Stiltner
Copyright (©) 2001

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