Chemical Intolerance

If you’re in a room with 100 people, 20 of them will be chemically sensitive. What that means is that they react to such things as fragrance, paint, cleaning products, pesticides, glues, plastics, carpet, and car exhaust with anything from a headache to a seizure.

That 1-in-5 statistic is taken from the latest contribution in the chemical sensitivity literature by researchers in Texas working with a group of 400 patients at two university clinics. One of their findings is that chemical sensitivity is associated with other sensitivities that include food allergies, drug and alcohol abuse, and adverse reactions to medications. Another of their findings is that physicians typically do not recognize the condition.

The implication, of course, is that patients don’t get the help they need because doctors mistakenly treat the symptom and not the underlying cause. Not only that, but in treating the symptom, a doctor is likely to prescribe a medication that the patient will react to badly. Instead, the researchers point out, the truly effective treatment is for the patient to avoid the exposure altogether.

If chemical sensitivity were caused by a virus, the CDC would have long ago declared an epidemic. That is unthinkable—although not unimaginable. It’s unthinkable for two reasons. First, chemical sensitivity isn’t anything like an infectious disease, which is what the CDC is set up to deal with. Second, there’s no drug-like or vaccine-like treatment. Since avoidance is the best treatment, “effective treatment” would mean massive restrictions on the chemical industry. And that would mean a very different way of life.


The Texas researchers are certainly right to bring this issue to the attention of physicians. But uneducated doctors are hardly the problem. Nor is the problem that patients aren’t sufficiently educated—although that would help, too. Even the best treatment doesn’t solve the problem because in our political economy avoidance of exposure means a self-imposed quarantine. Even that doesn’t solve the problem.

What’s under discussion here are the acute (that is, short-term) symptoms resulting from exposure to a toxicant. Quarantining sensitive people leaves the rest of us exposed. Do we know what the consequences of that are?

I’ll give you three examples that illustrate why the situation is bad and promises to get worse.

Researchers conducted an experiment in which they exposed two groups of people to electromagnetic radiation: those who self-identified as electrosensitive and those who did not. After the exposure, the immune systems of both groups were on alert, essentially shifting to an inflammatory state. Inflammation, as you likely know, is a culprit in a wide variety of chronic illnesses. In other words, even though you might not react acutely to EMF from cell phones, wireless routers, and such, your body is reacting with potentially long-term health effects.

Lead has been poisoning us for a very long time. Great lengths have been taken to reduce exposures to safe levels. However, as a scientist at the National Toxicology Program recently said, “There does not appear to be a really safe level of lead exposure. The best course of action is to eliminate all lead exposure from our environment.” In addition, the damage from lead now reaches beyond the well-known neurological effects to a wide variety of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. Lead is not alone this regard. In other words, the history of research on virtually all toxicants tells us that what we know about the health effects gets worse over time, not better and affects chronic as well as acute illness.

The third example concerns how an exposure affects not you, acutely or chronically, but your children and grandchildren. A recent study identified the epigenetic effect of five types of chemicals now actively dumped into our environment: pesticides, bisphenol A, phthalates, dioxin, and road surfacing materials. Rats exposed to these during gestation give birth to daughters who subsequently had ovarian diseases, including cancers. The granddaughters also had ovarian diseases. In other words, you might not experience any health impairment from chemical exposures, but your descendants might.

We use products all the time that give us pleasure and perform useful services for us. You drive your kids to soccer practice. You drive to work. Those services are what you paid for when you bought the car. What you also paid for is the exhaust that harms chemically sensitive people—and likely people who are not. In addition to the services, you bought a bunch of disservices.

Why can’t you buy a means of transportation without buying the disservices?

One idea promoted by economists is that the price of the disservices should be included in the price of the car. That’s a stupid idea. It’s part of the fantasy world imagined by champions of market economies. Instead, transportation products and the chemical products and all the products that depend on them should be designed to be useful and do little or no harm. Period.

And that’s the problem. We don’t have any effective way to do that. Yet. That would take a political economy in which we take responsibility for each other and for the consequences of what we produce and use.