Looking @ An “Invisible” Disability

Looking @ an "Invisible" DisabilityWeek 20 for my Edublogs Club offers us the opportunity to choose our own topic, and I’m inclined to discuss with readers an “invisible disability” that is all too prevalent today. That disability is called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity.

Lest you think I’m referring to some extreme hypochondriac’s wild fantasy, let me assure you that MCS is hardly a rare condition. More than ten million Americans suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity. That’s greater than the population of 41 individual U.S. states!

The Federal government considers MCS a legitimate disability. Bennie Howard, Acting Director of the Office of Disability Policy at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. states that, under the Fair Housing Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, HUD considers multiple chemical sensitivity to be a disability.

The Center for Disease Control, another Federal agency, implemented a new Indoor Environmental Quality Policy in June 2009 for all its facilities. It addresses the issue of MCS as follows:

Only green cleaning products shall be specified and used within CDC facilities and leased spaces unless otherwise approved by the Office of Health and Safety. [Under Definitions, Green Cleaning Products are “Janitorial cleaning products that are biodegradable, of low toxicity, fragrance-free, and otherwise less hazardous to human health or the environment.”]

Building Occupants
1. Non-Permissible Products
Scented or fragranced products are prohibited at all times in all interior space owned, rented, or leased by CDC. This includes the use of:

  • Incense, candles, or reed diffusers
  • Fragrance-emitting devices of any kind
  • Wall-mounted devices, similar to fragrance-emitting devices, that operate automatically or by pushing a button to dispense deodorizers or disinfectants
  • Potpourri
  • Plug-in or spray air fresheners
  • Urinal or toilet blocks
  • Other fragranced deodorizer/re-odorizer products

Personal care products (e.g. colognes, perfumes, essential oils, scented skin and hair products) should not be applied at or near actual workstations, restrooms, or anywhere in CDC owned or leased buildings.

In addition, CDC encourages employees to be as fragrance-free as possible when they arrive in the workplace. Fragrance is not appropriate for a professional work environment, and the use of some products with fragrance may be detrimental to the health of workers with chemical sensitivities, allergies, asthma, and chronic headaches/migraines.

Employees should avoid using scented detergents and fabric softeners on clothes worn to the office. Many fragrance-free personal care and laundry products are easily available and provide safer alternatives.

Fragrance Free Workplaces: Wave of the Future?

Still not convinced? Dr. Anne Steinemann, formerly a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Public Affairs at the University of Washington, has recently published important research documenting the presence of a large number of toxic chemicals in widely used fragranced products, including detergents, fabric softeners, dryer sheets, air fresheners, disinfectants, cleaning products, shampoos, and other household and personal-care products.


I am particularly interested in the topic of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities because I suffer this “invisible” disability. I’m especially sensitive to fragrances and it’s amazing how frequently I am unable to enjoy my life in such basic and essential areas as employment, education, and securing goods and services. Decision makers are not the only ones unaware of barriers to people with a chemical and environmental disability, so I feel compelled to make the rest of you aware of how your inadvertent choices can have a significant negative impact on those around you.

If exposed to fragrances, I experience, progressively, a burning in my mouth ⇒ shooting pains through my head increased histamine activity in my eyes, nose and throat ⇒ difficulty in breathing due to closure of my throat ⇒ coughing ⇒ heaving in my lungs ⇒ loss of my voice ⇒ disorientation and dizziness ⇒ inability to think. After 20 minutes of strong continuous exposure, I pass out and become comatose. Even brief exposure to fragrances requires nearly an hour of recovery, and longer exposure can require up to a full day.

Since fragrances permeate people’s personal hygiene (soaps, shampoos, deodorants, makeup, hair spray, and laundry products), it is difficult to avoid them. The accumulation of smells causes deadening of people’s senses, promoting the overuse of perfumes and colognes, which is even more perilous for an MCS sufferer. Needless to say, I am assaulted nearly everywhere I go, and because I must often avoid or remove myself from groups of people, those unaware of my condition consider me antisocial, snobbish, or weird. I can handle it—I’m an adult. But permit me, on behalf of children everywhere, to caution those of you who regularly interact with them.

baby with gas maskChildren are especially sensitive to chemical and environmental factors, and frequently even parents are unaware of their child’s vulnerability. While asthmatic attacks are very visible, your fragrances can also cause confused, erratic thinking and lethargy in a child with whom you are in close proximity, or cause heightened hypersensitivity to the point of attention-deficit and hyperactivity in another child. I have personally seen positive changes in the personality, behavior, and learning of children removed from a “toxic” adult or classroom.

Here is a comment about the mental effects of fragrances from a formerly bright and creative young woman, who now suffers from MCS:

Spelling is hard; numbers are hard. I have dyslexia sometimes now. I always check and double check. I would write an envelope, and it would be returned because I mixed up my numbers. I never had a problem with numbers before. I did calculus and differential equations. If somebody asks me numbers or to spell something, it’s really hard. (J. Duncan from Chemical Sensitivity Foundation video)

If you regularly work with children, please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or after shaves, and if possible, minimize the mixture of fragrances you use, perhaps buying some unscented products. If children will be in your classroom or library for extended periods of time, please abstain from using scented candles or room deodorizers.


More information from the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation:
An 8-minute trailer previewing scenes from the video Fragrance Free Workplace
Watch the full 53-minute Fragrance Free Workplaces video on YouTube

These videos are particularly powerful when they show the symptoms of two different MCS sufferers: inability to swallow or catch breath, progressive hoarseness of voice, spasms and seizures. These are all too familiar to me…

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