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What is this thing called MCS?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity May Be What's Bothering You

Working with dangerous chemicals is common to workers whose performance and paycheck are on the line. Only after potentially harmful chemicals have been handled do workers come to understand the threat to their health and safety.

Recently, a condition known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) has been defined by various authorities, including The Labor Institute, NYC, a non-profit research and education association. The Institute's definition :
"A disorder caused by exposure to chemicals in the environment."

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity presents a special problem in which many professionals in the health community are not acknowledging that MCS exists. Workers are left thinking that something is wrong with them, when in fact the problem lies with the substances they are working with.

Yet, MCS may answer the question facing many workers who feel that something is wrong with them.

Like any other workplace health issue, precautionary measures may be taken to avoid exposures that may bring about MCS disorders.

According to the Labor Institute, symptoms of MCS include, but are not limited to :

Precautionary measures are needed to be taken in the workplace to avoid exposure to dangerous chemicals. Such precautions include, but are not limited to :

  1. wearing gloves, apron, goggles or facesheild, respirator;
  2. referring to Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS);
  3. and training.

Each chemical has its own makeup and hazards. One way to go about finding the root of the problem would be to look at specific chemicals you are working with. Ask your employer for the MSDS. All employers are mandated to have MSDS' for all chemicals used in the workplace and they must be available to workers. Here's where you'll find whether you need to wear protective clothing, advocate for a safer process to eliminate/reduce exposure or consider a switch to another job.

The best solution would be to "engineer out" the hazard; that is, switching to a non-hazardous material(s) or changing the job process or materials used. In general, the best step is to learn about the chemical(s) and then seek to deal with the concerns it raises. Occupational health nurses, epidemioligists and other specialist would be good sources for information and recommendations for handling the problem.

Characteristics of Multiple Chemicle Sensitivity (MCS)

  1. There are usually multiple symptoms involving multiple body systems, such as :
    • the respitory system,
    • the gastro-intestinal system,
    • the musculo-skelatal system.
  2. Typically, symptoms occur after initial exposures which can be identified by the person (like the chemical off-gassing during the installation of new carpeting), or repeated low-level or chronic exposures (like pesticide spraying, or working over a dry cleaning shop or with solvents).
  3. Symtoms occur and subside in responce to an ever increasing number of substances and products at lower and lower levels. Reactions are triggered by :
  4. Symptoms are brought on by very low levels of exposures -- below the permissable exposure levels forvarious chemicals established by the government -- and usually below levels tolerated by most people.
  5. Symptoms are triggered by exposures to a wide range of substances found in the workplace and at home. Solvents(paint, varnishes, adhesives, pesticides, and cleaning solutions) are most frequently implicated. Some other substances include :
  6. When other explanations for the symptoms can be ruled out.

Further information on MCS and on specific chemicals may be obtained from OSHA, NIOSH, various state health agencies and WisCOSH, Inc.

Compiled by Denise Stoffel, WisCOSH intern.

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