MCS, ‘Canaries’, and the Workplace: What They Might Mean To You


Confession time! I’m a canary, of sorts.
No, I do not sing like one. (In fact, during school assemblies, I was told to lip-sync, for the sake of everyone present!) — Like an estimated 15% of Americans, I am highly sensitive to many common chemicals found in offices, homes, and retail establishments. – Why am I called a ‘canary’, then? I’ll get to that, later. Promise.

The condition which affects folks, differently, goes by the names: Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance (IEI), and Environmental Illness, among others.
The sad truth is that many of this 15% are unaware that they have a condition that comes with both a name and some governmental protections.

Where does the 15% number that I use, come from? Well there have been a number of government and university-level surveys conducted. The range of those who responded that they have hyper-sensitive reactions to certain chemicals in their life was in the 15% ‘ballpark’. (Some lower and some higher.) – What really matters is that the percentage of those of us with some level of MCS is reasonably high.

So, MCS refers to an assortment of reactions when exposed to common (and uncommon) chemicals. Reactions vary with the individual and the chemicals. Common ones include: Vertigo, nausea, muscle pain and weakness, headaches, difficulty breathing, sleepiness, and ‘brain fog’ (inability to concentrate). Because it is not an allergy, there is no medications that really prevent the effects of an exposure. Depending upon the individual’s level of MCS, problems resulting from exposures can worsen over time.

Governors in 35 states have issued proclamations regarding Multiple Chemical Sensitivity/Toxic Chemical Injury Awareness, one or more times. (FL has done so over 6 times!) These states are: Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida. Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Maryland, Missouri, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Washington. – Also, the Mayor of the District of Columbia has proclaimed MCS Awareness.

Fragrances are but one source of problems for those of us with MCS. Yet, they are an important one. Consider that there are countless chemicals in use that the FDA has never tested and likely will not due to financial costs. Then, you have federal protections afforded cosmetic companies so that they do not have to list many of the ingredients used in their products, claiming the information to be ‘trade secrets’.

In addition to harming those with MCS, asthmatics suffer, often in silence, from being exposed to co-workers’ air fresheners, incense, and perfumes/colognes.

Fortunately, an increasing number of government agencies are banning the use of scented products or at least advising against their use. – For example, the Maine Department of Labor instituted a voluntary fragrance-free policy for those at its one-stop centers. A number of Massachusetts government offices are also fragrance-free zones. – A number of hospitals and professional associations have adopted similar policies, in recognition of the problem. (Ex.,

Sick Building Syndrome is another source of concern. – Sick buildings are ones where the indoor air quality is such that individuals experience one or more health problems. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a great factsheet regarding SBS.
Extremely ironic is that one of the first publicized examples of a ‘sick building’ was the Washington headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 1988! (
Business Week once ran a cover story, ‘Is Your Office Killing You?’ (

Then, of course there are the VOCs. (Volatile Organic Chemicals.) These are often odorless but can have serious consequences. Common sources are furniture, carpeting, and paint. — Formaldehyde is a major culprit. Think back to the Katrina trailers designed to act as temporary housing for those who were displaced. Well, doctors began seeing a relatively large number of patients who were experiencing nose bleeds, headaches, and nausea. The culprit in many instances was from formaldehyde used in the trailers’ manufacturing. As a result of this, new ones had to be ordered and the existing ones ‘put out to pasture’, all at a great expense.

Some of you have probably experienced headaches, watery eyes, and some sinus congestion when your office space was newly painted, carpeted, or outfitted with new particle board desks. Well, you felt, however briefly, what folks such as myself do, frequently, but on a larger scale.

Another area of concern involves cleaning chemicals. And their lobbying groups.
Cities, states, schools (including universities) have all found great savings from the use of green cleaning products: Dollars and a reduction in absenteeism from those adversely affected by traditional cleaning agents. Among them are Minneapolis, Seattle, Santa Monica, Rochester, Maine, Harvard University Medical School, and the University of Georgia. ( – However, there are lobby groups that represent the traditional cleaning manufacturers and chemical companies. They can feel threatened by the movement toward greener cleaning and therefore try to block legislation that would mandate a change in how government entities are maintained.

Many federal agencies have specific personnel policy language addressing the needs of those with MCS. – Workers’ compensation and EEOC claims have been filed on behalf of employees who suffered injuries or been denied basic and reasonable accommodations.

There are resources available to help employers recognize what primary concerns there are and some responsibilities that they must bear. ( — JAN (the Job Accommodation Network) is a service of the U.S. Department of Labor. (

Back to ‘my story’.
I have been lucky to some extent. Yes, 2 environmental medicine specialists have diagnosed me with MCS. Yes, I must be careful about where I go and be prepared for any one of a variety of reactions depending upon the exposure. And, yes, explaining MCS to others can be a drag.

But, I am fortunate that agencies have been accommodating, overall. Co-workers avoid using air fresheners and perfumes. They clean their work areas with agents that I provide. And, I work around and with this condition.

My earlier promise to explain being a ‘canary’.
Well, back in the day, when coal miners would need to know whether or not there was sufficient and safe air quality in a particular mine shaft, they would first send down a canary. Canaries are especially reactive to poisonous gases that are colorless and odorless. If the bird was healthy and full of song, then the miners knew that it was probably safe to venture down the shaft. If not, then it was time for them to hightail it out of there. – Those of us with MCS will hopefully help companies produce safer products and governments to provide safe environments for their employees and citizens.

(NOTE: I must warn that there are unfortunately those medical professionals who do not believe in MCS, just as many did not believe in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Fibromyalgia or Gulf War Syndrome. And, there are businesses hawking all sorts of bizarre diets and products geared toward curing us. — The reality is that MCS does exist. There is currently no cure. Avoidance of triggers is the best advice, currently, for us.)

To learn more about Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS):

Russell A. Irving is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Mark Hammer

Do you suffer from hayfever? If so, does simply seeing a picture, of what gets you stuffed up, cause you to get stuffed up? Congratulations, you’re normal.

When Ivan Pavlov was busy studying dogs’ anticipatory drooling to signals for food that was due to arrive momentarily, over 100 years ago, he was exploring the same basic processes. Whenever there is a relatively reliable external signal or cue (which could be conscious, but does not have to be) for some physical change that is going to happen soon, we (or any animal with any sort of brain and nervous system) respond in anticipatory fashion. It is not only the reason why, over time and repeated exposures, allergy sufferers react to signals/symbols of the allergen, but is also why so many coffee-drinkers or smokers find themselves feeling relaxed in response to having a drag or sip, even though what they’re ingesting is a stimulant. We routinely physically compensate for what’s coming down the pipes…or at least is predicted to, even if we are unaware of the cue->consequence linkage.

I drone on about this here because whatever it is that MCS sufferers are reacting to, they are certainly not immune to such fundamental human conditioning processes. Coming to the same building every day, that has the same smell characteristics (even if you can’t identify the component smells…like the way a house might “smell like your great aunt’s”) can be expected to elicit a stronger reaction to whatever those smells represent/predict, with each daily exposure.

I remember a research job I had some 40 years ago. I was asked to go into the storage area of our lab, in the basement, and clean up all the stacks of paper EEG recordings we had stored there. The basement had been sprayed with something to keep the bugs at bay, and it had a rather distinctive, though not especially strong, mothball-like smell. I didn’t like the smell, but I’ve had worse. By the 3rd or 4th day, however, simply entering the storage area and detecting the smell led me to choke up almost instantly. It wasn’t anaphylactic shock or anything that dangerous, but it WAS an involuntary nuh-unh-not-having-any-of-THAT reaction where I simply found it very hard to breathe. It was a striking example of such learning…ironically in the same university department where a lot of the research in the area had been conducted.

So, whatever it is the MCS is responding to, is exacerbated by very normal learning processes. Unfortunately, those basic learning processes ALSO include developing anxieties or apprehension about the locations/contexts that will provoke such responses. That is, there is an understandable tiny phobic component to this. And I think that’s one of the hurdles that folks with MCS have a hard time clearing. I’m not painting them as “irrational”. In fact, QUITE rational. But to the external observer, the reaction and concern that such persons have can strike one as way out of proportion. And while it may be out of proportion to the degree of exposure to whatever it is in the building that is eliciting a physical reaction in direct fashion, it is NOT out of proportion to the magic that basic learning processes weave over time in shaping the response. Understandably, the manner in which it might be pooh-poohed by others who don’t understand all of the above, will lead to confrontations and bitter disagreements on occasion. And there’s nothing like being told “It’s nothing” when you *know* it’s something, to provoke the sort of insistence that can get you branded “a nut case” or hypo-chondriac.

There is something real at the heart of all of this. Managing and addressing it effectively requires a grasp of how to stave off all the spinoffs I’ve mentioned.

Russell Irving

Matthew, I read your comments with the level of appreciation that comes with wishing to respect what you say , yet knowing how very inaccurate your verdict and interpretation of MCS are.
You remind me of those who for ages denied and poo-pooed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Gulf War Syndrome and other conditions thought to be psychological/anxiety driven but which the Feds and countless experts know are other than that. Or those who dismissed the notion of bacteria causing ulcers as opposed to stress.
Brain scans and other empirical testing has shown the validity of MCS.
Unfortunately, some folks believe that we are responding to odors and that they become ‘triggers’. Rather odorless chemicals with non-visual ‘cues’ can create negative reactions.
My MCS is traced directly back to a severe and large exposure to chemicals in an office building that for decades housed jewelry manufacturing complete with a wide assortment of recognized toxic chemicals. It was only when administration looked into my new, sudden reactions to being there (and those of others, to a lesser degree), did it come to light that there was a very real and unexpected, exposure, above and beyond what was thought of.
Without going into details, allow me to fast forward a bit to when I went to see an ‘allergist’ before I understood that MCS is not an allergy. He explained that there was no such thing as MCS. To which I explained I was having muscle pain and vertigo while in that office. He smiled saying there was no smell or reason for this. I was the first patient after his lunch and I requested he bring his nurse in. She explained that during that time she had used an odorless cleaning spray.
Again, Matthew, both odors and visual cues have little to do with our responses, as many times there is neither.
I hope that others will check the Federal & other resources that I list in my blog. ‘Nuff said.

Russell Irving

I forgot… Obviously, people learn responses from both personal experience and those of others & actual warning signs. (ex., touching a hot stove, adverse reactions to medications, knowing that a building has had numerous health & safety violations) My experience is that those with MCS, by-and-large use the aforementioned in a logical manner without hyperbole or drama. We don’t ask those with colitis, peanut allergies, or other non-visible conditions to

Mark Hammer

I may have misconveyed things, or at least not presented them in a way that made my sympathies clear enough. My intent was NOT to pooh-pooh anything, but rather to articulate how very natural normal mechanisms can lead to folks who DO have MCS not being taken seriously by folks who *ought* to take them seriously.

When one group says “Is not”, and another asserts just as emphatically “Is too”, it’s useful to understand the “natural history” of how their respective perceptions can become so different, in order to identify some way of reconciling their perception of what ought to be the same facts, and achieving a healthy outcome.

Carla Lykins

Well said! I, too, am diagnosed with Reactive Airway Disease and other organ damage from years of exposure to toxins in my workplace in Maryland. Treatment with ineffective medications for “allergies” over the years masked the real problem. Now, disabled, I am slowly healing. There are so many of us out there, misdiagnosed, misunderstood, and mislabeled. Thanks for speaking out! Regards, Carla