People who suffer from environmental sensitivities react negatively to all kinds of contaminants, but at lower levels of exposure that seem to cause no reaction in most people. Reactions can lead to symptoms that are inconvenient, quite serious, or even debilitating. According to the latest data from
Statistics Canada (2007), environmental sensitivities are becoming a more common health issue. Yet in Quebec, the people who are most severely hit often have difficulty receiving appropriate care and recognition as having a condition on a par with sufferers of other illnesses.
To understand why it is so difficult to have environmental sensitivities recognized, it is important to place them within the framework of an emerging environmental illness. Recognizing an environmen- tal illness calls into question our values and the choices we have made as a society. Prevention some- times means making major changes in the way we do things. How can we ask men and women to stop wearing perfume in public places, when we are bombarded with advertisements asserting that buying a certain perfume will unleash our powers of seduction, or a particular cream will make us look ten years younger, or women who use a specific deodorant—in addition to being young and pretty— will also have infinite energy enabling them to perform 18 hours a day without even breaking into a sweat? If commercials are to be believed, we now need perfumes to make our homes more inviting and to “breathe happiness.” And some potpourris can even whisk us all the way to the Virgin Islands! To suggest that these perfumes are unnecessary and can even make some people ill is swimming against the tide, to say the least. It is therefore not surprising that the road to recognition of environmental illnesses is filled with obstacles.
Perfumes are considered the most concentrated form of fragrances. They have been used for hundreds of years to mask unpleasant odours. In the past, fragrances were extracted from plants, flowers and animals. Today, 80% to 95% of the substances in fragrances are synthetic or derived from petroleum. Fragrances contain hundreds of chemical products, and can come in as many combinations. Testing done by the Réseau Environnement Santé revealed that one perfume can contain more than 800 chemical substances. These same petrochemical molecules are also used to manufacture aromas (raspberry, strawberry, lime, etc.) that are found, among other things, in food.
Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that what is considered a controversial or an emerging illness today may not necessarily be considered so tomorrow. Progress in science has allowed a better understanding of phenomena that were first met with circumspection or even denial. In the 1960s, people who first complained of the effects of second-hand cigarette smoke were considered marginal for inconveniencing others with their unreasonable demands. Likewise, in the 1960s and 1970s, people who first called into question the safety of pesticides such as DDT were seen as extremists or conspiracy theorists with little credibility. Yet today, Quebec public policy concurs with them.
Gradually, scientific knowledge of environmental sensitivities is growing. It is likely that once the biochemical mechanisms explaining the symptoms of environmental sensitivities have been properly identified, we will look upon the debates taking place today surrounding the illness and the treatment given to patients through a very different lens.
Throughout the process of having an environmental illness recognized, the message is conveyed by the words chosen to discuss the harmfulness or harmlessness of a substance or what is deemed to be the root cause of an illness. In 2007, according to the Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks, the cyanobacteria invading the lakes in Quebec became known as “green blue algae.” The term brings to mind the colours of a rainbow rather than highly toxic organisms. The term “environmental sensitivities” was first referred to as multiple chemical sensitivity. In the United States, the chemical products industry lobbied to have the word “chemical” removed from the name. They preferred the term “idiopathic environmental intolerance,” which suggested that the illness was of unknown origin.
We have opted for the term “environmental sensitivities,” which includes not only sensitivities to chemical products (pesticides, cleaning products, solvents, perfumes, etc.), but also sensitivities to biological contaminants such as mould and sensitivities to electromagnetic radiation. This term also has the advantage of reflecting what we currently know of the illness. It involves an individual who is in a heightened state of susceptibility to several irritants and agents frequently encountered in the environment.
In the past, when the use of some products has been called into question following recognition of illnesses linked to their toxicity, industries have not hesitated to use scientific data to ensure that regulations to protect the public were not adopted. For a long time, the tobacco industry was able to seed “doubt” concerning the carcinogenic properties of nicotine. Recognition of the risks associated with asbestos was similarly delayed when scientists working for the industry deliberately prolonged the process by submitting contradictory scientific data.
In Washington D.C., there is a research institute called the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute. The name is misleading since it suggests it seeks to have environmental sensitivities recognized. However, the truth becomes evident when one discovers most of the members of the Board of Directors are representatives from the chemical products industry. As such, one could call into question the objectivity of the findings in two scientific studies funded by the institute which concluded that environmental sensitivities do not truly constitute an illness.
The reality is that understanding environmental sensitivities is a real challenge for scientists for several reasons:
- Environmental sensitivities challenge the dominant medical model where one specific cause brings about one specific effect.
- As opposed to the conventional toxicology model, there is no linear relationship (dose-effect) between the level of exposure to a substance and the effects that it produces.
- Furthermore, there isn’t just one toxic product responsible. It is, rather, the combined effects of several contaminants and the capacity of the human body to detoxify. This capacity varies in people depending on genetics and individual susceptibility.
- The effects are felt in different systems of the body and not necessarily at the same time.
- Symptoms (for example headaches, fatigue, respiratory difficulties, and burn- ing eyes) are also common in other illnesses.
Moreover, certain symptoms that could differentiate environmental sensitivities from other conditions are cognitive in nature: for example, difficulty concentrating, feeling “dazed”, dizzy or brain fogged. Physicians are therefore unable to prescribe specific tests that are commonly available to “define” these kinds of symptoms, and diagnosis depends heavily on the reporting of the patient and the relationship between exposures and symptoms. The credibility of the patient therefore comes into play. Since 60% to 80% of people affected are women, environmental sensitivities are too often erroneously linked to emotional and irrational “feminine” causes, rather than to an illness with a physiological base.
Regardless of the complexity of obtaining scientific recognition of environmental sensitivities, what is clear is that they do cause much suffering. We believe that we should not wait to have a complete understanding of environmental sensitivities before providing support, accommodation and adequate treatment for those stricken. Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Japan recognize environmental sensitivities on the same footing as any other illnesses. We hope that the province of Quebec will follow suit in order that people suffering from this illness no longer have to simultaneously be sick and carry the burden of having to fight to see their condition recognized.