What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)?

Socio-economic, disability, and other intersectional dimensions of MCS

MCS is a medical condition and disability that affects not only health but also many other aspects of life. Effects from MCS include socio-economic impacts, disability discrimination linked to ableism and exclusion, and the compounding of other existing intersectional inequalities a person may experience linked to their class, race, gender, and ability. Support and advocacy for MCS needs to address all of these dimensions together as a part of a wider movement for environmental health justice in Canada. .

Read below to learn more about the variety of intersecting impacts experienced by people with MCS.

Socio-economic Impacts

The socio-economic effects of MCS can be overwhelming. People may suddenly or gradually become unable to access offices, homes, schools, hospitals, and public places without experiencing disabling symptoms, including neurological, respiratory, and cognitive effects. Employers, who may or may not be aware of a person’s accessibility needs, may refuse to make the accommodations necessary to allow people to continue working in an accessible and safe space. Research and the work of disability advocates show that many people with sensitivities are at risk of losing their jobs, and/or do, in fact lose their employment if appropriate accommodations are not provided. Some people become housing insecure or unhoused. Personal savings may be depleted, and debts incurred in an attempt to create safe living conditions and to fund the costs of treatments. Treatments can be expensive and difficult to obtain. Research from the 2010 Canadian Community Health Survey shows an association with being low-income, and a higher proportion of food-insecurity, and MCS. Low-income status is also supported by data from the 2014 CCHS.

The overall societal costs of MCS are immense. These include: increased health care expenses and repeat visits to specialists and diagnostic testing, lost employment opportunities (trained professionals are no longer in the workplace), caregivers diverted from other work, increased interpersonal stress with loved ones, and a low quality of life.

A study done in 2000 determined that across Canada, there are billions of dollars in direct and indirect costs linked to MCS. These costs are related to:

  • Lost productivity
  • Lost opportunities
  • Decreased tax base
  • Avoidable health care costs
  • Disability payments

The socio-economic impacts of MCS are connected to the socio-economic impacts of environmental health, air pollution, and climate change. Health Canada estimates that in 2016, 15,300 deaths per year were attributable to ambient air pollution in Canada. In 2016, the total estimated monetary value of health outcomes associated with air pollution is approximately $120 billion per year.

More research is needed to investigate the socio-economic impacts of MCS. Evidence demonstrates that a multidisciplinary, holistic, approach to management, (such as that used by the Nova Scotia Integrated Chronic Care Service, or the Ontario Environmental Health Clinic), is of benefit for healthcare utilization.

Discrimination linked to ableism and exclusion

MCS, like many other disabilities, is subject to forms of discrimination, ableism, and exclusion. Due to it being a largely invisible disability, individuals face barriers to access everyday.

What is a barrier and what is disability? According to the Accessible Canada Act (2019):

Barrier: “means anything—including anything physical, architectural, technological or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice—that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with an impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment or a functional limitation.”

Disability: “means any impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication or sensory impairment—or a functional limitation—whether permanent, temporary or episodic in nature, or evident or not, that, in interaction with a barrier, hinders a person’s full and equal participation in society.”

For example, MCS can lead to a lack of inclusion in the workplace if not sufficiently accommodated. If individuals with MCS lose employment due to ongoing barriers in the workplace, this can lead to further forms of discrimination, isolation and economic precarity experienced by people living with disabilities. Stigma and discrimination also prevent individuals with MCS from seeking medical care, accessible housing, and other types of advocacy and support. Data from the 2005 Canadian Community Health Survey shows that of individuals living with MCS who reported a reduction in activity due to a long-term health condition, a high number (23.3%) reported experiencing discrimination or unfair treatment due to their health condition.

What is ableism?

According to The Law Commission of Ontario (2016):

[Ableism] may be defined as a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others. Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society. It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.

Ableist attitudes are often based on the view that disability is an “anomaly to normalcy,” rather than an inherent and expected variation in the human condition. Ableism may also be expressed in ongoing paternalistic and patronizing behaviour toward people with disabilities.”

Examples of ableism associated with MCS include when there are attitudes that those living with MCS are not productive enough workers due to their disability, or when people assert they “are only wearing a little scent” and that individuals with MCS are just “too sensitive” or “over reactive” relative to a normal, or able-bodied person. Other examples include when individuals with MCS are expected to “learn to tolerate” or “adapt” to disabling exposures which render shared spaces inaccessible, because the accessibility of the spaces are defined by the levels of air pollution or presence of chemicals that able-bodied people are able to tolerate and adapt to.

Just like racism, sexism, and classism, ableism isn’t necessarily a result of mal-intent. Rather, ableism is something ingrained in our culture that everyone participates in. Everyone must continue to learn and change their attitudes and actions through advocacy and solidarity with individuals living with disabilities.

One of the best ways to combat ableism is by listening to, and learning from, individuals with disabilities. Don’t assume that someone who looks able-bodied does not live with a disability.

What is collective access production?

What if we thought of MCS as including “ability”? What if we regarded MCS as an important source of knowledge and expertise? How might that change the way we view shared spaces, the shared air that we breathe, or working together to address issues like pollution and climate change?

Disability activist Mia Mingus names an idea, “collective access,” which can be understood as access that we create collectively, rather than individually. We all share the air, and we are all interdependent on one another. Aimi Hamraie extends this idea into the built environment, underscoring how designing and building accessible spaces is a shared responsibility: “collective access can be a material-discursive design goal that emphasizes the relationality of built environments with social and structural conditions.” Collective access for MCS can be produced when those without MCS learn from, and are led- by those living with MCS. Together, we can remove barriers, and create safe, and accessible spaces for those living with MCS and other disabilities impacted by air quality (including asthma, COPD, migraines, hypothyroidism and other autoimmune diseases, fibromyalgia and heart disease).

Other intersectional impacts of MCS: Class, race, gender, age, and ability

The intersectional impacts of MCS are significant. MCS can be connected to forms of material dispossession, and can have very different stakes for individuals who are unemployed, underemployed, living in poverty, housing insecure, or unhoused.

For instance, renters with MCS may have an especially difficult time navigating housing accessibility and security. Presently, finding any affordable housing in Canada can be very challenging. Finding accessible and affordable housing for tenants with chronic illnesses and disabilities is even more challenging. There is a wage gap for those with disabilities in Canada, which is even more pronounced if living on social assistance or disability income.

People with disabilities who face barriers from air quality or other aspects of environmental health in their housing are left in a double-bind, as they may feel that articulating their access needs can put the security of their rental housing at risk. They may experience discrimination from landlords and neighbours. Renters may feel that it is ultimately more important to keep their existing home than risk not being able to find a new one. This situation leaves many tenants in the position of living in buildings that are not environmentally accessible for many reasons (including chemical exposures in shared hallways and lobbies or shared heating and ventilation systems, second-hand smoke, lack of heat control, constant construction and renovation, mould, repeat pesticide spraying, or noise pollution).

LGBTQIA2S+ individuals, visible ethnic minorities and racialized groups, immigrants, and newcomers to Canada may have additional challenges navigating MCS. Living with MCS is amplified by discriminatory practices in employment and housing, a gender-wage gap that is more pronounced for Indigenous and immigrant women, and the ongoing need for culturally-appropriate, safe, equitable, and inclusive health services.

Discrimination, lack of recognition, treatment and social services causes physical, emotional and social harm.

In part due to the forms of cognitive and neurological disabilities linked to MCS, and in part due to a lack of awareness and education of friends, family, workplaces, medical professionals, community members, and caregivers, communication by those with MCS around their support needs may be difficult. This may be pronounced when those with MCS are unwell, or have just experienced an exposure or inaccessible space. Over the long-term, when there is limited access to social resources, or a breakdown in social support systems, individuals living with MCS may be susceptible to social isolation, neglect and abuse. This may be especially pronounced for older adults and elderly people.

Please help us spread the word about MCS ! You can do so by getting involved as a volunteer, donating to our association, becoming a member or sharing our work on social media !

Our sources for further information

Kassirer, J, and Sandiford K. Socio-Economic Impacts of Environmental Illness in Canada. 15-11-2000. The Environmental Illness Society of Canada.
GREEN CHEMISTRY: Cornerstone to a Sustainable California.
January 2008. The Centers for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of California. See: http://coeh.berkeley.edu/greenchemistry/briefing/