Sandra McKaig

Sandra McKaig

May is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) Awareness Month. What was that, you said? You have never heard of MCS? Well, you are in the majority. Most people haven’t.

I have MCS and I know personally that there is a large amount of unawareness and misunderstanding. One thing MCS is not is an allergy as people perceive it to be when they see someone having a reaction to a fragrance. MCS sufferers wish it was that easy to treat. This is something totally different.

MCS is actually a kind of environmental illness. It is an immune system response caused by either a sudden or lengthy exposure to a chemical. Being sensitive to chemicals can be a nightmare to cope with. Our environment is full of toxic chemicals in many things and while MCS presents itself differently in different people, it is mostly recognized in people who cannot tolerate fragrances.

This includes plug-ins, air fresheners, candles, body wash, soaps, lotions, dryer sheets, fabric softeners and detergents. Exposure to the toxic chemicals in fragrances requires a recovery period of at least 30 minutes while the chemicals are metabolized through the system. Once these chemicals get into the blood stream they can cause mental confusion, lightheadedness, headache, breathing problems and hoarseness.

If this irritation goes on too long, the lining of the nose and throat will break down enough to stop immunity to the common cold and you will get one. I can attest to this as I have gotten a number of colds this way. It is referred to as an allergenic cold and it’s a cold that is unnecessary to have to suffer with.

For someone with MCS, suddenly inhaling a strong fragrance has the same effect as an unaffected person inhaling ammonia fumes. It's just as overwhelming.  

Just imagine how you would feel if you had to sit next to a bottle of ammonia at work and constantly inhale the fumes. Also, being closed up in a crowded elevator with fragrance is awful. Until you hit your floor there is no escape!

MCS is recognized as an invisible disability on the ADA website and suggestions are given for accommodations in the workplace. Someone who works next to you has, by law, the right to ask you to please leave off your fragrance because you are making them sick.

I have had people suggest wearing a mask, but wearing a regular-style mask will not do the trick. A mask made specifically for MCS looks like a World War II relic with carbon discs on each side to filter out chemicals. Both the masks and discs are costly.

Just an FYI here: Even if a fragrance does not seem to bother the person wearing it, these chemicals are just as toxic to the fragrance wearer’s system and to the systems of the kids closed up in a car with the fragrance wearer. If your kids get a lot of upper respiratory infections, your fragrance may have something to do with it.

In his book “The Canary’s Tale,” author Jacob Berkson tells of his awful experience with MCS. He could no longer live in his home after it was sprayed for termites. His wife was unaffected, but he had to move to a travel trailer in his backyard.  

During his research and involvement with support groups he met a pastor’s wife who led singing in her church from within a glass box specially built for her. Her MCS was so severe that her system could not tolerate the chemicals in the building such as paint, building materials, plastic, drapes and carpet. All of these products outgas toxic chemicals and there does not have to be an odor involved.

Once I visited my doctor’s office and went into a coughing frenzy just walking from the waiting room to the exam room. He told me they had just put down new carpet and there was no odor.

The thing that an MCS sufferer dreams of the most is a fragrance-free environment. Personally I would love to see “no fragrance” signs next to “no smoking” signs in public places. Of course, I know that this is unrealistic, but I can dream, can’t I?

On behalf of all MCS sufferers I am challenging all fragrance wearers to be understanding and gracious. You can live without your fragrance, but the MCS sufferer cannot live with it. You can make an adjustment; the MCS sufferer cannot. Your kindness and consideration will stop exposing the MCS sufferer to this agony and help them have a good work day.  

Also consider not wearing a fragrance anytime you go where there is a group gathered. An example is meetings or even a Sunday school class. If someone says your fragrance is overwhelming them, then keep your distance. Do not even walk by that person because fragrance will hang in the air for a while even if you speed by.

If I go into a crowded place, an auditorium, for example, I will take responsibility and try to find an isolated area to sit in, but if someone loaded with fragrance sits down next to me after I have been there first, then I will ask them to move away and explain why.

Those of us with MCS do realize and understand that others enjoy fragrance, but MCS sufferers are not the only ones offended by strong fragrance. It is not necessary to take a bath in it. A little goes a long way and also some fragrances do not even have a good smell.

The current social distancing is giving MCS sufferers a little bit of a break. When social distancing is over please remember that strong fragrance is just as rude as cigarette smoke and just as dangerous to respiratory health. 

Sandra McKaig, of Lawrenceburg, is retired grandmother of three girls. Writing has become her new favorite hobby and she is in the process of writing her memoirs. She can be emailed at

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