living with mcsThe Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would have been horrified – but canaries were once used in coal mines to detect dangerous gases like methane and carbon monoxide. When the miners saw the bird was dead, they knew to get out quickly. Surprisingly, this practice was only phased out as late as the 1980s, when the canaries were replaced by electronic gas detectors. Recently, Danish photographer Thilde Jensen created a series of portraits called 'Canaries' to highlight the plight of human 'canaries' – that is, people suffering from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). The photos portray people living in masks, out in the woods, in their cars or posing in kitchens covered with foil and cling film.

Like the canary in the coal mine, a person living with MCS is extraordinarily sensitive to the presence of chemicals. The condition, which is not the same as allergy (though the two often co-exist) is poorly understood and comprises an extreme over-reaction by the immune system to the presence of tiny amounts of a synthetic chemical or chemicals. When the person is sensitive to just one chemical – photocopying fumes, say - then the condition is known as chemical intolerance. Where more than one chemical causes problems, then the person is suffering with MCS. The condition may start when the person is suddenly exposed to a large concentration of a chemical – such as a pesticide spray or chemical spill – which overwhelms the usually efficient detoxification system we all have in the body. The system does not recover and an intolerance then develops.

There has been a massive increase in the use of synthetic chemicals in everyday life since World War II, thanks to the rise of the petrochemical industry. Obviously pesticides, plastics, toiletries and cleaning products have their benefits and life would be hard without them – but MCS may be the downside for many. As Jensen points out in a commentary to 'Canaries': "Just walking into a supermarket, one might be breathing in as many as 20,000 different synthetic compounds" (she herself suffers from MCS and discovered many others in the same situation – which catalysed the creation of the 'Canaries' series).

Chemical exposures that may trigger symptoms include:

  • Paint fumes
  • Glossy paper (magazines)
  • Petrol
  • Exhaust fumes
  • Plastics
  • Cleaning products
  • Toiletries
  • Perfumes

In addition, some people living with MCS are also sensitive to electromagnetic fields.

The symptoms of MCS are:

The 'Canaries' series elicited many responses from people living with MCS, who underlined how lonely and isolating the condition can be. It is rarely understood by doctors who may dismiss the patient with 'it's all in your mind'. A person with MCS will find many working environments (e.g. offices, beauty salons) intolerable because of chemical exposures and so will suffer from financial problems. They may even find their own homes hard to live in because of the presence of chemicals – some respondents had only found relief by moving to remote areas or even living in a tent outside.

The comments on 'Canaries' did provide some tips for managing the condition. Avoidance of chemical triggers is key – sometimes masks were used (but masks are not always effective in filtering out chemical fumes) and air purifiers that are designed to control chemical pollution. There are now many brands of cleaning products, cosmetics and toiletries which contain only organic ingredients and choosing these may also help (though they are often more expensive than those containing potentially irritant chemicals). And while there is no known treatment (other than avoidance) for MCS, some respondents mentioned that supplements (such as antioxidants) may help or had tried 'de-toxing' with approaches like far infra-red saunas. It may be worthwhile consulting a reputable nutritionist or other complementary therapist for help with MCS – for there are a few that do understand the condition and can help.

See the 'Canaries' and read the comments at: featureshoot.com/2012/01/portraits-of-americans-living-with-multiple-chemical-sensitivity/