Barry Elson, M.D. Of the Northhampton Wellness Associates & The Pain Relief Center specializes in chronic illness, allergy/environmental medicine and clinical nutrition.

How do you diagnose MCS?
Dr Elson: There are four or five different schools of thought about what the specific criteria are. The most common and excepted criteria in occupational medicine circles are the Collon criteria. Marc Collen, a physician at Yale, wrote a book some time ago with basic criteria. And they basically are:
-You need to have one massive exposure.
-You need to have symptoms that effect more than one body system.
-You need to have sensitivities to a wide range of chemicals in a wide range of classes and the doses that cause problems need to be very small, not the kinds of doses we typically associate to toxic reactions which are a whole other level of reaction.

Why are certain people more susceptible to MCS?
Dr Elson: There is definitely a genetic tendency. We all have enzymes in our livers, which have the responsibility of clearing chemicals from our systems and there are definitely genetic variations in these enzymatic functions. Also another predisposing factor is some massive exposure to chemicals that would put some of the susceptible over the top.

So there is one first big exposure..?
Dr Elson: …and they become more and more sensitive to other things even things they weren’t initially exposed to.

What tests can you do?
Dr Elson: You can do various tests to confirm that a person has abnormalities, we can to SPECT scans, we can do an immune-toxicology test, we can test the detoxification function, we can see if the liver is burdened; we can even test in laboratories to see if people have specific sensitivities to specific chemicals. And all of these are confirmatory and useful.

Critics say people react to placebos…
Dr Elson: Those studies have been done in various centers. They have chambers where they prevent people from having exposures to certain things by chance and they have exposed people to placebos and chemicals and they see they definitely have real reactions. I think those people are misguided. The research that has been done. There is very compelling evidence. People are having reactions to very real things.

So do you also see this as the chemical industry trying to discredit…
Dr Elson: There is no question that there is an economic motivation from many of the people who are involved in discrediting MCS. Otherwise why would they be so interested? The organizations that have come out from time to time trying to discredit MCS invariably have tremendous support from the chemical companies. And the occupational medicine departments at many universities and medical schools are supported by large corporations. So there is a clear conflict of interest in those observations.

Is the only way to cure MCS, to stay away from chemicals?
Dr Elson: No, there is a number of things we can do, but the first step is to avoid exposures. There is no question about it. The second step is to evaluate the person’s immune function and take any load like food allergies or other kinds of allergies away from the system. A third aspect of treatment is to assess nutritional factors. Very often people have intestinal problems we need to clear up. After clearing up intestinal problems we can fix nutritional deficiencies, which have developed as a result of those. After fixing nutritional problems the enzymes are working better and then we can do a detoxification program.

Last question: How many people do you treat and what is your prognosis for the future?
Dr Elson: We actually did a survey a few years ago and at that time we had about 250 people in our practice who have chemical sensitivities; however larger scale studies were done in the State of California. Results say that somewhat over 20% of the population have some level of chemical sensitivity. That includes people who just get headaches when they smell perfume. We are not talking about people whose life styles have been dramatically effected.

But it is a growing problem because we have tight spaces in buildings with poor ventilation. We have increasing pollution. We have thousands and thousands of chemicals in the air, in our work places and homes, which have never been fully tested. None of the chemicals that are presently being used have been tested in combination with other chemicals. That testing has never been done. And even individual chemicals have never been thoroughly tested on large populations over a long period of time because obviously new chemicals would never be released into the environment if that were the case.

At the same time we have to look at how our bodies have evolved over millions of years. We have liver enzymes that were designed to detoxify simple things that are found in nature. And all of a sudden, in the last century, our bodies have been exposed to novel compounds, which our systems have never been trained to encounter.

So it’s hard to imagine how people could not have this kind of difficulty because of the new kinds of exposures which are occurring at this time in history. So I think this is really the big picture. We are entering a dark place that we don’t know where we are going and we may regret it generations down the line. As much as we regret it now, it’s gonna get worse, I am afraid, unless we something about it.