Scand J Work Environ Health 1997;23 suppl 3:35-42    pdf

Multiple chemical sensitivity: pseudodisease in historical perspective

by Shorter E

Multiple chemical sensitivity as a "disease" has emerged as a descendant of food allergy, which, in the 1920s and 1930s, was considered to be responsible for much human suffering and symptoms of disease. After the onmarch of the clinical ecological movement in the 1950s, interest has been focused on the environment, and concern about food allergies and chemical sensitivity has reached epidemic proportions. "Active hazardous waste sites" and "workers exposed to toxic chemicals" are at the top of the list of public worries. The public believes manufactured chemicals to be more dangerous than natural ones, although toxicologists regard the risks as equal. Originally, symptoms of patients were explained as "allergies", but since the 1960s the concept of "chemical sensitivities" has become a big-time diagnosis. The ideas of the clinical ecologists diffused rapidly into the community aided by public media. Today organizations like "Chemical Victims" and "National Foundation for the Chemically Hypersensitive" have thousands of members. Although the diagnosis of the disease is very vague, suffering patients believe that the clinical ecologists can offer them something that traditional medicine cannot: sympathy, recognition of pain and suffering, a physical explanation for their suffering, and active participation in medical care. Ecologic medicine thus soared in the patients' esteem, not just because of the content of the objective diagnoses that ecologic practitioners were able to supply, but because of the subjective nature of the doctor-patient relationship they were able to offer.