Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Sick Building Syndrome)

What is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is a severe reaction that resembles an allergic reaction that occurs after exposure to chemicals, environmental irritants or mold inside a building. Sometimes called Sick Building Syndrome, this sensitivity is not like an allergy because it’s not fully understood why the body has this reaction.

In many cases, the building’s ventilation system is not adequate for removing biological and chemical irritants. Less-than-ideal temperature and humidity can contribute to the problem. In order for Sick Building Syndrome to be diagnosed, multiple people are usually affected with similar issues.

What are the Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Sufferers of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity can have a wide range of symptoms. These can be similar to a severe allergy, including headache, respiratory illness, rashes, sinus problems, shortness of breath, burning or watery eyes and fatigue. Some people also because nauseous or develop a sore throat and cough. You may also notice a bad odor or feel particularly sensitive to odors.

Symptoms are usually worst when you spend time in a particular building or part of a building, then lessen or go away completely when you leave. As well, you may be less affected by symptoms at different times of the year; for example, biological irritants like black mold may be worse in warm and humid settings and get better during periods of cooler temperatures.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Sick Building Syndrome) Causes

This syndrome is thought to have a number of possible causes. There may be underlying causes in the patient that can trigger the development of this condition. These include asthma, COPD, depression, anxiety and a number of allergies. It is not clear why some people with these conditions develop this syndrome and some do not. The cause behind the reaction is thought to be an immune response that overreacts to toxins in the air inside buildings that don’t have adequate ventilation. Because many commercial buildings are tightly environmentally controlled to save on energy costs, this can trap toxic fumes in the air from a variety of man-made materials.

This syndrome may also be caused by a severe reaction to specific smells in many sufferers. Even low levels of toxic fumes or smells can have a strong effect on these patients and have no effect on most people in the building. Why some people have reactions and others have none is not yet adequately understood. This has caused some to believe that the syndrome is purely psychosomatic and is caused more by anxiety than by the toxins themselves.

How is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Treated?

It can be difficult to treat Multiple Chemical Sensitivity that is caused by the building that you live or work in. The building’s air quality should be examined by a qualified inspector and changes made to the ventilation system if necessary. However, if your landlord or employer is not willing or able to take this step, you may need to find a different place to live or a new job in order to fully recover from the illness.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (Sick Building Syndrome) Prevention

Some patients prevent this syndrome by treating any symptoms they may get. This may include itchy skin, trouble breathing, headaches and other symptoms. For some businesses, an effort is made to prevent this syndrome in workers by taking care not to keep a building sealed too tightly. Opening windows occasionally, installing screens on windows, etc., can encourage fresh air in the office and can keep it from developing poor air quality. Being careful not to have too many fumes in the workplace is another way to prevent it. Using natural materials and having HEPA filters installed can help the air quality indoors. Taking care to prevent the growth of mold and mildew can also improve indoor air.

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
March 09, 2018
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