Finally a bit of good news about Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (aka Environmental Illness). And you thought there was no such thing as good MCS news. Or, more likely, you didn’t know much about MCS/EI. Anyway, if that’s the case, you’re hardly alone. Even many who have the condition don’t know much about it.

First, a bit of background. MCS is a syndrome characterized by a range of adverse symptoms brought on by exposure to an equally broad array of chemicals, with symptoms usually appearing at exposure levels far below those that would affect the rest of the population. Symptoms vary enormously from person to person but often include severe headaches, confusion, memory loss, random food allergies, digestive issues, skin irritation, and more. Medical professionals have debated for years about what might cause MCS, from genetics to various environmental factors, with some even suggesting it’s been caused by purely psychological factors (though the good news I’m slowly getting to seems to put that theory to rest. Anyway, read on …). The most common explanations for MCS involve some version of a “toxic threshold” theory; that is, human bodies can only take so much exposure to toxic chemicals and once a person passes their personal threshold point, they become extremely sensitive to a wide range of chemicals, but especially so to the chemical that finally nudged them over the edge.

Simply stated, MCS is basically exactly what it sounds like: extreme sensitivity to a bunch of different chemicals. And it’s no fun, especially since in practice it means many who have it are basically allergic to much of the trappings of modern society. Walk into a recently renovated building (with its standard new carpet, paint, etc.), fall ill. Stroll down the cleanser aisle in the average grocery store, ditto. Similar effects when you walk near a pesticided lawn, meet a perfumed stranger, or simply try to live in most normal houses or apartment complexes. Like most illnesses, though, MCS occurs in varying degrees of severity. Some of its victims remain able to more or less function with a few lifestyle adaptations, others remain hopelessly bound to their one safe place — often a stripped-down custom-made home — and others can’t find any place to go at all.

Fans of Northern Exposure might remember Anthony Edwards’ character Mike Monroe who had MCS and lived in a specially built dome outside town. From what I can remember of the show, a bit of it was dramatized and played up, but that was sort of Northern Exposure‘s thing. The illness is real and much of its portrayal was accurate. (MCS has also surfaced elsewhere in pop culture here and there, most notably through the film Safe by Todd Haynes, starring Julianne Moore.)

Anyway, you get the idea. Add in the fact that most mainstream doctors either don’t believe in the existence of MCS/EI, or don’t know effective treatment options when they do see it, and it’s easy to understand why most people with MCS/EI end up broke (the 16 baffled doctors still send bills), sick, and usually in some state of homelessness — or almost ended up there, will get there, or just got back.  (Oh, and don’t even get me started on what large-scale pesticide spraying for mosquitoes during West Nile season has been doing to this already beleaguered population in more or less constant diaspora.)

Oh right, the good news.

Apparently, Wright State University medical researchers recently completed a study on MCS/EI and Gulf War Syndrome that not only lends much-sought-after vindication as to the reality of both conditions, but also offers a smattering of hope by pointing a way to treatment. The key, researchers found, is enzymes.

(GWS, as I understand it, is basically a form of MCS, one that has persisted in soldiers who were in the Gulf War where sarin gas and other chemical agents were in heavy use. Their plight has been similar to that of other chemically injured people as a whole in that they’ve been variably patronized, ridiculed, and ignored, and told their condition largely transcends modern medicine in that it’s either considered nonexistent or far too mystifying for anything to be done about it.)

As the Dayton Daily News explains:

Everybody has enzymes that help break down small amounts of toxic chemicals and chase them harmlessly out of their bodies. Chemically sensitive people … have significantly lower levels of those enzymes … “We were able to clearly discriminate between normal and sensitive groups,” said Gerald Alter, who did much of the enzyme research. Just by analyzing blood samples, colleague Steven Berberich said, he could tell a sensitive patient from someone else.

Even more curious than this bit of good news is that the U.S. Department of Defense played a role in the research.

The Department of Defense gave Wright State $7.2 million toward the cost of the study and the establishment of its Center for Genomics Research …. the researchers explored the similarities between Gulf War veterans and the broader chemically sensitive population, which the National Academy of Sciences has estimated at up to 15 percent of Americans.

And the researchers found important similarities that could potentially help both groups. The DoD was likely the last organization that most chemically injured people thought would do anything worthwhile for them.

In the last bit of good news for the MCS/EI/Gulf War Syndrome family, the Brits are coming to terms with Gulf War Syndrome too, finally, acknowledging via a court case its existence after more than a decade — though begrudgingly. Even after their reluctant admission, the government is apparently still fighting against medical claims from the Gulf War veterans who, they now admit, really do have GWS.