Individuals can be sensitive to particles in the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the things they touch every day. Sensitivity to chemicals, known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), occurs when individuals develop reactions to invisible chemicals that the average person isn't bothered by. Other names for MCS include Chemical Injury Syndrome and Environmental Illness.
How a person develops a sensitivity to chemicals is known as sensitization. Sensitization occurs when an individual’s body has a true allergic reaction to a chemical. The body’s cells react to that allergic reaction and then react when exposed to even miniscule amounts of that chemical any time after the initial reaction.
Chemicals That Cause Reactions
While MCS can be caused by any type of chemical exposure (depending on the person’s particular sensitivities), the following are common sources of chemicals that affect those suffering from MCS:
- Gas fumes
- Paint fumes
- Cleaning products
- Furniture polish
- Cigarette smoke
- Tap water
- Fragrance products, including shampoos, detergents, and so on
- Carpet fumes, and
- Pesticides (both from spraying outside and on foods).
In today’s environment, there are a greater number of complex chemical compounds that add to problems for those suffering from MCS. This explains how a chemical sensitivity could quickly affect many aspects of your life, including your ability to work, due to the amount of chemicals in our environment.
Symptoms of MCS
The symptoms of MCS are often similar to reactions that an individual can have from seasonal allergies (runny nose, itchy eyes, sore throat). However, MCS’s symptoms can often elevate to new and more disabling symptoms, including:
- asthma and other breathing problems
- extreme fatigue
- headache or migraine
- sinus problems
- rash on the skin, itchy skin, or eczema
- sensitivity to light and noise
- difficulty sleeping; insomnia
- digestive upset
- muscle and joint pain and stiffness
- changes in heart rhythm
- memory problems
- difficulty concentrating
- changes in mood
- neurological problems (tingling, weakness, trembling in the hands/feet)
- visual problems, including blurry vision, an inability to focus, etc
- extreme anxiety
- suppression of the immune system, and
- panic or anger attacks.
While MCS is controversial, if the symptoms of your MCS are severe enough to prevent you from being able to work, you may be able to collect Social Security benefits.
Qualifying for Disability Benefits
There are two types of Social Security benefits: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Regardless of the type of disability benefits you would like to receive from Social Security, the medical criteria for qualifying for benefits is the same. You can qualify for benefits by meeting the requirements of one of Social Security's medical listings, by "equaling" a listing, or by proving that you are unable to work any job.
Meeting or Equaling a Listing
To meet a listing, you must have an impairment that is listed in the Social Security “blue book” and meet all of the requirements of that listing. For those with MCS, if the result of the sensitivity affects a particular area of the body, you may meet a listing for that body part. The listings that related to MCS include:
- Listing 3.03 – Asthma
- Listing 8.05 – Dermatitis
- Listing 3.02 – Chronic pulmonary insufficiency
- Listing 4.05 – Recurrent arrhythmias
- Listing 2.07 – Disturbance of labyrinthine-vestibular function (vertigo)
- Listing 12.06 – Anxiety-related disorders
- Listing 11.02/03 – Epilepsy
- Listing 14.07 - Immune deficiency disorders, excluding HIV infection
To equal a listing, you must show that you have symptoms that are very similar the required in a listing and that are equal to those in the listing in both severity and duration.
Ability to Work in Certain Environments
Most disability applicants with MCS won't meet a listing, unless they have another diagnosis that is the subject of a listing. But if these applicants can prove that there is no environment that is safe for them to work in, they may be able to get benefits.
For individuals with MCS, the environment in which they live and work can be challenging to their health. They can have severe limitations in the types of places they can work in, depending on the type and number of chemicals they are sensitive to and how severe their reactions are.
Social Security will look at several different areas when considering whether or not you are disabled. They will look at your physical, mental, and sensory abilities using a Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) form. For those with MCS, the ability to do any type of physical activities (even non-strenuous activities) may be limited by breathing problems, vertigo, loss of feeling in your fingers, extreme fatigue, and muscle weakness. As for mental abilities,memory loss and confusion could cause significant difficulties for those with MCS in being able to understand and remember tasks enough to complete them. Changes in mood and anxiety could also limit the ability of an MCS sufferer from getting along with coworkers and being able to handle the stress of work.
Sensory abilities are the biggest source of impairment for individuals with MCS. Social Security will look at an individual’s ability to adapt to different environments. Those with MCS may be severely limited in the places where they can work. For example, certain chemicals found in the paint that was used to paint an office may set off a reaction that prevents the individual from being able to work. And because these chemical particles are so tiny that they generally go undetected by other individuals, it would be nearly impossible for an individual to know if they will be able to work in a certain environment until they are there.
If your sensitivities are few and adaptations can be made that allow you to continue to work (such as having you work in an office without a carpet), you will not be determined to be disabled. However, if you have multiple chemical sensitivities and there are no ways to prevent your severe disability due to MCS, you may be able to get disability benefits.
Also, if you have other impairments that are severe, the combined limitations of all of your impairments, including MCS, might be significant enough to prevent you from working, even if MCS alone would not be. For more information, see our article on how Social Security looks at multiple impairments.