Disability Claims for Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

You'll have an easier time getting disability benefits for MCS if you have additional medical conditions.

By , J.D. · Albany Law School
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Many people have sensitivities to particles in the air they breathe, the food they eat, and the things they touch. These sensitivities can range from mild, common allergies to severe, potentially debilitating reactions.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a term used for people who have significant negative physical reactions to a wide range of chemicals found in everyday objects and environments. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you might have trouble working full time.

What Are the Causes of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity?

Whether MCS—also referred to as "environmental sensitivity" or "idiopathic environmental illness"—constitutes a diagnosable condition is a source of debate in the medical community. Doctors don't currently have any known tests to identify and treat MCS, which means they disagree about whether MCS is a distinct diagnosis or connected to another disorder.

The causes of MCS are unknown. Doctors who acknowledge MCS as a separate diagnosis think the symptoms may be the result of a process called sensitization, which happens when your body is exposed to a chemical for the first time and then "overreacts" to any subsequent exposure, no matter how small. Other doctors point to recent studies suggesting that MCS is the result of an underlying anxiety disorder.

Is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity a Disability?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) can't award disability based on only symptoms without objective findings such as the results of a blood test or imaging like an X-ray. But if you have other medically documented conditions, additional restrictions from your MCS symptoms might be the tipping point for the SSA to find that you can't do any jobs.

Several substances are commonly attributed to MCS symptoms, including:

  • synthetic fabrics found in upholstery or carpeting
  • fumes from paint, gas, or aerosol spray
  • cleaning products
  • plastics or petroleum products, and
  • perfumes or fragrances.

Symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity

Many of the symptoms of MCS will be familiar to anybody who's had an allergic reaction, such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, or sore throat. But some of the symptoms can be more intense, and can interfere significantly with your daily routine. They include problems with the following body systems:

  • respiratory (difficulty breathing, asthma, sinus irritation)
  • neurological (dizziness, headaches, tingling sensations, light and noise sensitivity)
  • musculoskeletal (pain and stiffness in your muscles and joints)
  • cardiovascular (chest pain, irregular heartbeat, fatigue)
  • skin (rashes, itches, eczema), and
  • mental (difficulty concentrating or focusing, confusion, panic attacks).

Even though doctors don't currently have a test for MCS, Social Security wants to see that you're regularly visiting a doctor for these symptoms, especially if you're receiving treatment for other diagnosed medical disorders. The agency is required to look at the combined effects of your conditions when determining whether you're disabled.

How Social Security Will Decide Whether Your MCS Symptoms Are Disabling

When you first submit your application for Social Security benefits, a disability claims examiner will review your file to determine whether you have any severe impairments. Severe impairments are conditions or disorders that interfere significantly with your activities of daily living (ADLs).

Because MCS is divisive in the medical community, the SSA might not recognize MCS as a severe impairment by itself. But if you have other severe impairments, the SSA is more likely to find that the combined effect of MCS with your other disorders is enough to find you disabled.

Your Residual Functional Capacity and Environmental Restrictions

The SSA will review your medical records and your ADLs to determine your residual functional capacity (RFC). Your RFC is a set of restrictions that takes into account the limitations caused by your medical conditions. Social Security uses your RFC to determine the most you're capable of doing in a work setting.

Depending on your other impairments, your RFC will likely contain physical restrictions (also called "exertional limitations") on how much weight you can lift and how long you can stand. You can also have environmental limitations that affect the types of jobs you're able to perform. These can include restrictions on working around certain chemicals, gasses, or materials.

The SSA very rarely awards disability benefits based only on environmental restrictions, which is why it's important for you to document all other medical conditions that you're getting treated for. But, while solely environmental restrictions aren't typically disabling, in certain circumstances they can "piggy-back" your RFC into ruling out all work for you.

For example, if you're over the age of 50 and unable to perform your past relevant work because your old work environment involved exposure to substances that triggered MCS symptoms, and you also have back pain that prevents you from lifting more than 10 pounds, you could be found disabled under the medical-vocational grid rules.

Winning a Disability Claim for MCS

Applying for disability due to MCS can be challenging, but not impossible. The SSA tends to be skeptical of claims that can't be backed up with traditional medical diagnostics, although some applicants have had successful claims with similar issues, such as conversion disorder.

Your best chance at success is having strong medical records that include evidence of additional impairments (preferably with imaging or tests), regular visits to a doctor or therapist, and—ideally—a medical source statement from your treating provider. You might also consider having a friend or family member who is familiar with your MCS struggles write a support letter.

Updated August 12, 2022

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