Chemical sensitivity: pathophysiology or pathopsychology?

Clin Ther. 2013 May;35(5):572-7. doi: 10.1016/j.clinthera.2013.04.003. Epub 2013 May 1.


Background: Escalating numbers of people throughout the world are presenting to primary care physicians, allergists, and immunologists with myriad clinical symptoms after low-level exposure to assorted everyday chemicals such as smoke, perfumes, air fresheners, paints, glues, and other products. This clinical state is referred to by various diagnostic labels, including multiple chemical sensitivity disorder, environmental intolerance, chemical sensitivity (CS), and sensitivity-related illness, and has been the subject of much controversy within the health care community.

Objective: The goal of this study was to provide a brief overview of the etiology, pathogenesis, clinical presentation, and management of CS. An evaluation of the medical community's response to this emerging diagnosis was also explored.

Methods: This review was prepared by assessing available medical and scientific literature from MEDLINE, as well as by reviewing numerous books, toxicology journals, conference proceedings, government publications, and environmental health periodicals. A primary observation, however, is that there is limited scientific literature available on the issue of CS. The format of a traditional integrated review was chosen because such reviews play a pivotal role in scientific research and professional practice in medical issues with limited primary study and uncharted clinical territory.

Results: The sensitization state of CS seems to be initiated by a significant toxic exposure, occurring as a 1-time event, or on surpassing a threshold of toxicity after toxicant accrual from repeated lower-level exposures. Once sensitized through a toxicant-induced loss of tolerance, individuals exposed to inciting triggers such as minute amounts of diverse everyday chemicals may experience various clinical and immune sequelae, sometimes involving lymphocyte, antibody, or cytokine responses. Precautionary avoidance of inciting triggers will prevent symptoms, and desensitization immunotherapy or immune suppression may improve symptoms in some cases. Sustained resolution of the CS state occurs after successful elimination of the accrued body burden of toxicants through natural mechanisms of toxicant bioelimination and/or interventions of clinical detoxification. Despite extensive clinical evidence to support the veracity of this clinical state, many members of the medical community are reluctant to accept this condition as a pathophysiologic disorder.

Conclusions: The emerging problem of ubiquitous adverse toxicant exposures in modern society has resulted in escalating numbers of individuals developing a CS disorder. As usual in medical history, iconoclastic ideas and emerging evidence regarding novel disease mechanisms, such as the pathogenesis of CS, have been met with controversy, resistance, and sluggish knowledge translation.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies / immunology
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Desensitization, Immunologic / methods
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Immunotherapy / methods
  • Lymphocytes / immunology
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / physiopathology*
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / psychology
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / therapy


  • Antibodies
  • Cytokines