Increased cardiopulmonary disease risk in a community-based sample with chemical odor intolerance: implications for women's health and health-care utilization

Arch Environ Health. Sep-Oct 1998;53(5):347-53. doi: 10.1080/00039899809605720.


Chemical intolerance, or reported illness from odors of common environmental chemicals (e.g., car exhaust, pesticides), is emerging as an important environmental and public health-care issue. Epidemiologic methods provide relevant heuristic devices for studies of complex disorders, such as chemical intolerance. The authors examined personal and reported parental cardiopulmonary disease prevalence rates in a community sample of chemically intolerant and control individuals. A county government (Tucson, Arizona) employee and kin subset (N = 181; 113 households) completed standard health questionnaires. Investigators determined chemical intolerance (n = 41/181) from self-reports of individuals who felt "moderately" to "severely" ill from exposure to at least three of five chemicals (i.e., car exhaust, pesticides, paint, new carpet, and perfume) on a Chemical Odor Intolerance Index. The authors chose the control group (n = 57/181) on the basis of self-reports of "never" feeling ill on the Chemical Odor Intolerance Index. The chemically intolerant group, which primarily comprised women (78% versus 51% of controls, p < .05), was significantly more likely to report-and to have sought--medical attention for heart problems, bronchitis, asthma, and pneumonia. Reports of heart problems in the chemically intolerant index cases and the occurrence of heart disease in both of their parents were significant (Fisher's p < .05). The chemically intolerant individuals were also significantly more likely to report maternal histories of chest problems (e.g., inhalant allergens, tuberculosis) than controls. The findings of the study suggested that the chemically intolerant individuals (a preponderance of whom were women [sex-related risk]) were more likely to have (a) reported cardiopulmonary problems (i.e., greater health risk); (b) actively sought medical care for these problems (i.e., increased medical utilization); and (c) reported more parental illnesses-particularly heart disease, asthma, and diabetes (i.e., genetic risk). Additional community-based studies of chemical intolerance are needed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arizona / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / genetics
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environmental Illness / epidemiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / epidemiology*
  • Lung Diseases, Obstructive / genetics
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / epidemiology*
  • Odorants*
  • Risk Factors
  • Women's Health Services / statistics & numerical data*