OBJECTIVE: To review critically the scientific literature on multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). Definitions of MCS vary but, for this review, a broad definition of MCS was adopted as symptoms in more than one organ system elicited by various unrelated chemicals at very low levels of exposure. METHODS: A systematic literature search identified several hundred references from which key papers were selected. Two questions are considered, does MCS exist and what causes MCS. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: Despite extensive literature on the existence of MCS, there is no unequivocal epidemiological evidence; quantitative exposure data are singularly lacking; and qualitative exposure data are, at best, patchy. There is also some evidence to suggest that MCS is sometimes used as an indiscriminate diagnosis for undiagnosed disorders. Despite this, the collated evidence suggests that MCS does exist although its prevalence generally seems to be exaggerated. Many causal mechanisms have been proposed, some suggesting a physical origin--such as MCS reflecting an immunological overload (total body load)--others favouring a psychological basis--such as MCS symptoms being evoked as part of a conditioned response to previous trauma. The available evidence seems most strongly to support a physical mechanism involving sensitisation of part of the midbrain known as the limbic system. However, it is increasingly being recognised that the psychological milieu of a person can considerably influence physical illness, either through generating a predisposition to disease or in the subsequent prognosis. Work is needed to establish the prevalence of MCS and to confirm or refute selected causal mechanisms.
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