The campaign to discredit MCS
Around 1990 the chemical industry in the United States got really concerned over how MCS could impact them and apparently decided to act. Within a few years people with MCS became widely regarded as psychiatric cases instead of having a legitimate illness.
Keywords: MCS, chemical sensitivity, environmental illness, history, opposition, chemical industry, environmental illness briefing paper
The gathering storm
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) was mostly known as environmental illness around 1990 when it seemed to gather a lot of interest. More than a hundred employees were sickened when the EPA installed new carpeting at their Washington, DC headquarters in 1987 and 1988. Some went on permanent disability (Toufexis 1988; Svoboda, 1997).
A store customer had to be hospitalized for 11 days after an employee sprayed her with a fragrance (LA Times, 1989).
There were complaints and lawsuits from employees working with toxic chemicals, such as at the aircraft manufacturer Boeing and at Silicon Valley chip factories (Sparks, 1990; Hembree, 1986).
The occupational medicine specialist Mark Cullen edited the 1987 book Workers with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities, which created the term MCS and provided the first working definition.
The professors Nicholas Ashford and Claudia Miller prepared a 1989 report on MCS for the New Jersey State Department of Health (the duo soon after published the landmark book Chemical Exposures: low levels - high stakes).
In 1990 several major newspapers published large and sympathetic stories about people with MCS, both in California (Minton, 1990; Wallace, 1990; Wysham, 1990) and in the New York Times (Belkin, 1990; Reinhold, 1990).
The television program Bad Chemistry aired in December 1990 on the TV station KQED in San Francisco (and possibly other PBS stations). It interviewed several physicians, including the outspoken MCS opponent Abba Terr, but was clearly sympathetic to the sick people.
MCS activists were actively demanding recognition and civil rights (Perlman, 1990; Hileman, 1991). They were slowly gaining ground.
The chemical industry was used to problems around their factories, so they placed them in areas where people were poor and politicians could be bought. Now the complaints were about the products themselves and the complainers were often highly educated.
It looked like a storm was gathering.
The CMA briefing paper
In 1990 the Chemical Manufacturers Association produced the "Environmental Illness" Briefing Paper. It was intended for their members only, but a copy was leaked to the MCS community (Credon, 1990).
The paper laid out the threat that MCS posed to their members and to a wide range of businesses, including hospitals, dry cleaners, lawn care, clothing, paints as well as many types of consumer products. The author thought it quite possible that legislators would accept MCS (or "misperceive environmental illness as medically legitimate" as the paper states it). That could lead to “enormous cost,” the paper warned.
A particular threat was the expensive lawsuits from people made sick by toxic products.
The paper then provided an overview of the scientific controversy, which was substantial, as there was very little actual science available. Four medical societies had also issued statements critical of MCS.
A little ridicule was also used:
The basic fallacy in their reasoning is that the observed symptoms may be induced by many other causes. An equivalent example of such erroneous reasoning is that if a rooster crows every morning before sunrise, then the sun rises because roosters crow. (pg 13)
What to do with the patients was very clear:
Emphasis should be placed on proper psychological diagnosis and treatment . . . (pg 14)
As for dealing with the press, the paper recommended:
Identify medical personnel familiar with environmental illness who can speak as experts . . . Informally offer guidance and background materials to reporters. . . . (pg 15)
The paper then discussed the current thinking of the courts, which were universally dismissive of MCS claims of tort and disability at the time.
MCS activists had attempted to get help from the state legislatures in California, Connecticut, Maryland and Florida with modest success. Both chambers of the California legislature passed a 1984 bill to fund research into MCS, but governor Deukmajian was convinced to veto it (California Legislature, 1984; Blonien, 1984).
These attempts were a threat to the chemical industry and needed to be opposed (pg 20):
Legislators and respective staff should be wary of legislation attempting to review and redress the issue of environmental illness . . .
Environmental illness bills should be thoroughly critiqued . . .
When considering a bill, legislators should remember that environmental illness is a gray area, one which has not proven its existence in the medical area and one which has no precedence in state statutes.
The briefing paper concludes with the suggestion that the chemical industry forms a coalition with other industry groups that have “an interest in placing environmental illness in its proper perspective,” it suggests insurance companies, the pesticide/herbicide industry, food industry, auto industry, aerospace industry, cleaning agent industry, homebuilders and many more. It then states:
. . . a coalition with the state medical association is absolutely necessary. (pg 22-23)
The briefing paper was intended for the CMA member firms and not for the public, but MCS activists quickly got hold of a copy. It was reprinted in the Fall 1990 issue of the MCS newsletter The New Reactor and is now also available on the web and in various archives.
A meeting to discuss the MCS problem was organized by the industry lobby group the American Petroleum Institute (API, 1990; Hileman, 1991).
It was held on November 7 and 8, 1990 and was titled "Perspective on Environmental Illness: an industry forum."
Nothing of what happened there leaked out to the MCS community, but the brief invitation to the meeting listed four invited speakers. They were a lobbyist from the Chemical Manufacturer's Association, a lawyer from the Mobil oil company, a director from the insurance company Aetna, and the allergist Dr. Abba Terr. Terr was an anti-MCS campaigner who had already published an article dismissive of MCS as a legitimate illness (Terr, 1986). In the following years he appeared in several newspaper articles and as a public speaker.
The new anti-MCS tone in the media appeared to start with a front-page article in the July 8, 1991, issue of Forbes magazine (Huber, 1991).
It compares MCS with tabloid stories of Princess Diana having an affair with Elvis Presley, and similar questionable ideas. One graphic shows a man freaking out when seeing the smoke plume from a large factory.
It uses strong language and the weird term "chemical AIDS" throughout the article, such as in:
... it's politically convenient for chemophobes to embrace the junk science of chemical AIDS.
The article derides some other issues that have since become more accepted, such as the chemical PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl). It also stated that health effects from power lines was a new and pending issue.
The article ends comparing lawsuits with witch hunts and the Spanish Inquisition.
The Chemical & Engineering News article
Just two weeks after the Forbes article, the industry magazine Chemical & Engineering News had a seventeen-page article about MCS. Surprisingly, it was a balanced article with input from people both dismissive and supportive of MCS (Hileman 1991).
It is a landmark article that describes the situation in 1991, where some physicians were afraid of being disciplined by medical licensing boards if they even suggested that people avoid certain chemical exposures. A time where the issue had become so emotionally charged that constructive dialogue was very difficult.
The article lays out the financial risk (pg 31):
Clearly, the economic stakes in this issue are very high . . . the chemical industry and other industries whose products seem to cause the illness could be faced with many more thousands of very costly lawsuits.
And there would be many other costs — to the individual . . . to the employer . . . to manufacturers . . . to building owners and managers . . . to the government . . . to medical insurance companies.
A spokesperson for a national MCS support group is quoted saying that they are contacted by five hundred new people each month who inquire about how to deal with MCS. Ten years before, it was a hundred each month. The problems seemed to be rising.
Industry front groups join in
The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) published two anti-MCS booklets, one was titled Unproved "Allergies": an Epidemic of Nonsense (Barrett, 1993; Orne, 1991/1993). They also sent out a press release warning about "doctors cashing in on environmental illness" (ACSH, 1993).
ACSH labeled itself as "nonprofit" and a "consumer education and public health institution directed and advised by over 200 prominent American physicians and scientists." However, Consumer Reports (1994) pointed out that ACSH had strong financial ties to the chemical industry and had argued in favor of many controversial products made by its funders, such as artificial sweeteners, growth hormones, urea formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI), asbestos and various pesticides.
Another organization was The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC). When the state of New Mexico wanted to study whether MCS should be considered a disability, representatives of TASSC opposed the study by claiming enough had been done already (Carruthers, 1996a, 1996b).
TASSC is also known for its work opposing regulation of tobacco products (Michaels, 2008).
The Fall 1990 issue of The New Reactor reported that the Chemical Manufacturers Association had approximately 175 member companies and twenty full-time lobbyists in Washington, D.C. The organization was in the process of establishing a Political Action Committee to funnel contributions to political candidates.
The Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute (ESRI) was founded in 1995 by Ronald Gots who was also president of National Medical Advisory Service which assisted companies who were sued by people with MCS. At the ESRI kick-off meeting Gots described MCS as "a peculiar manifestation of our technophobic and chemophobic society" (Risk Policy Report, 1995a).
ESRI was clearly created specifically to fight acceptance of MCS. They did no research but focused on disseminating anti-MCS opinions in sponsored newspaper articles, court cases involving MCS and at various medical conferences. They also sent representatives to testify against MCS when legislatures debated funding research or accommodations for people with MCS (Donnay, 1997; McCampbell, 2001; Ashford, 1998).
ESRI was secretive about its membership and sponsors, but it is known that its board of directors included several representatives from the chemical industry Donnay, 1997; McCampbel, 2001).
Another actor that showed up to oppose MCS was Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), which was organized by the pesticide industry, including Monsanto, Sandoz Agro, DowElanco, Dupont Agricultural Products and others (McCampbell, 1996, 2001; Rachel, 1995).
RISE sponsored a 1995 seminar on MCS. One of the speakers was the managing director of ESRI (Rachel, 1995).
In 1992 the city of Oakland, California, wanted to make their public meetings accessible to people with MCS. They intended to include a brief statement on their meeting notices asking people to voluntarily refrain from wearing perfumes in the room. The city was "hammered" by industry lobbyists and gave up on the idea (Hamilton, 1994).
Television turns negative
The tone in some media turned very negative. The American Broadcasting Corporation created several television programs dismissive of chemical pollution concerns and MCS. These included the programs Allergic to living and Allergic to the world.
For one of these anti-MCS programs, they attempted to entrap the MCS specialist, Dr. Grace Ziem, but it backfired (Carter, 1996a, 1996b).
The executive producer of most of these programs was married to a chemical industry PR agent, according to the watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (Grossman, 1994).
When the federal government built a special apartment building for people with MCS, it was mocked by ABCs "house doctor" on a news program, as well as by the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Reactor, 1994; Epstein, 1994).
The Baltimore symposium
A medical symposium was held over three days in the fall of 1995. It was co-sponsored by Johns Hopkins University/NIOSH, The International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology and the Nation Medical Advisory Service.
The National Medical Advisory Service had numerous times helped corporations fight people sickened by MCS in the courts. It shared both staff and offices with ESRI (mentioned above) and supplied the co-chair, symposium coordinator and an additional moderator for the symposium (MCSRR, 1995a).
The symposium was stacked with speakers who were biased against MCS. This included several of the usual physicians, as well as two lawyers who had assisted several corporations to fight MCS claims. There were also spokespersons from the Dow-Elanco chemical manufacturer and the Aetna insurance company (Symposium Agenda, 1995; MCSRR, 1995a; 1995b, 1995c; Risk Policy Report, 1995b).
A similar symposium was held in 1993, but very little information about it has survived.
The Berlin meeting
Another stacked meeting was held in Berlin in 1996. Here a new name for MCS was coined to distance it from the chemical causes and make the illness sound more psychological. The new name was: idiopathic environmental intolerance.
The coup-like meeting was protested by the scientific community, including the chairman of the meeting. As a result, the World Health Organization did not adopt the new name, though it became widely used by those opposing MCS (Abrams, 1996; Ashford, 1998: ch 9; Wilson, 1996; EI Wellspring, 2020).
The result of the campaign
By the middle 1990s, progress for MCS halted. Government agencies and others that had been in communication with the MCS activists stopped returning phone calls.
Funding for medical research dried up. Scientists who wanted to study MCS were told that "everybody knows" MCS is all psychological, so it didn't make sense to spend money on research (Meggs, 2017).
The U.S. Congress and Department of Veterans Affairs allocated funding in 1994 to build and operate an environmental control unit at a university. This was a crucial facility needed to prove MCS was a "legitimate" illness. But the money was simply never released, with no reason given (Twombly, 1994; Ashford, 1998: ch 8).
A 2018 study found only 320 MCS research articles published in medical journals, while there were 7453 articles about chronic fatigue syndrome and 9846 about fibromyalgia (Hu, 2018). Those two diseases are also controversial, but not a threat to powerful special interests.
The last medical conference about MCS was held in 2001 (Hu, 2018).
To what degree this remarkable turnaround was orchestrated by the unseen hand of the chemical industry is unknown. By nature, such campaigns are kept secret.
Documentation of the cigarette industry's efforts to suppress the truth about tobacco was leaked to the press, which is how the world found out. Unfortunately, very little has leaked out about the efforts to discredit MCS.
Discrediting those who got sick by falsely claiming they are mentally ill is not a new tactic. It was also done against people who were sickened by asbestos (Castleman, 1996).
There are many other well-documented stories about how special interests have fought inconvenient truths - and were often successful (McGarity, 2008; Michaels, 2008; Oreskes, 2010; Smith, 2009).
A few of these sordid stories have been made into Hollywood films, such as Erin Brockovich (2000) and Dark Waters (2019). These stories are small potatoes compared to the stakes on both sides of the MCS acceptance.
The campaign today
The campaign was so successful that not much has happened in the past twenty years. The ESRI organization has disbanded, the other front groups work on other issues.
It is only occasionally they raise their voice against MCS, like when in 2011 the Monell Chemical Senses Center called fragrance sensitivities "anxieties" that are promoted by some doctors (CMAJ, 2011). The Monell Center claims it is "independent," though their website admits they have more than fifty corporate sponsors from various chemical industry sectors (Monell, 2020).
Other MCS history articles
Abrams, Herbert et al. Letter to Directors-General, World Health Organization, International Labor Office, United Nations Environment Program, and Director of International Program on Chemical Safety, April 17, 1996. (Later published in Archives of Environmental Health.)
ACSH. "Beware of doctors cashing in on environmental illness," warns scientific panel (press release), American Council on Science and Health, June 1993.
API. Perspective on Environmental Illness: an industry forum, (meeting invitation), American Petroleum Institute, 1990.
Ashford, Nicholas and Claudia Miller. Chemical exposures: low levels and high stakes (second edition), New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1998.
Barrett, Stephen. Unproven "Allergies": an epidemic of nonsense, American Council on Science and Health, 1993.
Belkin, Lisa. Sufferers find haven from chemical world, The New York Times, December 2, 1990. (Front page).
Blonien, Rodney (legislative secretary for governor George Deukmejian). Letter to MCS activist Susan Molloy, October 29, 1984.
California Legislature. Assembly Bill 3587, introduced February 17, 1984.
Carruthers, Garrey and Herman Staudenmayer. Chemical sensitivities: know facts, Las Cruces Sun News, June 24, 1996.
Carruthers, Garrey and Herman Staudenmayer. Analyze syndrome before making policy, Albuquerque Journal, July 6, 1996.
Carter, Bill (1996a). ABC charged in secret taping, New York Time, October 28, 1996.
Carter, Bill (1996b). Stossel case to be dropped, New York Times, December 7, 1996.
Castleman, Barry. Asbestos: medical and legal aspects (4th edition), Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Aspen Law and Business, 1996.
Consumer Reports. The ACSH: forefront of science, or just a front? Consumer Reports, May 1994.
CMAJ. Scent-free policies generally unjustified, Canadian Medical Association Journal, April 5, 2011
Credon, Karen. "Environmental illness" briefing paper, Chemical Manufacturers Association, 1990.
Donnay, Albert. Junk science meets junk journalism, American Public Health Association annual meeting, November 11, 1997.
EI Wellspring. How opponents of MCS and EHS created the term Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance, www.eiwellspring.org, 2020.
Epstein, Keith. $1.8 million buys 11 units for 'sensitive' Californians, Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 10, 1994.
Grossman, Karl. Victor Neufeld's anti-environmental spin continues, Extra! Update, Fairness and accuracy in reporting, June 1994.
Hamilton, Denise. Your perfume is making them sick: overwhelmed by the scents of chemicals in products and in the air, some activists are leading the push for a more fragrance-free environment, Los Angeles Times, December 15, 1994.
Hembree, Diana and Sarah Henry. Baffling ills hit 'Silicon Valley' workers, The Arizona Republic (News America Syndicate), December 14, 1986.
Hileman, Bette. Multiple chemical sensitivity, Chemical and Engineering News, July 22, 1991.
Hu, Howard and Carnelia Baines. Recent insights into 3 underrecognized conditions, Canadian Family Physician, 64, June 2018.
Huber, Peter. Junk science in the courtroom, Forbes, July 8, 1991.
LA Times. L. A. Woman gets $75,000 for Bloomingdale's spritz, Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1989.
McCampbell, Ann. Industry muddies water on syndrome (op-ed), Albuquerque Journal, July 19, 19996.
McCampbell, Ann. Multiple chemical sensitivity under siege, Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, January 2001.
McGarity, Thomas and Wendy Wagner. Bending science: how special interests corrupt public health research, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008.
MCSRR, 1995a. Memorandum to planning committee, MCS: State of the science symposium, MCS Referral and Resources, June 6, 1995.
MCSRR, 1995b. Memorandum for public release, MCS Referral and Resources, June 6, 1995.
MCSRR, 1995c. Multiple chemical sensitivities: state of the science symposium - undisclosed conflicts of interest among co-sponsors, staff and speakers, MCS Referral and Resources, undated (1995).
Meggs, William. History of the rise and fall of environmental medicine in the United States, Ecopsychology ,9, June 2017.
Michaels, David. Doubt is their product, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Minton, Torri. Allergic to the whole world, San Francisco Chronicle, February 27, 1990.
Monell. Monell Center website section for "Support & Sponsorship," accessed January 2020.
Oreskes, Naomi and Erik M. Conway. Merchants of doubt, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010.
Orne, Thomas and Paul Benedetti (Stephen Barrett, editor). Multiple chemical sensitivity, American Council on Science and Health, 1991/1993.
Perlman, David. Protesters disrupt allergy conference, San Francisco Chronicle, November 10, 1990.
Rachel (Rachel's Environmental & Health Weekly). Corporate manipulation of scientific evidence linking chemical exposures to human disease: a case in point - cigarette science at Johns Hopkins, October 19, 1995.
Reactor. Dr. Dean: Still shooting fish in a barrel, The New Reactor, July/August 1994.
Reinhold, Robert. When life is toxic, The New York Times Magazine, September 16, 1990.
Risk Policy Report (1995a). New multiple chemical sensitivities research group formed, Risk Policy Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, June 16, 1995.
Risk Policy Report (1995b). Sparks fly over upcoming multiple chemical sensitivity symposium, Risk Policy Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, October 20, 1995.
Smith, Rick and Bruce Lourie. Slow death by rubber duck, Counterpoint Press, 2009.
Sparks, P.J. et al. An outbreak of illness among aerospace workers, Western Journal of Medicine 153, 28-33, July 1990.
Symposium Agenda. Multiple chemical sensitivities: State of the science symposium, The International Society of Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Johns Hopkins University/NIOSH, National Medical Advisory Service, 1995.
Svoboda, Terese. Every breath she takes, Utne Reader, March-April, 1997.
Toufexis, Anastasia et al. Got that stuffy, run-down feeling?, TIME, June 6, 1988.
Terr, Abba. Environmental illness: a clinical review of 50 cases, Archives of Internal Medicine 146, 145-149, 1986.
Twombly, Renee. MCS: a sensitive issue. Environmental Health Perspectives, 102, September 1994. (see sidebar: Gulf War Veterans.)
Wallace, Amy. The last resort, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 1990.
Wilson, John. Gots misrepresents workshop conclusions on internet, Our Toxic Times, May 1996.
Wysham, Daphne. Canaries in a coal mine, San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 4, 1990.
2017 (updated 2021)