Saturday, January 13, 2007

Half a Million Canadians MCS Diagnosed

Statistics Canada released a report Friday estimating that 2.4% of Canadians over age 11 have been diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). That's about 643,000 souls. The government agency conducted a survey asking participants about MCS, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Fibromyalgia, all classed as diseases with "medically unexplained physical symptoms," or MUPS. Over 5% of the Canadian population, more than a million folks, are believed to have at least one of the three MUPS, with MCS being the most prevalent. Hard to say what the figures really mean when it seems that half the potential diagnosers don't believe in the existence of one or more of the diseases, but onward...

What else did the study purport to tell us about our north-of-the-border comrades with MCS? They are more than twice as likely to be female as male. The middle aged are harder hit than the young or the old. (The grim thought occurs to me that MCS may prevent old age.) Compared to the general population more people with MCS are likely to class themselves as previously rather than currently married. MCS is the most frequent in the lowest income bracket. And, finally, there is a relatively high percentage of self-reported mental illness and dissatisfaction with life among the chemically sensitive.

Careful, now, with those cause-and-effect conclusions (and Statistics Canada was admirably so). Granted, getting MCS isn't going to change your gender--except in truly exceptional circumstances--so I'd say we can safely consider double X chromosomes to be a risk factor for the disease (as long as we assume that men come forward and are diagnosed as readily as women). But consider that MCS could drive you into debt, drive you crazy, and drive off your spouse, or failing that, drive him to the grave. On the other hand, being poor might mean you eat poorly or breathe polluted air and thus are more likely to get sick. Who knows what causes what.

And, don't forget, when two things are found together a third factor may be causal. Being female contributes to the likelihood of both poverty and MCS, and obviously in some ways that aren't related to each other. Or, considering the mental health issue, I'd guess that traumatic stress could soften up your neurons for both MCS and, say, depression. Or all those medications you're taking could prime two pumps. Or all those pesticides you're eating. All that perfume you're breathing. Just speculating.

How do the U.S. and Canada compare in terms of MCS incidence and the number of chemicals circulating in the two countries? State-side studies of MCS prevalence have usually come out with at least slightly higher estimates. One surprising study showed that about 6% of Californians had been diagnosed with MCS and about 16% said they were "allergic or unusually sensitive to everyday chemicals." According to an article in the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail, Canada has a mere 35,000 chemicals in common use, while there are over twice that many floating around in the U.S. I'm sorry, these facts are no doubt unrelated, but I couldn't keep myself from pairing them.

Of course the label "medically unexplained" is subtly pejorative and in line with efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the diseases. Many other illnesses have mechanisms that aren't understood and yet the fact isn't included in their names. The MUPS label also says nothing about the real associations and possible common biology of the diseases. But what do I know; I'm just a MUPPETTE (marginalized, unemployed, poor patient entertaining thoughts of toppling the establishment). It's probably best to listen to those pulling the strings, who are PAID-OFF (pompous, arrogant, ignorant doctors offering farcical folderol).

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