One in five (18.9%) Australians are suffering from chemical sensitivity with more than one-third (6.5%) diagnosed with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), according to new research by the University of Melbourne.
Research author, Anne Steinemann, is Professor of Civil Engineering and chair of sustainable cities at the University.
“Multiple chemical sensitivities is a serious disease that is often caused and worsened by exposure to petrochemical sources such as pesticides, solvents, new building materials and fragranced items,” Professor Steinemann said.
“Even low-level exposure can inflict a range of adverse health effects such as migraines, breathing difficulties, cognitive impairment, seizures and asthma attacks.”
First published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the research found that the prevalence of chemical sensitivity has increased by more than 200 per cent and diagnosed MCS has increased more than 300 per cent among American adults in the past decade.
Across America, an estimated 55 million adults have chemical sensitivity or MCS.
The results mirror Professor Steinemann’s earlier research in the United States that found one in four Americans suffer from chemical sensitivity, prompting calls to reduce exposures to everyday chemical pollutants.
“While Australia is not yet at the same levels as the US, it appears we’re on the same pollution path,” Professor Steinemann said.
Using an online survey with a national random sample of 1098 people, the study found MCS is widespread in the Australian population, affecting an estimated one million adults nationwide, with chemical sensitivity affecting a further two million.
The study also found 74.6% of people with MCS are asthmatic and 91.5% with MCS report health problems from fragranced products, such as air fresheners and deodorisers, laundry products, candles, cleaning supplies and personal care products.
For 55.4% of people with MCS, the severity of these health problems can be disabling. In addition, 52.1% of Australians with MCS lost work days or a job in the past year due to illness from fragranced products in the workplace.
“The products that are problematic for people with MCS are also major sources of air pollutants. Reducing use and exposure to these products benefits not only your own and other people’s health, but also the environment," she said.
Steinemann recommends choosing products without any fragrance and has called for the implementation of fragrance-free policies in workplaces, healthcare facilities, schools and other indoor environments.
While fragrance-free policies are common in the United States where Multiple Chemical Sensitivity(MCS) is recognised in the Disability Act, similar policies do not exist here.
Steinemann said the policies should apply to workplaces and shared public environments, including hospitals and schools.
“These policies are a logical and prudent step, because of the effect fragrances have on people with chemical sensitivities,” she said.
“Many Australians have had time off work, or have had to avoid public places, because of illnesses such as migraines and breathing difficulties brought on by exposure to fragrances used in air-fresheners, cleaning supplies and other products.”
MCS is used to describe adverse health effects brought on by exposure to common chemical pollutants often at low levels.
Of those in the survey who said they have MCS due to the presence of fragranced products:
52.1% said they have lost workdays or a job in the past year;
55.4% reported debilitating or partially debilitating health effects; and
77.5% said they are prevented from full access to indoor public spaces.
And among this group the most commonly reported health effects were migraines (46.5%) and asthma attacks (39.4%).
The study argues that reducing exposure to "common chemically formulated products" is critical for the health of an estimated three million Australians with MCS.
Local air conditioning contractor, Mia Sheffield, believes most employees would resist the introduction of a fragrance free workplace.
“It doesn't get treated the same as, say, noise pollution,” she said.
“Increased collaboration means most workplaces today are shared environments so its a bigger issue than it was previously.
“But for some reason chemical sensitivities aren't always taken seriously.”
The chemical pollution problem has been accompanied by a rise in office noise pollution which has reached epidemic levels, according to a study by Oxford Economics.
The 2018 study interviewed 500 senior executives and non-manager employees from a range of industries. Participants hailed from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, China, Australia, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway.