Bad Chemistry


According to the ad, you should be able to buy a luxury car when you’re at your peak, health-wise. The irony is that doing so could make you sick. In 2001 the CSIRO found (link here) ‘high levels of air toxic emissions in new motor vehicles for up to six months and longer after they leave the showroom.’

Among the chemicals used in the carpets and the plastic mouldings, the researchers found benzene (a known human carcinogen), acetone (a mucosal irritant), cyclohexanone (a possible human carcinogen), and xylene isomers (a foetal development toxic agent).

Image from

Dr Steve Brown, head of CSIRO’s Air Quality Control research, recommended that new car owners ‘make sure there is plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while they drive, for at least six months after the vehicle has been purchased.’ He conceded that this may be difficult ‘in heavy traffic due to air toxics from car exhausts’ and that ideally, we should be building cars with ‘interior materials that produce low emissions.’

You can find these sorts of reports weekly, if not daily. In June last year researchers from Washington State University reported that studies on rats showed that ‘man-made environmental poisons may alter genetic activity, giving rise to diseases that pass down at least four generations.’ After exposure to commonly used agricultural chemicals, the rats were passing low sperm rates and poor fertility down the ancestral line.

This would not be news to Australian Vietnam Veterans who fought for years to have official recognition of the suffering caused by exposure to herbicides 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D; more commonly known as Agent Orange. The Vets’ website (link here) will tell you that a by-product of Agent Orange is ‘the extremely poisonous substance TCDD, or dioxin.’ Dioxins are well known to be potent, cancer-causing agents that also cause reproductive harm.

Last month, just in time for the festive season banquets, the NSW Government banned the fishing of prawns from Sydney Harbour because of dioxin levels ‘three to four times the European Standard.’ It was the first time the prawns had been tested and it was reported that ‘urgent testing [was]being done on harbour fish.’ This has happened despite the Federal Government’s commitment in the 2001-02 Budget to a four-year National Dioxins Program to reduce dioxins and dioxin-like substances in the environment.

So what is all this exposure to chemicals doing to us? If we don’t have cancer or any other recognisable major illness, have we escaped? Not necessarily.

Anyone who feels sick when a heavily perfumed person walks by or who rushes into the weekender to rip the room-freshener out of the power socket will know a little about exposure to chemicals. And then there are the people who have had to move to a rural area and build a home from chemical-free materials because they believe they have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and like the Vietnam Vets, they struggle to have the condition recognised.

Last year, South Australia’s parliamentary Social Development Committee released its findings from an inquiry into Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). They heard from 22 witnesses and received 167 written submissions. While finding that a defining feature was the ‘polarisation of views on the cause and mechanisms of MCS’ and that ‘at this point in time there is no evidence to conclusively support any one theory,’ the Committee did concede that:

Research that associates a great many chemicals with initiating or eliciting MCS symptoms cannot, however, be ignored. Of these chemicals, some research indicates that herbicides such as Glyphosate, pesticides, solvents, and sterilisers, have been associated with the condition. Evidence presented to the Inquiry suggests that once MCS symptoms are established, common chemicals in everyday products such as perfumes, aftershaves, and deodorants, as well as in paint and household cleaning products, can trigger symptoms.

The Committee also recognised that those who fulfill the ‘diagnostic criteria for the condition can suffer significant illness and disability,’ and that ‘the debilitating nature of MCS symptoms can cause social isolation and great hardship.’

Several recommendations were made including the monitoring of the prevalence of MCS in South Australia and data collection to enable a trend analysis, the need for further research in particular into the impact on fertility and practical steps such as local councils developing No-Spray Registers that identify MCS sufferers living in their communities.

So how prevalent is MCS in Australia? Surveys conducted by the South Australian Department of Health in 2002 and 2004 (and cited by the Social Development Committee) ‘suggest that 0.9 per cent of the population may have MCS, while an estimated 16.4 per cent may experience some chemical sensitivity.’ These figures must be very hard to determine, though, given the reluctance by many to even acknowledge the existence of MCS.

Recognition can, however, come from unsuspecting quarters. Backyard Blitz, a reality TV show where a team renovates someone’s backyard, recently made over the yard of a MCS sufferer (link here). Yvan Valenduc, whose condition was triggered during his work with chemicals as a dental technician, was given a yard with low allergy plants and non-toxic materials. For example, petroleum-based chemicals could not be used so a coating of boiled linseed oil was applied to fence posts to provide protection against fungus and insects.

In the Social Development Committee’s report summary, the Hon Gail Gago MLC, concluded that:

The Committee believes there are a number of ways in which MCS sufferers can be supported until the medical status of MCS is clarified. It is the intention of the Committee that the recommendations presented pave the way toward the greater dialogue, understanding and accommodation of the condition, and greater compassion and support for sufferers.

Going by at least one submission to the inquiry, it would appear that the medical status needs to be clarified sooner, rather than later:

I can understand why doctors regard MCS with suspicion. They like dealing with direct, cause “effect relationships and MCS is not that simple. Personally, I am absolutely convinced MCS is real, that it is serious and probably just the tip of the iceberg. (Dr David Suzuki)

And if such pleas fail to get a response, we can always argue from an economic perspective. In 2001, the CSIRO estimated that indoor air pollution alone cost the Australian community in excess of $10 billion in illness and lost productivity.

National Toxics Network

The Parliament of South Australia’s Social Development Committee report on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity can be downloaded here but is large (21.84 MB).

You can email the Committee Secretary, Robyn Schutte, for a hard copy:

Australian Chemical Trauma Alliance Inc

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.