BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

24 September 2014
Inside Out: Surprising Stories, Familiar Places

BBC Homepage
Inside Out
East Midlands
North East
North West
South East
South West
West Midlands
Yorks & Lincs
Go to BBC1 programmes page (image: BBC1 logo)

Contact Us

   Inside Out - East: Monday February 14, 2005

Multiple chemical sensitivity

Judith and Lindsey of Allergy UK
Household cleaning products make life a misery for those with MCS

For most people, their home is a sanctuary, a place to retreat to at the end of a busy day. But for those with multiple chemical sensitivity, 'home sweet home', becomes a toxic hell.

Inside Out meets two women with multiple chemical sensitivity or MCS, to discover how allergies and intolerances have affected their daily lives.

Catherine Hislop has multiple chemical sensitivity.

So debilitating are her allergies, Catherine has been unable to work for the last 10 years.

"The eyes sting, then underneath the eyes is all swollen up," she explains.

Catherine Hislop
Catherine's allergies have left her unable to work for 10 years

"It's like your throat is closing up and when that happens you can't breathe properly."

It took seven years for Catherine to discover that household cleaning products were the route of her allergy.

If Catherine comes into contact with any chemicals she is intolerant to she suffers a violent allergic reaction including stomach cramps, diarrhoea and skin rashes.

The secret ingredient

Melanie Garnham also has MCS, and has been able to pinpoint the precise chemical she is allergic to - formaldehyde.

This chemical is present in many household products including deodorant, mouthwash, air-freshener and many other cleaning solutions.

Melanie Garnham
"If I put something on my hands they would come up very red and they would eventually blister and weep."
Melanie Garnham

To add to the confusion, formaldehyde can be listed on bottles under one of five different names.

"The trouble I have is it will say 'ingredients contain preservatives', but it doesn't list what they are," explains Melanie.

In spite of her allergy, Melanie is still able to work, although as a midwife, she admits her heart sinks when a product is changed at work.

"If I put something on my hands they would come up very red and they would eventually blister and weep," she says.

All in the mind?

Despite being a recognised illness, both women have experienced difficulties convincing doctors that everyday products are causing the reaction.

"There are a number of people in the medical profession who would argue that it doesn't actually exist."
Dr Andy Jones, lecturer in Environmental Sciences

"I was just told it's a contact dermatitis - a professional hazard because I wear rubber gloves and wash my hands a lot at work," says Melanie.

Dr Andy Jones, a lecturer in Environmental Sciences, explains: "Multiple chemical sensitivity is a very contentious issue.

"There are a number of people in the medical profession who would argue that it doesn't actually exist."

Dr Damien Downing is one of only a handful of doctors in the UK who treats patients with MCS.

At his private clinic in Whelby, Essex, Dr Downing dismisses claims it is a psychological illness rather than a physical one.

"It's a clear physical based illness," he says.

"It's in the brain certainly, but it's also in every other cell in the body besides - it's very real.

"I've seen people who are effectively housebound and even bedbound by it."

Dr Damien Downing
Dr Damien Downing treats patients with MCS

Catherine and Melanie are one of a growing number of people with allergies to household products and toiletries.

The increase, suggests Dr Downing, stems from the infinite number of chemical combinations found in products.

"I think it comes from over-exposure to things we weren't designed for," he suggests.

"Chemical companies produce four million registered chemicals and we never know what we're exposed to at any one time."

Cleaning with the enemy

The British Allergy Foundation has set up Allergy UK to provide support and information to people with chemical allergies.

"People call us when they're at their wits end, they don't know what's affecting them," explains Lindsey McManus of Allergy UK.

"When we get talking they realise it's the everyday things we use."

Those with chemical allergies do not just endure the physical discomfort of an allergic reaction, but often, unable to get help from their GP or even identify the product they are reacting to, suffer great psychological strain as well.

Top tips for allergy free cleaning

Air freshener
Place one teaspoon baking powder soda in a spray bottle and add to it two tablespoons of white vinegar and two cups of clean water. After the foaming has stopped replace the spray top and shake well.

Ant repellent
Wipe down the affected area with a solution of half vinegar and half water to keep ants at bay.

Bottle cleanser
To remove sediment stains from bottles, jars and vases. Half fill with white vinegar and shake well. Leave for a few minutes, and then wash in the normal way.

Burnt pots and pans
Cover the burnt area with equal quantities of water and vinegar. Bring to the boil, remove from heat and soak overnight.

Windows, mirrors, and glass
To clean glass add two tablespoons of vinegar to a small bucket of warm water. To finish off, buff the surface with a clean dry cloth.

Carpet shampoo
Add one cup of vinegar to five litres of water. Clean the carpet with a soft brush dipped in the solution. In case the carpet colours are not fast; always test on an inconspicuous area of the carpet before using.

Slimy sponges
Soak the sponge in one tablespoon of vinegar mixed with 570 ml (20 fluid ounces) of water for one hour. Rinse thoroughly afterwards.

Smelly drains
Boil 200ml (8floz) of vinegar and pour directly into the drain. Leave for ten minutes before using the drain.

Microwave ovens
Smells can be difficult to remove from the microwave oven, particularly fish. Try heating a quarter cup of vinegar diluted with one cup of water in the microwave.

Source and full list available at: Allergy UK

Judith May of Allergy UK has worked with patients who have become so desperate they have been prescribed anti-depressants.

Some were threatened with the prospect of being struck-off surgeries for becoming a nuisance and one became so desperate, they contemplated suicide.

Good old days

When it comes to cleaning without suffering a reaction, Lindsey insists that 'grandmother knows best'.

"The old fashioned ways - hot water, borax, bicarb', white vinegar - you'll get things clean, but they won't give off nasty chemicals," she says.

Whilst Allergy UK provides advice on alternative cleaning products, Melanie has found a solution that even those who don't have MCS may find agreeable.

Daughters Hannah and Sally undertake all the household chores.

"The girls don't get cross, they're patient with me, they do understand," says Melanie.

However Catherine worries that her allergies are a great burden to her children.

"Over the years I've had stages where I've been very ill, not even been able to get out of bed. They've had to grow up very quick," she says.

The need to act

The manufacturers of chemical cleaning products were invited to contribute, but were unable to provide a qualified spokesperson to pass comment.

This doesn't come as a surprise to Dr Downing who says, "I find it hard to know what they'd say that would appear constructive, because as far as I'm aware, no steps are being taken to protect the consumer.

"They will have to take note sooner or later because the problem is getting bigger and bigger."

See also ...

Inside Out: East
Buffalo milk

On the rest of Inside Out
Life threatening allergies
Food sensitivity

Allergy guide

On the rest of the web
Allergy UK
Action Against Allergy

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Inside Out Archive

Inside Out: East
View our story archive to see articles from previous series.

BBC Where I Live

Find local news, entertainment, debate and more ...

Beds, Herts & Bucks

Meet your
Inside Out
David Whiteley

David Whiteley
your local Inside Out presenter.

Contact us
Contact the East team with the issues that affect you.

Free email updates

Keep in touch and receive your free and informative Inside Out updates.


Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

Bonni Southey
Fantastic, that the huge problems with the plethora of UNTESTED chemicals are coming to the general attention of folk. Sad that it has to be at the expense of good health. Our government and regulatory bodies are letting us down - they should be testing chemicals to see if they are suitable for use by humans; and then they should be testing them in tandem with all the other chemicals they will potentially be mixed with, to see how seriously negative the effects would be when mixed and then used. The skin isn't the barrier it was thought to be - we are all absorbing through it all the time. That's why Nicotine patches work!! There ARE companies doing fantastic work to avoid the toxic overload, and in fact remedy the physical problems through remedial nutrition. I endorse Neways and Enjo as the leading companies in this area - but you won't find the products on the supermarket shelves. Find an independent distributor who can help. Most people are also deficient in minerals - especially MSM, or organic sulphur, which is one of the leading causes of allergic reactions, as it is necessary for nearly every cell transaction in the body.

Heather Greig
Perfumes & chemical cleaning agents drive me nuts - running nose, eyes and asthma. May I add to previous suggestions and highly recommend ENJO and Neways. ENJO makes fibres to dust and clean every room in the house using just water and no chemicals whatsoever - extremely effective (even the oven!) and economical. Neways manufacture personal (shampoos, perfume, cosmetics etc) and household products (air-freshner, laundry detergent etc) free of toxins and irritants.

pauline lewis
I have found ENJO, an austrian company who specialise in cleaning your home without chemicals just using fibre technology and cold water! It has helped my asthma and helped my pocket with all the savings I have made from no more chemicals. They have a great website.

Debbie Conibere
As a mother, and now a pregnant woman, I became aware about chemicals a few years ago that are found in the food we eat plus in the chemicals we bring into our homes to clean with. I was unaware that your body absorbs harmful chemicals from air-freshners, cleaning products etc and as your body can't break all of them down the chemical gets wrapped in fat and stored. Then when a mother breastfeeds she unknowingly passes on these chemicals straight to her newborn baby! So to help combat chemicals we've switched to eating organic food and using Enjo. Enjo is a product that replaces 90% of household chemicals, all you use is the Enjo Mitts and water - no chemicals, no fuss, no worries. At least I know that my children will be brought up in an enviroment that is clean and safe without having to use harsh chemicals. If anyone is interested in learning more about Enjo visit

Claire Martin
I agree, grandmother knows best. I have cut out all chemicals in my house (except for washing powder and dishwasher tablets) but I get a helping hand from clever fibres! If anyone is serious about chemical fee cleaning (and we should all be!)they should have a look at the website. It's truely amazing! My teenage daughters think so too. We need to train the next generation now!

I live in Norfolk now and over the past 18 months have had serious rhinitus and constant trouble with swollen and itchy eyes. This all started with a plant on a coastal footpath. I have been attending an ENT clinic for nearly a year, had "all the tests" but no results A local farmer who I approached in a desperate attempt to see if any of his chemicals were setting it off said that it was more likely to be caused by household chemicals. I am certainly now wondering if I am suffering from MCS, but I also know at least two near neighbours who have had recent problems with their eyes, also with similar symptons to my own. Strange! It is also strange that when I am away from Norfolk, down in the South or on holiday, my problems improve, but are back again within 24 hours of returning home

Joanna Brett
As a mother of four boys I have been concerned about the chemicals I was using at home for some time. Last year I had part of my lung removed due to a slow growing carcinoma. As a non smoker I wanted to get rid of the chemicals especially in household cleaning products, but also in personal care and cosmetics. One fifteen year study found that women who worked at home had a 54% higher chance of dying of cancer than those who had jobs away from the home. The study concluded that the increased death rate was due to daily exposure to hazardous chemicals found in ordinary household products. I was fortunate that a schoolfriend of mine had just discovered a company who manufactured household, health and beauty products based on natural ingredients with no harmful chemicals or formaldehyde. The cleaning products are based on the 'grandmother knows best' ingredients of baking soda, vinegar, citrus extracts, sugar cane and tea-tree oil which is an excellent solvent. I have been using the products for a year now and they are excellent. Also cost effective. I have teamed up with Linda Fell a physiotherapist from Woodbridge, who is also concerned about the effect of toxins in products to spread the word about these health protecting products. We will be at the Complementary Health Fair at Rendlesham Sports Centre, Rendlesham, Suffolk on Saturday 26th Feb (10am-6pm) if anyone would like to come along and take a look.

Alister Monro
Excellent programme - Breakspear Hospital in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, specialises in the treatment of patients with MCS, food allergy and chemical poisoning. For more information go to:

Kevin Taylor
I also watched the programme with great interest and believe i suffer from MCS , i react to certain household products esp aerosols, cleaners etc. Icant even go in shops where theres scented candles as this also effects me..i get stomach cramps badly and feel very lethargic . It makes me very tired and general unwell feelings, ive been like this for past 10years and my gp has sofar put a diagnosis of ME to it. Please please would you advice me if theres anyone i can see or speak too?? Many thanks

Sarah Quick
I was so glad I watched your programme, I react to chemicals as well and I am getting worse as I get older. People find my reactions quite ridiculous. Here is one example, I went into a bed linen shop in Grimsby with my sister last saturday and they had been cleaning and I could hardly breath my sister just gave me a fithy look though she is convinced chemicals she worked with as a school caretaker caused her stroke 3 years ago? I have had a cough now for 18months and had to insist on seeing a ENT Consultant privately though I can ill afford it. I think he is none the wiser though I am waiting for xrays. I am left with stress incontinence and as I am sick with the cough I cant take cetain diabetic tablets so my control is not good I believe this cough is also down to chemicals but I feel I have to wait for a diagnosis rather than say what I think. I have other varied reactions even down to treated wood. I'd love to know how to get an appointment with Dr Downing, perhaps I too would be able to come off my antidepressants that my Doctor has said I must be on for life!!!! Vinegar will be my main item on my shopping list this week.

Doreen Lee
There is a company, called Neways, which produces completely non-toxic toiletries. They also have a range of household cleaning products. The whole ethos of the company is to avoid toxins and provide a natural, non-toxic alternative. They work with Samuel Epstein, head of the Cancer Prevention Coalition to this end.

Mrs L
At last - somebody who has problems like me!! I have been keeping it quiet for years because it seems ridiculous! My instant-huge-hives item is plastic carrier bags!! I only have to forget and carry for a couple of minutes and all my arms are red, swollen, itch and blister- some have scarred. Toner from photocopiers, air fresheners,bathroom and other household cleaners and most debilitating - other peoples perfumes - not every kind -just some.I cant tolerate any perfumed products in my home or life.I cant go shopping or out socially unless I have an escape - no eascape on trains, buses or planes- and its becoming worse as I get older- and yes - I am in the same age as these women.

Gordon D McHendry
Hi What and excellent article on Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). I have suffered severely from MCS myself for years - having to live in my garden shed as a result for 6 of them - and I consider myself lucky to still be alive today. We need thousands more like Dr Damien Downing and Professor Malcolm Hooper [of Sunderland University], and public awareness of this modern plague illness needs to be quickly raised if a catastrophy of biblical proportions is to be avoided. I have set up the Satori-5 website [ ] both to tell my own "unbelievable" story with MCS [and severe ME] - which includes many photographs and two short fly-on-the-wall videos - and to provide information and resources to other sufferers and interested parties. Thank you all again for such a great MCS article. Gordon D McHendry Scotland Coordinator; Global Campaign for the Recognition of MCS

Sue Titcombe
I was very interested in this evening's 'Inside Out@ programme. Though I have never been as badly affected as the two ladies on the programme I have recently realised that cleaning products have been causing me problems. For several years I have been ill for several days after having a blitz on housework, i.e. cleaning every room, top to bottom, in the space of a couple of days. I always ended up with a dreadful headache for days and my rhinitis was also much worse than usual. I also suffer from Migraine, asthma and skin problems. Winter seems worse if I am indoors for too long. I have stopped using cleaners for windows and just use an 'e' cloth and tap water. I have a violent reaction to cream on occasions causing dreadful digestive problems. I am constantly on the lookout for ways to clean without chemical products. This is an ongoing problem which is difficult to diagnose and treat and finding safe alternative products is a priority.

Paul Reitman
We are very much in agreement with the principal of reducing the manufactured chemical content of our surroundings, particularly where additives are not specified or are covered by a blanket description. Whilst few of us are severely affected by additives, I believe that many are suffering from minor inconveniences that they are unable to associate wth any cause. Many of the old fashioned remedies and cleaning materials are not just non-allergenic, they are also CHEAPER.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy