The incidence of environmental illness is approaching an epidemic, yet government takes no action.

Five to 10 percent of the population is already allergic to chemicals. That percentage is expected to grow to 60 percent by the year 2020. Consider that even a twofold increase in the prevalence of an illness is considered an epidemic!

So far, our government has not mobilized itself for action and the Chemical Manufacturers Association (CMA), an American lobby group, wants it to remain that way. According to the CMA, only physicians can legitimize environmental illness because it relates to health. As of yet, doctors have not done so.

The association developed a position paper in 1990 which aims to destroy the credibility of chemically sensitive patients and to block their ability to be dianosed. It tries to prevent patients from being able to sue for injury and have access to Medicare-covered treatments. It also attempts to ruin the credibility of the entire field of environmental medicine by quoting only medical bodies and government authorities that dismiss environmental medicine. But in the end, it all comes down to money.

"The primary impact on society would be the huge cost associated with the legitimization of environmental illness," the authors of the paper note. "Should environmental ill-ness advocates succeed in their efforts, it would also impact society and many industries."

"Potentially affected industries include textiles, clothing, lawn care products, household cleaners, dry cleaners, paints and solvents, perfumes, hair treatment products, plastics, paper and many other consumer goods industries."

In essence, the paper is fodder for a Hollywood movie because it reduces the issue to one of good versus evil. "Proponents of environmental illness are now trying to legislate the legitimacy of environmental illness," the authors of the paper state disparagingly. They then side with the medical associations who "have an interest in placing environmental illness in its proper perspective."

To the detriment of patients suffering with environmental illness, the CMA recommends a combined solidarity between industry and government. "Should environmental illness arise as an issue," it states, "a coalition with the state medical association is absolutely necessary."

The Asthma Association of Canada appears to have taken these words to heart. Its position is as follows: "Based on extensive studies of the available research, the American Medical Association, the American Medical Council on Scientific Affairs, the American College of Physicians, the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology have all rejected MCS [multiple chemical sensitivities] as a legitimate organic disease."

They also referred to "some views from another group out of Mississauga, Ontario" and quoted that "group" line and verse. In fact, the group was none other than SPEIAC, the lobby for the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletries, Fragrance Association of Canada!

Legitimizing Environmental Illness

The real reason that environmental illness is not better known is that there is a shortage of qualified specialists working in this field. Most Canadians with environmental illness do not get better because the chemical industry has seen to it that governments are influenced by industry and medical associations comprised of biased "informed" health professionals.

Industry is worried that environmental illness will be legitimized and wants to block any advance. Up to now, environmental illness, and its associated testing and treatment, has not been eligible for coverage under such programs as medical insurance plans, Social Security disability, Medicare and Workers’ Compensation.

Nevertheless, the Environmental Illness Society of Canada has had several meetings with Health Canada officials on the need to begin a national risk assessment program. We must carefully assess the rate of escalation of this illness and develop a national strategy for its treatment and prevention. However, risk assessments cost more than a half million dollars.

The easiest way for governments to avoid having to act is to de-legitimize treatments by deeming them "experimental" when they are not. Governments can also refuse to conduct studies to measure the background prevalence levels of an illness in the existing population. If they did a prevalence study on environmental illness, they would officially have an epidemic on their hands and would be obligated to act.

About the Author

Judith Spence is chief executive officer of the Environmental Illness Society of Canada. The society can be reached at 536 Dovercourt Avenue, Ottawa, ON K2A 0T9. Tel: (613) 728-9493.