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Health Care Must Do More To Address Environmental Sensitivities

Elvira Truglia

It’s already been 50 years since a health condition known as environmental sensitivities (ES) started to emerge. People with ES are the proverbial canaries in a coal mine — warning the rest of the population of danger ahead, kind of like extreme weather.

It’s time to start paying attention to the “canaries” — in the medical profession, in the public health care system, in the workplace and in society at large. Ignoring them puts a big strain on the purse strings of a health care system unable to meet the complex needs of three per cent of the Canadian population (and growing).

According to a Statistics Canada survey, there are at least 850,000 people diagnosed with environmental sensitivities in Canada. This number went up by a whopping 34 per cent from 2005 to 2010.

There is now growing consensus that continual exposure to low doses of everyday chemicals can trigger dysfunction of the immune system and changes in brain activity (neurobiological sensitization).

Think a toxic injury that doesn’t heal. If you are susceptible, exposure to small amounts of chemicals every day creates a “body burden” that impacts multiple biological systems (nervous, digestive, respiratory system, etc.). Typically, you don’t detox very well, and repeated exposures can trigger the “on” switch in your brain, making you hypersensitive.

The result is illness and disability, according to Dr. Molot, a leading expert in environmental medicine and author of 12,000 Canaries Can’t Be Wrong.

Age and sex differences also distinguish people who react to things that are often not perceptible to others.

Twice as many women compared to men are affected by environmental sensitivities. In fact, it is well established that women are generally more likely to develop chronic conditions than men. Recent olfactory system studies show that women have a more acute sense of smell, which is one of the connections with multiple chemical sensitivities.

According to an Ontario report (2013), environmentally linked conditions are most common in middle age — hitting people when they are most likely to be productive, employable and contribute to the economy and society. This differs from other chronic conditions, like heart disease, that are more likely to occur in senior years.

The detailed proposal backing that report indicates that some five per cent of Canadians, or 1.4 million people, are living with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), fibromyalgia and/or chronic fatigue syndrome, more than people with Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The health impact on people with all three environmentally linked, complex chronic conditions is similar to heart disease and greater than cancer.

The burden is even greater when you consider the difficulties of seeking recognition and accommodation in the workplace, public spaces or even where you live. The result is rampant isolation, stigma and discrimination.

Legal recourse is a big deal. It was only in 2011 that the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse du Quebec recognized environmental sensitivities as a disability to be accommodated under human rights legislation. This was recognized in Ontario in 2000 and federally in 2007.

Increasingly environmental sensitivities are being recognized at all levels of government since the diagnostic criteria was accepted internationally and in Canada.

But health care is a challenge even in provinces where they have long been recognized. Nova Scotia, Ontario and now British Columbia have the only publicly funded clinics that assess or treat people with environmental sensitivities. The assessment-only clinic in Ontario has a three-year waiting list. In Quebec, you are sent on a maze of visits to public health specialists, usually uninformed about how to assess or treat the condition.

To say that Canada lacks a common standard of care for people with environmental sensitivities is more than an understatement, it is an emerging crisis. Even when there are services, they are not enough or not the right ones.

According to John Doherty, co-chair of the Ontario Centre of Excellence in Environmental Health (OCEEH), the province is spending over $150 million a year in “inappropriate physician services” and sufferers are still not receiving the care they need. And that’s in Ontario alone.

We can do better. There is already enough evidence. It’s now time to act.

In 2014 at Queens Park, government officials publicly recognized the need to bring the issues related to environmentally linked conditions out of the shadows. This public thumbs-up has sparked hope across the country.

The Environmental Task Force on Environmental Health (2014) needs to act on the proposal to create an Ontario Centre of Excellence in Environmental Health (OCEEH). This centre would set the bar for health care, social supports, policy support and infrastructure for leading edge education and research on MCS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

What happens in Ontario could create a ripple effect in other provinces, Quebec included.

On a national level, education on environmental health needs to be mainstreamed in medical schools and within the public health care system.

Unmet health care needs are a costly burden on people and on the health care system. Better policy and care would lead to early diagnosis. This would not only reduce referral costs but could prevent the onset of overlapping conditions.

It’s time to apply the precautionary principle as a basis for environmental and public health policy.

And it’s time to end the stigma of environmental sensitivities. Covering your eyes, ears and nose won’t make chronic environmentally linked health conditions go away anytime soon.