This study explored the subjective reactions and psychological test performance of smell-intolerant subjects during consecutive challenges to chemicals with contrasting neurotoxic properties.
Women with symptoms compatible with multiple chemical sensitivity (N=10) and healthy referents (N=20) were individually challenged in an exposure chamber. All the subjects attended two separate 2-hour sessions of exposure to n-butyl acetate and toluene, in counterbalanced sequence. After an initial phase without exposure, air concentrations were increased in steps ranging from 3.6 to 57 mg/m3 for n-butyl acetate and from 11 to 180 mg/m3 for toluene. The response measures comprised ratings of annoyance and smell intensity and also neurobehavioral test performance.
Both groups showed an increase in annoyance ratings and a decrease in test performance in the initial unexposed chamber phase and also in the first phase of the chemical exposure, these results indicating slight immediate expectancy or "suggestion" effects. During the six chamber phases, the ratings of mucous membrane irritation and fatigue showed a steeper increase in the group with multiple chemical sensitivity than among the referents, while the ratings of smell intensity and smell annoyance were similar in the two groups. A reduction in test performance was observed during the chamber phases, particularly in the group with multiple chemical sensitivity. No relation was found between the ratings or performance and chemical substance.
Stronger immediate expectancy or "suggestion" reactions than normal did not characterize the group with multiple chemical sensitivity. This group showed a stronger than normal gradual build-up of fatigue, mucous membrane irritation, and reduced performance during chemical exposure. The results offer the most support to an irritative basis for multiple chemical sensitivity.