Neuropsychiatric and somatic characteristics of young adults with and without self-reported chemical odor intolerance and chemical sensitivity

Iris R. Bell, Claudia S. Miller, Gary E. Schwartz, Julie M. Peterson, Diane Amend

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Abstract

The psychological, neuropsychiatric, and somatic characteristics of young adults who have different degrees of cacosmia (i.e., feeling “from” ill the odor of xenobiotic chemicals) and who have self-described “chemical sensitivity” were examined. A total of 800 college students completed the following: a self-rating scale for frequency of odor intolerance for 10 common substances, Simon Environmental Illness Symptom Survey, the SCL-90-R, Barsky Amplification Scale, Pearlin-Schooler Mastery Scale, Cheek-Buss and Kagan Shyness scales, Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, and a health-symptom and physician-diagnosed checklist. Two pairs of groups were compared: (1) subjects in the top 16% (i.e., cacosmics) and bottom 15% (noncacosmics) of the sample with respect to odor intolerance scale scores; and (2) subjects from the entire sample who did (28%) or did not (72%) consider themselves to be “especially sensitive to certain chemicals.” Cacosmics and the chemically sensitive subjects scored significantly higher on measures of psychological distress and amplification of somatic symptoms, but there was little evidence of lifestyle change, as assessed by the Simon Survey. Compared with their respective comparison groups, cacosmic and chemically sensitive groups had significantly higher incidences of illnesses associated with chemicals, alcohol intake, opiate drug use, and caffeine use, even after controlling for the psychological measures and histories of atopic allergy. Subjects with and without neuropsychiatric symptoms were differentiated with respect to chemical odor intolerance, but subjects with and without atopic allergies and possible autoimmune diseases were differentiated with respect to chemical sensitivity. Females were more cacosmic than males. Cacosmia is defined by a population subset, with or without occupational xenobiotic exposures or disability, that has distress and symptom amplification and neuropsychiatric and somatic symptoms, none of which are explained fully by psychological measures. Prospective clinical studies are possible with such individuals. The data are also consistent with a time-dependent sensitization model for illness from low-level chemical exposures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9-21
Number of pages13
JournalArchives of Environmental Health
Volume51
Issue number1
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 1 1996

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis

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