What is Chemical Sensitivity?
High levels of chemicals can cause reactions in any person, but individuals with chemical sensitivity experience symptoms with low levels of chemicals that can be found in almost any environment. Not everyone suffering from chemical sensitivity reacts to the same chemicals or experiences the same symptoms. The most common reaction is to chemical fragrances, which are found in everything from perfume to cleaning products, followed by cigarette smoke, car exhaust, and disinfectants. People who have chronic reactions in multiple organ systems to multiple chemicals are said to have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), the most severe form of chemical sensitivity. It is estimated that close to 12% of the population suffers from MCS.
Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening and can affect one or more organs. Symptoms of chemical sensitivity include:
- Headaches and migraines
- Memory loss and difficulty concentrating
- Joint pain
- Skin disorders like rashes and eczema
- Shortness of breath
Some people with this disorder experience only mild symptoms like a cough or headache when exposed to obvious triggers like cleaning products. Others experience severe symptoms when exposed to low levels of chemicals that most people would not even notice. Even dried paint can cause symptoms in those experiencing the severe forms of chemical sensitivity.
While people can develop chemical sensitivities from low-level exposures, people who have been exposed to high levels of toxic chemicals are especially at risk. Firefighters, rescue workers, construction workers, miners, and industrial workers are exposed to the levels of chemicals that can cause future problems.
Diagnosing Chemical Sensitivity
Many doctors are unfamiliar with chemical sensitivities and how they can affect patients. Symptoms can also look like indications of other disorders. This causes people seeking treatment to have a difficult time getting diagnosed.
There is no definitive diagnostic test that is used to diagnose chemical sensitives. Instead, doctors must rely on patient history and clinical assessment of patient symptoms. Patients are assessed in their physical and psychological reactions when exposed to the chemical in question. Documenting symptoms such as rashes, swelling of the lymph nodes, throat swelling, shortness of breath, heart rate, and blood pressure are key to diagnosing this invisible illness.
Other diagnostic tests include:
- Neuropsychological evaluations
- SPECT brain scans
- Blood tests for immune system
Together with the clinical assessment, they can paint a clearer picture that the patient is experiencing physical symptoms as a result of exposure.
Treating Chemical Sensitivity
The main treatment for chemical sensitivity is reducing exposure. The home should be cleared of any chemicals or products that cause a reaction. Some patients find relief by wearing masks or gloves in public, where exposure can be difficult to prevent. Seeking accommodation with the workplace can keep reactants like perfume or scented air fresheners away from the employee. Increasing ventilation and using air filters can also help.
Medication to relieve symptoms is a secondary treatment and depends on which symptoms the patient experiences. Some choices include topical hydro-cortisone cream for rashes or inhalers for asthma. As patients with MCD can have unpredictable reactions, all medication should be carefully considered by an experienced physician before beginning treatment.
Disability Evaluation of Chemical Sensitivity
If you have a long term disability plan or policy and you are unable to work because of chemical sensitivity or MCS, you will have to apply for Long-Term Disability benefits. The insurance company will review your claim to see if you qualify as disabled under the specific plan. People experiencing mild symptoms will probably not be considered disabled, but those with more severe symptoms can fit the disability requirements under many policies.
Definition of Disability
Most LTD plans consider a person disabled if they have a medical condition that causes them to 1) be unable to perform their work duties for the first two years of the policy and 2) be unable to complete the work duties of almost any occupation for the years after. Since every plan is different, it is important to read your policy to see if you meet the qualifications of “disabled.”
Evaluating Disability for People with Chemical Sensitivity
People seeking benefits for their chemical sensitivity or MCS will have to prove that the condition is ongoing and prevents them from working or engaging in ordinary life activities. The primary qualifier for patients seeking disability benefits will be the Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessment that indicates how chemical sensitivities affect and limit their life activities. Medical records documenting the patient’s condition and history are also an important part of determining if it meets disability definitions. It must be almost impossible to prevent the reaction in order to prove disability status. If it is a more mild case where simply avoiding triggers is possible, it is more likely that the insurance company will push for workplace accommodations instead.
What the Insurance Company Needs from You and Your Medical Providers
It is important to tell the insurance company about any doctor that has treated you for your chemical sensitivity, even if it was before you were officially diagnosed. The insurance company will need to obtain all relevant medical records to get the full picture of your health. If for any reason they cannot get these records from your doctors, you should request them and provide them to the insurance company yourself.
Your doctors should send their complete exam notes and all relevant medical testing and lab results. You will need to provide proof of your diagnosis and your ongoing symptoms, as well as proof of how you are affected by your symptoms. Residual Functional Capacity (RFC) assessments determine how you are affected by the condition and what you can do despite your limitations. It is used to determine what jobs you may still be qualified to perform. Being open and honest with your medical team with your symptoms is critical.
People with difficulty breathing may require air filtration systems or separate working areas. Flexible scheduling may be required for people that have erratic symptoms, which is common for chemical sensitivity sufferers. Some people may be unable to work in an environment that uses traditional cleaning chemicals or where chemicals and strong scents are prevalent. Those with severe headaches may be unable to work in strong lighting or with loud sounds or music. Each symptom should be carefully considered with its possible limitations and accommodations.
Working with a Disability Attorney
Getting a disability attorney on your team gives you the best chance of getting the benefits you deserve. If you have been denied disability benefits, do not lose hope. Many people are denied benefits the first time they apply. You have the right to file an appeal and try to get more information that may help your case. Getting expert help is often the difference between being denied and being approved for benefits.
While the process can be daunting, your expert disability attorney will be able to guide you through the process. Since they receive their payment from awarded funds, they do not get paid unless you win your case. You can seek help without worrying about upfront costs or unexpected bills.
The Ortiz Law Firm has successfully represented people in disability cases across the United States. If you would like to talk to one of our experienced disability lawyers about your chemical sensitivities or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity and its impact on your ability to work, call us at (888) 321-8131. We would be happy to evaluate your case and to discuss how to help you through the appeal process.