THEY are simple household products which can be found in virtually every home in Britain in the 21st century.

But for a York mother-of-two, the chemicals contained in items ranging from washing powder and fabric conditioner to shampoo, perfume and hairspray carry a risk of a terrible allergic reaction.

Even at very low concentrations, they can lead to Caroline Robinson, 45, of Knapton, developing lung inflammation leading to breathing problems, nausea, severe headaches, dizziness, a sore throat, chronic fatigue, memory problems and debilitating flu-like symptoms.

She can also suffer arthritic pains in her knees, hips, toes, fingers and wrists and can get an ulcerated tongue and mouth. I cannot even take a painkiller now, because they cause breathing problems," she said.

She said that because of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), she now had to live a virtual hermit existence, unable to tolerate many public places, including public transport, hotels and public conveniences due to the air fresheners and cleaning products used.

If she goes out she has to take a range of precautions, including wearing a special device to help with breathing, but even then she risks spending days ill afterwards.

In her home, she and her husband, Alastair, have had four air purifiers installed, which have to run 24 hours a day, adding hugely to their electricity bills and requiring costly filters that need to be changed at regular intervals.

"Every time we open the windows for fresh air, we risk letting small quantities of fume, smoke or central heating flue gases into our home, which can result in a range of debilitating symptoms that can take hours to recover from.

"Family holidays are very limited as I cannot stay anywhere in case there are chemicals," she said. "Friends and the children's friends cannot visit in case they have used fabric conditioner in washing their clothes or in case they have used after shave, perfume or deodorants on themselves."

If she wants to walk along a street where vehicles may be belching out fumes, she runs the risk of ulcers rapidly developing on her tongue and mouth, and wears special equipment to counter the effect of the pollution.

"Having a condition which no one understands leads to ignorance and maltreatment from people, which is hard to cope with at a time when support is needed most."

Alastair, a York railway manager, said: "This illness is debilitating and isolating and we have been left to make sense of it on our own.

"There is no official recognition or support of any kind for those with these hidden disabilities.

"We are hurt and angry at the injustice of this situation, and the lack of understanding from disbelieving people who have no first-hand experience of our situation."

'Heavy exposure to chemicals and pollutants'

CAROLINE Robinson said the common ingredient in many of the chemical products to which she reacts is Hydro-Carbon based Volatile Organic Chemicals, while Phenols containing Benzene are also commonly implicated.

"This condition creates a disproportionately extreme reaction to very small quantities of chemical, something akin to the anaphylactic shock that some peanut allergy sufferers experience," she said. "We were advised by medical specialists to move out of the city centre due to concerns that local pollution problems had been to blame."

She claimed she had received no medical support from the NHS, and had to pay for treatment by a private consultant specialising in MCS at a cost running into many thousands of pounds. "I was extremely fortunate to discover Dr Damien Downing. He diagnosed the condition, then arranged a number of tests, the results of which showed heavy exposure to chemicals and pollutants and that my DNA had been affected.

"A number of the chemicals found in my system are known to be toxic and potentially carcinogenic. This was very shocking. However, the fact that somebody understood the condition lifted a huge burden from me."

Her husband said he believed other people in York were suffering with varying degrees of chemical sensitivity, without realizing it. Information about chemical sensitivity can be obtained by logging on to