Prevalence of various environmental intolerances in a Swedish and Finnish general population

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Abstract

Objective:

To determine the prevalence of various environmental intolerances (EIs), using several criteria in a Swedish and a Finnish general population. Ill-health attributed to low-level environmental exposures is a commonly encountered challenge in occupational and environmental medicine.

Methods:

In population-based questionnaire surveys, the Västerbotten Environmental Health Study (Sweden) and the Österbotten Environmental Health Study (Finland), EI was inquired by one-item questions on symptom attribution to chemicals, certain buildings, or electromagnetic fields (EMFs), and difficulties tolerating sounds. The respondents were asked whether they react with central nervous system (CNS) symptoms or have a physician-diagnosed EI attributed to the corresponding exposures. Prevalence rates were determined for different age and sex groups and the Swedish and Finnish samples in general.

Results:

In the Swedish sample (n = 3406), 12.2% had self-reported intolerance to chemicals, 4.8% to certain buildings, 2.7% to EMFs, and 9.2% to sounds. The prevalence rates for the Finnish sample (n = 1535) were 15.2%, 7.2%, 1.6%, and 5.4%, respectively, differing statistically significantly from the Swedish. EI to chemicals and certain buildings was more prevalent in Finland, while EI to EMFs and sounds more prevalent in Sweden. The prevalence rates for EI with CNS-symptoms were lower and physician-diagnosed EIs considerably lower than self-reported EIs. Women reported EI more often than men and the young (18–39 years) to a lesser degree than middle-aged and elderly.

Conclusions:

The findings reflect the heterogeneous nature of EI. The differences in EI prevalence between the countries might reflect disparities concerning which exposures people perceive harmful and focus their attention to.

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