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28.04.2016 | Original Article | Ausgabe 6/2016

International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health 6/2016

Multidimensional assessment of self-reported chemical intolerance and its impact on chemosensory effects during ammonia exposure

International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health > Ausgabe 6/2016
Marlene Pacharra, Stefan Kleinbeck, Michael Schäper, Meinolf Blaszkewicz, Christoph van Thriel



Healthy individuals differ in self-reported chemical intolerance (CI). It is unclear whether this inter-individual variability impacts well-being and performance in environmental and occupational settings with chemical exposures. So far, operational definitions and questionnaires of CI have either emphasized physical symptoms or affective/behavioral disruption. In contrast, this study focused on healthy individuals who reported strong CI which generalized to awareness, physiology, affect, and behavior. We investigated whether generalized self-reported CI is associated with hyper-reactivity and reduced cognitive functioning due to chemosensory-mediated distraction during ammonia exposure.


An online sample (N = 321) answered established CI questionnaires. Based on the convergent self-reports in these questionnaires, healthy women with generalized CI and healthy female control participants were selected (total N = 26). Baseline characterization was performed using implicit association, lung and olfactory function tests, health-related self-reports, plasma inflammatory and metabolic markers. Performance in neurobehavioral tasks, perceptual ratings, nasal inflammatory, neuroendocrine, and autonomic nervous system reactivity were examined by means of a 75-min whole-body challenge to ammonia (stepwise increase: 0–10 ppm).


Correlational analyses confirmed the multidimensionality of CI. Participants with generalized self-reported CI exhibited better olfactory function and reported stronger pungency during the challenge than controls. Cognitive performance and physiological response to the challenge were comparable between the two groups.


Self-reports of CI are complex and not easily assessed by unidimensional questionnaires. While generalized self-reported CI is associated with altered chemosensory processing, it seems unlikely that it modulates health effects and cognitive functioning during chemical exposure.

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