Allergic to life.
"The Bubble Man" on the television show Northern Exposure brought to prime time the mysterious physical complaint known as "environmental illness," also called multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or the 20th century allergy. Self-impounded in a sterile, very white environment, the Bubble Man confuses people who can't understand why he carries a tank of oxygen and goes into sneezing fits at the tiniest whiff of perfume. The show's Dr. Joel Fleischman even goes so far as to attribute the Bubble Man's odd behavior to some deep-rooted psychosis.
This fictional portrayal of environmental illness was done with a hint of humor, but for Alice Gerson (not her real name), an eight-year victim of MCS, the situation is far from funny.
Gerson first experienced MCS while conducting cancer research at a university on the west coast. After repeated exposure to neurotoxins, high levels of radiation, organic solvents and numerous other carcinogens, Gerson said she reached a point where she couldn't enter her lab without experiencing an energy-sapping physical assault, complete with watering eyes, disorientation and severe flu-like symptoms. "This feeling would increase during the day," she says. "I felt like I was dying on the spot."
In an attempt to save her health, Gerson moved to a small town near Mount Shasta in northern California. She began to feel better. Then, in June 1991, a train carrying an herbicide derailed, spilling its contents into the Sacramento River. Contact with the water turned the liquid herbicide into clouds of toxic fumes, which found their way to Gerson and many others.
Following the incident, Gerson's sensitivity to chemicals increased tenfold. In yet another attempt to find a clean environment, she moved to a tiny mountain town in southwestern Colorado. Now she says that even minimum contact with perfumes, car exhaust, diesel fumes, pesticides, cleaners, permanent-press clothing, cosmetics, formaldehyde, carpeting and soap affects her immediately. She says she becomes bloated, develops severe headaches and nausea and experiences severe muscle and joint pains, indigestion, a sore throat and hoarseness, chest congestion and what she calls "brain fog"-- an inability to think clearly.
Gerson is certainly not alone. Thousands of people have announced their sensitivity to chemicals by forming and joining support groups and by subscribing to newsletters focusing on the subject. One such activist, Sue Pitman, moved her family out of a brand-new house near Chicago to the clean atmosphere of rural Wimberley, Texas, where she heads a statewide network of more than 350 people who say they've experienced chemically-induced health complications. Gerson herself has successfully recruited an active group of people in her town to participate in a chemical sensitivity support group. She says she was surprised by the number who came forward with stories of MCS.
What lies behind multiple chemical sensitivity and why is it now affecting so many people? Although MCS is most often linked to the current widespread use of chemicals, some say it is not new at all, but simply an old form of mental illness wearing a 20th-century label.
And because an exact cause and physiological mechanism of MCS have not yet been determined, the ailment has been the subject of widespread scrutiny and, sometimes, disbelief. Could its cause truly be the abundance of chemicals coursing through our daily lives--from air fresheners filled with the fabricated scent of pine forests to the materials used to manufacture carpets? The verdict is out, with the two sides very much opposed.
Before multiple chemical sensitivity had become a part of everyday language, allergist and clinical professor of medicine Dr. Abba Terr of Stanford University Medical Center was questioning the medical validity of the illness. In an article he wrote in 1987 for the medical journal Insights in Allergy, Terr voiced skepticism toward environmental illness and so-called clinical ecologists, health care practitioners who specialize in the treatment of environmental illness and chemical sensitivity.
According to Terr, "Clinical ecology is based on a belief that environmental pollution by synthetic chemicals causes an illness that is not defined by symptoms, signs, physical findings, pathological conditions and laboratory abnormalities... Patients diagnosed as having environmental illness are treated by measures that are bizarre and ineffective at best and capable of causing significant psychological harm."
Using allergy studies and tests as a measure of comparison, Terr adds in the article, "The immunology and pathophysiology of allergic diseases have been studied extensively in the clinic and in the laboratory by sound experimental methods, whereas the proposed mechanisms of environmental illness lack both theoretic foundation and experimental proof." Dr. Terr did not return calls asking for further comment.
But MCS is recognized by some doctors, including Gunnar Heuser, M.D., an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one of the relatively few practitioners now studying MCS. He for one does not think chemical sensitivity is a psychological illness; to him, the ailment is a true physical dilemma that, for some reason, afflicts certain people and not others. Because of his advocacy for people with chemical sensitivity, he has become a well-known medical figure in the MCS movement.
"Despite what people say, there are many people out there who have actually become completely disabled with chemical sensitivity," Heuser says. "The sensitivity usually occurs after a significant chemical exposure of some type, such as to pesticides. It is a very, very real physical illness."
To support his belief, Heuser uses several clinical tests that measure brain function to indicate a patient's chemical sensitivity. In one test, a before-and-after procedure called a SPECT brain scan, a patient inhales a radioactive material, making it possible to obtain a color picture of the brain. Heuser then observes how much blood and oxygen are going into the patient's brain: A patient with MCS, Heuser explains, will show less blood profusion into the temporal, frontal and parietal lobes, indicating a noticeable physiological reaction to the inhaled substance.
"In some patients, the brain scan gets worse after the offending substance is inhaled," Heuser says. "This technique has the potential to show that the chemically sensitive person's brain is sensitive to small amounts of chemicals that the general public has no problem with."
How can you protect yourself from the factors that could lead to MCS? According to Dr. Mary E. Cody, a clinical nutritionist in New Jersey, one of the most important things to do is to take an active role in your health. If you think you may have MCS, consult a health care practitioner who specializes in the field of chemical sensitivities. If you are unsatisfied with the care you receive, Cody adds, don't be afraid to switch doctors. And, although it's very difficult in our toxin-dependent society, cleanse your life of chemicals and opt instead for natural alternatives.
"As our technology has expanded into more man-made things, there has been a tremendous explosion of newly manufactured chemicals," Cody says. "Our sensitivities have increased along with this explosion, and the assault on our systems is causing problems. It's like filling a cup with water: When the water reaches the brim, it spills over. The body can only take so much."
Contacts: American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 55 W. Seegers Road, Arlington, IL 60005/(708)228-6850; Human Ecology Action League (publishes The Human Ecologist magazine), P.O. Box 49126, Atlanta, GA 30359/(404)248-1898.
MICHELLE R. KODIS is a freelance writer based in Telluride, Colorado.
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|Title Annotation:||multiple chemical sensitivity|
|Author:||Kodis, Michelle R.|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1995|
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