Albion Monitor /News

'Environmental Sickness' Controversy Unresolved

by Elaine Hopkins

Symptoms are triggered by everything

(AR) PEORIA, Ill. -- Rich Coon of Pekin Illinois was drenched with anhydrous ammonia during a vehicle accident. Soon he began having difficulty breathing. Doctors tested him for heart trouble and told him he was suffering from stress, before one figured out his symptoms stemmed from his accident.

Now he rarely leaves home, he said, because he's ultra-sensitive to chemicals he encounters. "I don't go in churches anymore because of perfumes, waxes, clean clothes. Stores are a problem. I cannot tolerate being around Windex. Anything with ammonia sets me off." His breathing shuts down and he collapses, he said.

Mary Lamielle, director of the National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, in Voorhees, N.J., knows the pattern well.

"A person has acute exposure, but sometimes prolonged and continuous, after which the person reacts to more and more different substances and products at lower and lower exposure levels," she said.

"Once a person has crossed this threshold at chronic illness and disability," she said, "symptoms are triggered by everything, and don't have to relate to the initial exposure." Lamielle has testified before Congress and served on a presidential advisory commission.

Business-backed groups have been organized to oppose multiple chemical sensitivity as a disease

Mysterious and controversial, often leaves its victims isolated and reviled. Sufferers believe they are reacting to the many chemicals and pollutants that have become part of modern life.

Victims of MCS, also known as environmental illness, describe a nightmare experience where their losses include their jobs, their homes as they knew them, their hobbies, even their freedom to stroll through the mall or attend church.

That's because MCS sufferers react immediately to odors -- fine perfumes, the whiff of solvents from dry cleaned clothing, a trace of odor from cleaning products, lawn chemicals sprayed on a neighbor's lawn.

MCS suffers don't just have a typical allergic reaction, she said. What occurs is somehow related to "neurogenic inflammation at a cellular level."

People become sensitive to odors, Lamielle said, because smells go into the limbic area of the brain where the "immune, neurological and endocrine systems come together. The brain is poisoned in some fashion by these chemicals," she said, and the body reacts.

At least that's the latest theory, she said. But there's no scientific research to back it up. At a Princeton University conference in September, researchers agreed that the first step is to examine sufferers in a controlled setting, she said, to determined their physiological reactions to exposures.

"If you don't answer the question, 'Does illness exist?', there's no end to the controversy. There's no peace for the patient, and no treatment. You need a scientific basis to build on," she said.

Government agencies have not pushed this basic research, she said, even though chemical sensitivity has been recognized by governments as a disability.

Meanwhile, she said, a backlash from business and medical communities is occurring.

Business wants to sell the products, such as chemicals and pesticides, blamed for the illness. Mainstream medicine is suspicious because the phenomenon doesn't fit known medical paradigms such as allergic responses, and because the scientific basis for environmental illness has not been established.

Two mainstream medical groups have urged caution. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology warns patients to beware of the unproved and experimental theories and methods of "clinical ecologists" who treat environmental illness.

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine states the "scientific foundation for managing patients with this syndrome has yet to be established by traditional clinical investigative activities that withstand critical peer review."

Business-backed groups have been organized to oppose multiple chemical sensitivity as a disease, said Lamielle. Consultants are paid to debunk the symptoms. At one conference, a "pro-pesticide" group passed out its own material to an astonished audience, she said.

But if business is leery of problems, it also senses opportunity. The Environmental News Journal, a quarterly from Boelter Environmental Consultants of Park Ridge, Ill., suggested "sick building syndrome" and indoor air quality issues should be considered and remedied.

New buildings can be constructed from materials that will not cause the perception of a problem. Fill soil can be tested for heavy metals and rejected if necessary, and electromagnetic fields avoided, the publication advised.

Sometimes, people who are apparently victims of environmental illness but lack the education to recognize the symptoms are again victimized -- by occult hustlers who offer to relieve the "curse" that has caused their problems -- for a hefty and and fruitless payment.

Columnist calls people who believe they suffer from environmental illness "crazies"

Victims can find themselves stigmatized as mentally ill. Conservative syndicated pundit Walter E. Williams recently termed as "crazies" people who believe they suffer from environmental illness. Then he raised the specter of government regulation.

"If multiple chemical sensitivity wackos can convince the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or agencies charged with enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act" that disease is occurring, he wrote, regulations will follow and perfumes and other "unnatural scents" will be banned.

He likened their crusade to that of the "tobacco prohibitionists," who want to ban smoking.

But Williams never met Susie, a 4-year-old purebred Boston terrier owned by Audrey DeClue of rural Peoria, Ill. Susie reacts to carpet and strangers wearing scented products by turning red and losing her hair.

"She would lay and cry and whimper because she was in so much pain," DeClue said.

Two weeks in a sterile environment at a veterinarian's office -- the type of study that Lamielle wants performed on humans -- allowed the dog's symptoms to go away. They returned when a portion of the carpet was placed in Susie's cage.

DeClue ripped out 600 square feet of carpet in her home, and replaced it with hardwood floors. "She was such a sweet little dog, I couldn't see getting rid of her. I'm an animal lover," she said.

Aside from dogs, more people than ever are suffering from "allergies, respiratory ailments, multiple chemical sensitivities and a variety of maladies associated with pollution, such as aches, pains and depression," the Futurist magazine recently found.

Included in its collection of "the most stimulating ideas and predictions" that appeared last year was the notion that "humans may be on the verge of an eco-collapse -- a complete breakdown of health because of pollution."

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

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