Environmental Illnesses

Twentieth century living brings with it major advancements in technology, medicine and science, which have produced incredible changes that have been beneficial, but there is a down side to this rapid technological advancement. An area of concern to a growing body of physicians and others in the country is the incredible and unchecked introduction of thousands of chemicals into our daily lives. The past fifty years has exposed us all to a multiplicity of newly synthesized chemical compounds that previously had not been part of our natural habitat. Environmental medicine physicians are well aware of the implications of this chemical pollution on the patients that they see.

Many patients that physicians see on a day to day basis have symptoms consistent with environmental illness. These patients come in with varied complaints such as fatigue, headaches, recurrent flue like symptoms, sinus problems, rashes, poor memory, inability to concentrate, depression, anxiety and just not felling well. Most of those patients and aren't aware that they have environmental illness or allergies. Almost all have seen one or more physicians and their condition was not recognized by their doctor. The reason for this is that physicians are not generally trained to recognize occupational or environmentally induced diseases. Many of these patients were told that they had viral infections, psychological problems, or that they were suffering from stress. Indeed, stress is a major problem for the average American and practically everyone has to deal with it to some degree. We should also consider the stress of living in a toxic environment.

Many of these environmentally sensitive patients work in industrial situations where they are exposed to solvents, paints, epoxies, formaldehyde and other well known toxic chemicals. Other patients work in modern office buildings where the ventilation system is inadequate and they are exposed to a variety of off gassing materials from building materials such as carpets, foam furniture, particle board, copy machines, pesticides, perfumes, etc. Since increasing the energy efficiency of buildings, and making buildings tighter, there is increased concentration of these indoor air contaminants.

Symptoms of environmental illness wax and wane. At first there seems to be no causation and no consistency. Some people feel worse towards the end of the day and somewhat better when they go home at night. Their symptoms clear on weekends. They start to feel worse once they return to work and by the end of the week, their symptoms are considerably worse. While on vacation their symptoms may clear again. A patient's home environment may also be a source of toxic/allergic exposures. Some patients get generally sicker as time goes on and as their body accumulates more and more toxic chemicals.

People go from one polluted situation to the next and drive through it on the way home, breathing exhaust fumes on the roadways and chemicals from their new car. The extent of exposures to chemicals is staggering and relentless. The prevalence of environmental illness is increasing.

Some of these patients, if they recognize their symptoms early enough, can be very successfully treated. They can learn how to avoid contact with chemicals, improve their diet, reduce stress, live in a non-toxic environment at home, etc. and their health may return to its normal level. Others, however, go on to develop multiple chemical hypersensitivities. They become more and more sensitive to other environmental chemicals such as auto exhaust, perfumes, tobacco smoke, newspaper, cleaning agents, synthetic clothing, paints, chlorinated water and others. Since the environment is so chemically contaminated, there are very few places they can go to feel well. There is a spectrum of patients with environmental illness, come mildly sensitive, others severely ill, leading extremely restrictive life-styles.

Between forty-five and fifty employees at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became ill after they moved into a building that had brand new carpeting installed. The problem was related to a styrene-butadiene-latex backing that was gassing off at their work place. A fifty-two year old woman working for the State of Washington became very ill after breathing the fumes emanating from a copy machine over a several month period. A very healthy, robust thirty-five year old woman moved into her dream house on a riverfront in rural Montana and started developing headaches, muscle pain, flu symptoms and depression. Her home was later found to have very high levels of formaldehyde and other volatile organic hydrocarbons. She now has Environmental Illness (EI) and is no longer employable and is now disabled.

The mechanism of environmental illness is not clear. There may be a disruption of the immunological functions triggering "allergic-like" reactions to chemicals. Another possibility is that since many of these chemicals are neurotoxic they cause some type of brain damage. These chemicals may affect the hypothalamus, which regulates many bodily functions such as the behavioral, endocrine and autonomic nervous systems. Disruptions in this area of the brain then could lead to the widespread and multiple symptoms typically seen in environmental illness.

There is no completely satisfactory treatment of these unfortunate patients. For some, simply avoiding contact with chemicals and turning their bedroom, or entire house into a chemically free haven can be quite helpful. Others have nutritional deficits that complicate their problems. This would include metabolic abnormalities and amino acid deficiencies that are important in our bodies detoxification systems. These can be corrected. Others are affected by chronic fungal infections that can be treated. Some patients have accumulated excessive levels of toxic chemicals. These patients can sometimes be successfully treated by putting them through an environmental detoxification program, to "de-pollute" their body.

The increase of environmental chemicals is having subtle, yet far reaching effects on the health of the population of America. More research has to be done as to the cause and treatment of environmental illness. There is much debate among traditional physicians and Environmental Medicine physicians today. The patients are caught in the middle. We all should do the best we can to prevent environmental illness in ourselves by leading lives that are as non-toxic as possible.