Too Sensitive

It began with insomnia, thoughts of dying, troubling dreams. Then, at three in the morning, in a beautiful new home surrounded by trees and the love of his family, Dr. Stan Sperling awoke next to his wife unable to breathe. Gasping, wide-eyed, struggling to sit up in the dark, Sperling felt as disoriented as a diver whose air-hose has been severed a hundred feet down. This could not be happening. As a practitioner of Buddhism and alternative medicine, the soft-spoken Victoria, British Columbia MD had meditated and exercised, eaten organically and drunk clean water for 20 years. Sperling (not his real name) had always thought that taking care of himself was his insurance policy. Now he wondered if he was dying.Even when his breath returned, he could not fill his lungs. Daylight found Sperling feeling lethargic and dull; he awoke the next night certain that he was being buried alive. The doctors he consulted didn't know what to do. His blood tests were normal. As the nightly attacks continued for three long weeks this past August, Sperling's mounting sleep deficit left him confused and diminished, lost in that special loneliness illness engenders. He told himself to be strong. But he worried about not being able to support his wife and their five kids. He felt not so much betrayed as bewildered by vague symptoms and gasping meditations which found him sitting alone in the dark, trying to remain unattached to the waves of fear and depression sweeping through him.What's wrong with me? he wondered. Was this the "ego death" Buddhism talked about? Or maybe his body was reacting to something in his everyday surroundings. Reading up on the emerging field of clinical ecology, Sperling learned that allergies and chemical sensitivities seem to be rising as fast as human immune, nervous and detoxification systems are breaking down. Allergies now affect about one in four people in North America. While some 35 million on this continent suffer from hay fever or more serious asthma, many others have come to regard constant aches and colds as normal. At least one in 10 North Americans awakens nearly every morning to perpetual flu-like symptoms called perennial rhinitis. An increasing number wonder if they are as sick as the "sick buildings" which have become a staple of coffee-break conversation.Unable to adapt to an increasingly toxic world, more and more people seem to be allergic to the 20th century. To many, it seems obvious that the things we drink, eat and inhale are making us sick. But seemingly unrelated symptoms of depression, fatigue, constant colds, irritability, hyperactivity, dizziness, migraines, aggression, rashes and aching joints don't fit standard diagnosis.Allergic reactions are really an over-reaction. As impaired immune systems panic over harmless peanuts, pollen or pet hairs, they release powerful chemicals called histamines to engulf imagined invaders in inflamed and swollen breathing passages. People can inherit allergic tendencies, but not allergies. They can become sensitized to cow's milk, nuts or other allergens while still in their mother's womb. Or they can spend a lifetime developing a sensitivity to something they're used to being around. Then one morning--boom!--they wake up allergic to their cats. Or they die of anaphylactic shock an hour after a bee sting, or a bite of birthday-cake made with peanut oil."We're all polluted," Sperling realized as he hit the books on allergies. "We live in a toxic world, an emotionally toxic world, a dispiriting world." Sperling learned that because allergic risks and reactions vary drastically according to individual susceptibility, there are no "safe" levels of potentially harmful substances. Depending on inherited propensities and the current well-being of their immune system, everyone reacts differently. Illness, anxiety and second-hand cigarette smoke further lower the threshold for allergic reactions which--like a constantly ringing alarm--are themselves one of the biggest stresses on human systems.Confronted by undiagnosable symptoms, some physicians are pointing to the 10,000 new chemicals introduced into North America each year. Many of these compounds are known carcinogens. Others are potent immune system suppressants. None are tested for the "enhanced potency" resulting from their random recombination with each other--and with rising levels of electronic and ultraviolet radiation.Sperling suspected that manmade chemicals were causing his problems. In the building where he worked, a tenant had been using chemicals in his business for the past three years. Though concentrated indoor pollutants can be 10 to 100 times worse than city smog, when the MD phoned Canada's Ministry of Environment he learned that the ministry's emergency services test only outside air. The Workers' Compensation Board responded right away. But when that agency checked the building, they found no dangerous odors. None of the other tenants reported symptoms like Sperling's.Am I going crazy? he wondered. After Myrna Miller, the author of Overcoming Environmental Illness, told him that many patients are starving for trace minerals and amino acids, Sperling self-prescribed "lots of vitamins and acupuncture." He also joined his son in an "elimination diet" which banished wheat and yeast from their table. Nothing helped--until he went away to Long Beach for a week and got progressively better. By Sunday he could even kick a soccer ball around. Dread returned during the drive home. Monday morning found him feeling pretty good. But by evening, Sperling felt tight, grumpy, irritable."I don't know why," he told his wife, "but I'm not going back to work any more." On the advice of Saul Pilar, a clinical ecologist practicing in Vancouver, Sperling couriered a blood sample to a Texas lab which tests for toxins. The printout he got back showed styrene, benzene, toluene and trimethylbenzenes flowing through his veins at levels five to 13 times normal. These powerful solvents act on the human nervous system, dissolving cellular links in the genetic blueprint called DNA. Sperling says now that he "knew in my soul I was dying." An alarmed landlord finally traced the source to a crawlspace leading from the chemical-using tenant into Sperling's office.Abandoning his sick office five weeks after his asthma attacks began has not made Sperling well. As Dr. Pilar's "aggressive regime" of strict nutrition and a filtered environment help him detoxify, the solvents he unwittingly ingested for years are seeping from storage tissues into his bloodstream. Sperling still gets sore throats. Sometimes he feels heavy and starts to choke up. His short-term memory comes and goes--along with his confidence--"just like Jekyll and Hyde." Like many sufferers of chemical overload, Sperling wonders if he will ever get better again. Experts tell him that in five years, these bad nights might be just a bad memory. Or he could contract leukemia and die.Allergy increases are real; the cause is anybody's best guess, according to Dr. Tom Bowen. The doctor excuses himself to answer another call. An hour after closing, harried physicians are still phoning Vancouver Island's only allergist for advice. "Here on the West Coast, you don't have to go much further to get sensitized to pollen," the grandfatherly MD resumes. House-dust mites also love our winter damp. But Bowen says that few British Columbians pursuing a healthy lifestyle are aware that uncooked foods like B.C. tree-fruits, potatoes, celery and nuts have proteins resembling birch-alder pollen."They become allergic to these foods that cross-react with the pollens--and become sensitized to the pollens," Bowen explains. Allergies "can be interesting to sort out," this medical detective continues. "They often seem to be histories that don't seem to make a lot of sense. But then when you get down to it, it unravels. Those are very rewarding cases. Many people benefit from finding out what they're allergic to so that they know what to control in their own environment."Bowen is seeing more children these days. Like other specialists, he believes that the increasing numbers of students showing up in schools with life-threatening peanut allergies have become sensitized by a surfeit of nuts in the Western diet. But people can get violently sick from coming into contact with other forbidden foods. One mother wears rubber gloves while cooking eggs for her son. Other people are allergic to the latex in the gloves. "Latex is the allergy of the '90s," Bowen declares.According to this leading allergist, from five to 10% of all medical and dental practitioners, more than half of all chronic-surgery patients and one per cent of all Scandanavians have developed allergies which can erupt while putting on a Band-Aid or blowing up a balloon. Bowen calls latex allergy "the great masquerader" because it's still going undiagnosed.But the list of triggers is endless. These days, anything from crabmeat to condoms and cologne can unleash an allergy attack. Some women are allergic to sperm--they produce antibodies which kill the "invaders," blocking conception. Other victims, allergic to the clothes they were wearing, have nearly choked to death. "When people come to my office wearing heavy perfumes," Bowen declares, "it's like somebody dropped a bomb."Overnight it seems, perfume is going the way of cigarettes as a target of public censure. Government employee Anne Guinchard never gave it much thought until last year, when someone wearing perfume joined a meeting with six co-workers. Four people got sick, including Guinchard. "Everything fogged over," she says. She temporarily lost vision in one eye, began having "massive migraines," and felt exhausted all the time. If the reek of perfume was too strong on the bus, she had to get off and walk to work. A trained researcher with a masters degree in toxicology and environmental chemistry, Guinchard asked her boss if she could look into perfumes, and got the go-ahead.At the University of Victoria chemistry library, she traced the chemicals commonly used in perfumes. Chemicals having industrial uses came with toxicology reports warning of nerve damage, cancers and eye irritation. But there were no toxic studies for chemicals created exclusively for the cosmetics industry. More digging disclosed that the compounds which enable cosmetics to act over long durations and distances are derived from gasoline, turpentine and similar aromatic hydrocarbons.Instead of washing off, perfume's non-water-soluble, highly toxic benzenes and other petro-chemicals pass right through the skin of the wearer--as well as into nearby noses--to accumulate in the fatty tissue of those who dab or inhale these artificial aromas. Among it's list of "potential health hazards," the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) counts some 4,000 different chemicals used in fragrances. But when Guinchard contacted the FDA, the consumer-safety watchdogs told her that except for dyes, cosmetic manufacturers are not required to test for toxicity or list ingredients. The same regulations apply in Canada.Bergamot oil--whose use in perfume has doubled in just seven years--is classified by U.S. environmental regulators as a "hazardous substance" and "strong sensitizer" on the same order as formaldehyde. Musk ambrette, another common fragrance, was shown in a 1984 National Academy of Science study to cause nervous system damage. That report urged "high-priority neurotoxicity testing" for perfumes--along with heavy metals, solvents, insecticides and food additives. As the perfume industry shifts to synthetic scents costing a thousand times less than natural distillates, people trying to seduce one another may be making each other sick.Even the planet is suffering. The California Air Resources Board calculates that "personal fragrance products" release the equivalent of four metric tonnes of volatile greenhouse gases over the golden state--daily. As Guinchard probed deeper, Chanel went 100% synthetic in late 1995, urging teenagers and women over 40 to discover or redefine their sexuality through "Assault Perfumes." Now a woman "can really make an entrance," Guinchard says, by triggering allergic reactions 10 metres away and leaving petrochemical fumes lingering 20 minutes after she's left the room.But personal fragrances are just the tip of a scented iceberg. Fully 80% of the scent industry's revenue--more than $18 billion annually--comes from perfuming plastics, fabrics, rubber tires, car interiors, tobacco, garbage bags, medicine and cleaning products.Totally sensitive people would like to return to the pre-plastics age. But short of living in a glass bubble, there is no escape from a world filled with booby-traps. A pinch of unlabelled yeast, a favorite blouse or shampoo, a hot car interior or the rubber bands on your desk could be making you sick. The "food revolution" hasn't helped.Though wheat and milk have become the least-tolerated foods in the Western world, other dangers lurk in "phony foods" which have been altered from their natural state by pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth hormones, estrogen, emulsifiers, propellants, thickeners, additives, antibiotics, antioxidants, sugar, salt, colorants, imitation ingredients--even radioactive isotopes.One sensitization seems to lead to others. Guinchard says that "once you have that first attack, the trigger becomes a hair-trigger." Before buying expensive box seats, Guinchard used to flee perfume-permeated theater and concert performances. Even now she waits until a movie has been in town awhile and "all the couples and dates have seen it" before venturing to a midweek showing. Guinchard, a "very sociable Maritimer," still avoids crowds and parties. "It's just not worth it," she says. A day-long exposure to perfume at work can give Guinchard a two-week headache."If you've got a pounding headache, your eyes are running and you're having trouble breathing--how productive are you?" she asked her boss. After he requested a voluntary ban on personal scents, things have improved at work. Perfume-stricken co-workers still thank Guinchard for making their lives less miserable. But when she went home to visit Nova Scotia last March, Guinchard was surprised to find Halifax health clinics and elementary schools, Dalhousie University, and many churches and doctor's offices are now "scent-free." The entire province had become sensitized to the perfume issue when 800 of 1,100 workers at the Camp Hill provincial health center became ill between 1989 and 1993.This officially-declared environmental disaster was eventually traced to a misplaced fan blowing exhaust fumes back into the center's kitchen. Even more striking, symptoms sparked by sick buildings are the same as for perfume. To study these and other sensitivities, in the fall of 1995 the Nova Scotia government opened Canada's first environmental illness treatment and research facility near Halifax. Dr. Gerald Ross, a Nova Scotia expert on multiple chemical sensitivities who trained at the Environmental Health Center in Texas, is currently treating some 400 patients; 800 more are on his waiting list.Ross believes that each exposure to a chemical is like a raindrop falling into a barrel. Eventually our barrel of immunities fills up. Then it only takes a single drop--perhaps the scent of gasoline or perfume--to cause the barrel to overflow into extreme allergic reaction. Multiple chemical sensitivity can occur while working on an oil spill--or after cumulative low-level exposure to materials from soft plastics, epoxies, fluorocarbons and aluminum. Tests show that the formaldehyde found in carpeting and insulation, vehicle emissions, deodorizers, particle-board, toothpaste and aluminum is one of the most troublesome of all the chemicals to which we are regularly exposed."This stuff," says Katy Young, tapping the restaurant's Formica table. As I nervously stir a concoction purported to be coffee, the co-founder and director of the Victoria Ecological Health Alliance continues her list: "The adhesive holding the Formica to the table, the pressboard in the table and booth, the fresh enamel paint in the bathroom, the synthetic fabrics of the bench, the chemical solvents used to clean those fabrics, the foam under them, the carpeting underfoot and the solvents used to clean it." All these toxic chemicals are quietly outgassing--releasing fumes--as we talk.The busy consultant has prepared a 14-page report for a late September meeting with occupational health and safety officials on legislating indoor air quality. Young has also been working with the Victoria School for Ideal Education to create toxics-free, unscented classrooms. Learning can be lethal when students are exposed to more than new ideas. Studies show that carbon dioxide buildup can cause shortness of breath, dizziness, drowsiness and fatigue. Toxic fumes from copiers, art supplies and construction materials used to ensure the longevity of school buildings may also be jeopardizing the health, learning abilities and longevity of children confined to classrooms.Young's job is to reduce the total load of offending chemicals. "It depends on the tolerance of the inhabitants how far we need to go," she says. She is especially concerned for pregnant women and children. "If those little organs are bombarded as they are developing, it's hard to see how they can develop correctly." The fixes prescribed by this environmental health consultant range from changing personal care products to the renovation or reconstruction of sick buildings.Often, Young notes, relief from headaches and drowsiness is as close at hand as an opening window. Young became intensely interested in environmental health in 1983, after she and her son, Nathan, developed a chemical hypersensitivity. Nathan's doctor informed the Capital Regional District health officer that the pairs' illness most likely came from the military's practice diesel-burns in Colwood. During the three years it took Young and her son to recover, immediate illness following periodic re-exposure to those Colwood fire-retardants backed up that suspected correlation. Now Young says she's never felt better--as long as she avoids exposure to strong chemicals. It isn't easy.On a recent Friday the 13th, Young visited the Cedar Hill Recreation Center. In the 10 minutes it took to drop off some flyers at the Holistic Health Expo and return to her car, she felt lousy. A sore throat rapidly developed into an ear ache. Making some calls, she discovered that the municipality had sprayed the center grounds with Tri-Kill just three days before the health fair. The 2,4-D in Tri-Kill is the same mutagen used in the infamous Vietnam war defoliant, Agent Orange. "Somehow we've become separate from the environment we function in," Young says. But it has not become separate from us. "We are all bio-chemical beings," she adds. The nerve-signals which control our bodily functions are "able to be disrupted by synthetic chemicals looking for a place to bind." Self-trust is the key to healing, she believes.Our bodies know best; the trick is to listen. When she enters an unfamiliar environment, Young has learned to recognize the language of her own nervous system. "One little twinge means something," she says. "I don't need to wait until jackhammers start going on in my head." In a society grown too sensitive to its own marvels, we are going to have to learn to be more sensitive to signs of chemical distress. The lives we improve may be our own.

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