Environment

Hidden Toxic Chemicals in My Office Building Made Me So Sick That I Had to Live in a Sterile Bubble for a Decade

I transformed from a 6'3" 195 pound athlete into 145 pounds.

Sick businessman suffering from illness in the office
Photo Credit: Elnur/Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book Poisoned: How a Crime-Busting Prosecutor Turned His Medical Mystery Into a Crusade for Environmental Victims, by Alan Bell (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017):

It was a beautiful day, the sort of sunny afternoon in early spring that draws people trapped in snow-burdened states to Florida. A salty breeze blew in from the Atlantic as I pushed my young daughter, Ashlee in her stroller at a community fair past craft vendors selling brightly colored goods. The air was redolent with delicious smells from the Cuban and Latin American food stalls all around us. 

Suddenly, I started sweating profusely; waves of nausea swept over me. “Not again,” I thought, as I gripped the handles of the stroller and struggled to stay upright. 

I felt like my blood was draining out of my body. One second I was there, the next second I was gone. I wondered if this was what it felt like to die. My legs gave out from under me.

My wife Susan married a dynamic, athletic prosecutor. Now I could barely push our daughter’s stroller. 

Dr. Kirkpatrick flipped through my blood work and frowned.  I remained quiet, recognizing that Dr. Kirkpatrick was acting like a medical detective. He was intrigued by my case and tried to puzzle out the clues. “This is so odd,” he said. “None of this adds up, unless—” he began, then stopped. 

“Unless what?” I asked. 

He looked at me. “Unless you were poisoned. That’s how it appears. What do you think?” 

“Poisoned? Like food poisoning? I don’t think so. I haven’t eaten any bad fish or anything.” 

“No, that’s not what I’m talking about,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. “Listen, I know you were a DA: What kinds of people were you prosecuting?” 

“I was in the organized crime unit.” 

His eyebrows shot up. “Any chance one of those guys might have poisoned you for revenge? How many people did you put away?” Dr. Kirkpatrick asked. 

“I can’t count how many,” I said. “Lots.” I was still skeptical. “Okay, but can you find out what it is?” 

“Maybe,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. “I’ll run some basic test panels to screen for the most common toxins.” 

“I know it sounds incredible,” the doctor said. “But, look. Do me a favor. I want to refer you to this guy who specializes in environmental illnesses. If you go see him, maybe he can help you figure this out.”

Dr. Albert Robbins was the man designated to solve my medical mystery.

He was an environmental specialist. In the exam room he looked me over with his piercing eyes as he asked about my medical history. 

He was connecting dots I couldn’t even see, much the way I did as a lawyer presented with a challenging legal case. 

“I’m not going to order any tests,” he said. “You’ve had enough of them. Besides, I know exactly what’s wrong with you.” 

I stared at him in disbelief. Nobody had ever said anything like this to me before.

“Your body is in overdrive because your immune and nervous systems are compromised. You have become hypersensitive to various things, including molds, pollen, foods, and chemicals found in everyday products and environments. Anything from chlorine to deodorant is enough to set you off.” 

This all sounded impossible to me. Yet a part of my brain was analyzing the evidence.

According to Dr. Robbins, this thing was a death sentence unless I lived in a sterile bubble for the rest of my life.

This meant finding a place with clean, dry air and a chemical-free dwelling. 

After doing some research, I found the ideal spot: Elgin, a small town about a hundred miles from Tucson, Arizona. That’s where I landed.

It was in the Middle of nowhere. Fifty miles in all directions, you saw nothing, except cacti. No homes, roads, stores, cars, or people.  

The home was an environmentally safe 800 square foot bubble. It had air filtration like a hospital. There was no carpeting, no drapes, no fabrics, and no furniture. The structure was built with only glass, metal, and brick. It was cold, empty, and austere, like a jail cell. I reacted to any small amount of chemical exposure, that caused me to experience disorientation, blurry vision, pain, and seizures.

I transformed from a 6’3’’ 195 pound athlete into 145 lbs, looking like a concentration camp victim.

No treatments worked. My doctors told me I was incurable, and I would soon die. My wife abandoned me and our young daughter, leaving us to survive on our own. I chose to fight back, so Ashlee would not become an orphan.

In late spring of 1993, I took Ashlee on a day trip to the peak of Mount Lemmon, the southernmost tip  of the Rocky Mountains.

It was a place I could tolerate because the snow-covered mountain was high above the Arizona desert. The air was absolutely pristine. 

We built a snowman at the base of the chairlift. The sky overhead was clear, crisp, and blue. I felt a rare moment of absolute joy as my daughter’s laughter rang out over the hills. 

We finished playing in the snow and climbed onto the chairlift riding to the top of a nine thousand–foot summit.

Suddenly, Ashlee said, “Daddy, where is God?” 

I was startled by her question. She was five years old and had never asked me anything like this before.

Something about being on that mountain with Ashlee led me to answer in a way that surprised even me. “I suppose He’s everywhere, Ashlee,” I said. To me, God is the same intelligent creator that all major religions describe in different ways. 

“Is God in that rock?” she asked, pointing to an outcropping covered in lichen. 

I laughed. “Yes, I think He is.” 

“Is He in that tree?” Ashlee pointed to a tree below us. 

“Sure.” 

“Is He in you and me?” 

“Yeah, honey, I believe He is.” 

At that instant, this little girl brought me to terms with my innermost beliefs, and perhaps my destiny. Her dialogue propelled me out of my body and into this altered dimension transcending the here-and-now. An odd sensation washed over my entire body as I felt a presence I couldn’t see. The hairs on the back of my neck rose. 

I didn’t hear a voice, or see an image, but I sensed a command coming from both inside and outside of my body, as if the message were being infused into my every cell. It was a gentle but urgent plea: You must do something to make a difference. I fell into a trance state, arguing silently with this internal voice: Make a difference about what? How? 

You need to make a difference. Make other people aware of what’s happening to them. 

On the way home, however, as I was driving down that winding mountain road through all of those different elevations, I started thinking about the message again. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I felt almost as if this message had been implanted in me. I continued thinking about it for days. The days turned into weeks. I kept mulling things over but always hit the same brick wall: what could I do to help other people when I was a sick guy trapped in a bubble and couldn’t even help myself? 

Alan Bell is an attorney who prosecuted drug and homicide cases for the state of Florida before developing multiple chemical sensitivity. He is the founder of the Environmental Health Foundation, which advocates for victims of environmental injury. Alan lives in Capistrano Beach, California.

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