Vicki Kunkel is a digital content producer, commercially-published book author, and former journalist. She works to combine the worlds of consumer education and technology to build the future of digital content.

A Medical Myth?

Investigating Toxic Home Poisonings


July 2013

Editor’s note: Most of us give little thought to the potential health dangers that can lurk deep inside our homes. In late May, though, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed two new rules to limit one of the most prevalent and proven carcinogenic compounds in wood products. What negative health effects can formaldehyde in our home furnishings actually cause? Vicki Kunkel investigates.

BY VICKI KUNKEL

Kathryn Kennedy is like many pet owners — she realizes carpeting and dogs don’t always go together.

So to help solve that problem, Kennedy decided to remodel her home and replace her carpets with dog-friendly laminate flooring.

What she didn’t plan on, however, was the renovation taking a huge toll on her health. This otherwise vibrant college accounting instructor from Ohio suddenly became dizzy and fatigued, and experienced confusion and brain fog from everyday items like fabric softener, household cleaners and perfumes.

“About an hour after it (the flooring) was installed, my throat and lungs started burning, my skin burned, and I got a blistering headache,” Kennedy explains. “I had trouble breathing. It was awful.”

In fact, her symptoms intensified and became so bad that she eventually had to move out of her house and sell it.

After months of suffering, Kennedy eventually went to a specialist who diagnosed her with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) disorder — a condition clinical ecologists describe as an adverse physical reaction to potentially toxic chemicals in food, air, or water at concentrations that generally don’t bother most people. People with MCS get sick from even the tiniest exposures to a chemical or combination of chemicals in the environment.

Two years later, Kennedy still suffers adverse reactions any time she is near any chemicals.

“If I walk into a public restroom or public place that has been cleaned with harsh chemicals, or if I am near someone who is wearing perfume or clothing that was treated with detergents or fabric softener, or if I walk past a lawn that was treated with pesticides, then I get a strong burning sensation in my lungs and throat and I often get so dizzy that I feel as if I am about to pass out,” Kennedy says.

“It’s changed my life. I can’t go into places that I used to go into. Even being near some of my students is difficult because the detergents and fabric softener odors on their clothes causes a reaction,” she continues.  “Buying a home is a nightmare. I am selling a second home because my lungs and throat get inflamed whenever I’m inside. There is some chemical – or mixture of chemicals – in the building that causes a reaction.”

And Kennedy apparently isn’t alone. Dr. Doris Rapp, author of Our Toxic World, says an estimated 74 million Americans have some form of a chemical sensitivity. For some, this might be something as simple as an occasional temporary headache from the odor of a perfume or fresh paint, or feeling nauseous for a few days after an extensive home remodel. But about 10 million people like Kennedy are so severely affected by chemicals that they must totally change their lifestyle and no longer can live in a normal manner. Some report even having to live in a tent because they can’t tolerate the chemicals in a normal house.

Kennedy suffers some of the classic symptoms of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Disorder, which include airway hyper-reactivity, memory loss, confusion, congestion, chest tightness, extreme fatigue, headaches, difficulty concentrating, dizziness, balance problems, skin lesions and even cardiovascular problems.

So what causes people with MCS to have such serious reactions to chemicals that are benign to the rest of us?  And why was Kennedy—previously a completely healthy, active, woman—suddenly rendered ill by even the smallest exposure to chemicals, such as fabric softener?

According to Dr. L. Christine Oliver, Associate Professor of Clinical Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Co-Director of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, Kennedy’s reaction is typical of people with MCS.

“It (MCS onset) is usually seen following a higher exposure to chemicals. For many of my patients, initial exposure occurred when their office was being remodeled,” Dr. Oliver explains. “New carpeting was put in, there is glue in the carpeting, the walls were painted. There’re a lot of chemicals (in such a remodel).”

Other patients have experienced problems after moving into a new-construction home, with all of the new furniture, cabinetry, flooring and paint that “off gasses” a heavy dose of myriad chemicals.

Dr. Oliver says people can also develop MCS symptoms after repetitive small exposures over a lifetime, such as when we clean our homes with chemical-based products, buy new furniture (which often off-gas formaldehyde initially) or sleep on a mattress laced with fire retardant chemicals. Over time, our body eventually gets overloaded and that’s when a single large exposure can trigger MCS.

But MCS is controversial. Many medical groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association, do not recognize it as a distinct physical disorder. The World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a workshop on Multiple Chemical Sensitivities in 1996 and concluded that it was not a clinically defined disease. Many mainstream medical doctors also dispute the idea that chemicals in our environment are poisoning people.

One is Dr. Ronald E. Gots, MD, PhD, who has chaired two international symposia on “Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: the State of The Science.” He’s the author of six books and more than 70 articles on biochemistry, toxicology, mold and mold toxins. He says there is no toxicological merit that chemicals are poisoning MCS sufferers.

“That’s not to say people aren’t sick. I’ve seen these people and they’re often very ill. They just aren’t being poisoned,” Dr. Gots says. He likens MCS to stage fright: “People who are worried about speaking in front of an audience have physical manifestations and feel ill,” he explains. “They have an emotional response to an event that can lead to very real physical manifestations. This is largely what we are seeing with individuals with this (MCS); they fear the effect of chemicals in the environment, and they develop physical symptoms from that fear.”

However, Dr. Gots is quick to point out that Multiple Chemical Sensitivity is not just an imagined disease.

“I object to people who say this is all in people’s heads. That’s dismissive and minimizes the distress people can feel from this,” he says. “I do believe the origin of this phenomenon is largely psychological based—it may involve panic attacks or phobias. There are many that can lead to this manifestation. But people aren’t being poisoned by chemicals.”

Others aren’t as kind in their theories about MCS.

“People who don’t have it – even members of my own family – think I’m crazy,” says Kennedy. “They just don’t understand what I am going through.”

Dr. Oliver says the feeling of no one understanding can lead to more distress for the MCS sufferer.

“These patients feel very isolated, not only because they have to avoid many public places, but also because of the reaction of many who don’t understand the disorder.”

Some organizations do recognize MCS as a legitimate medical condition. The National Institute of Environmental Science describes it as a “chronic, recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals.”  Similarly, the Americans with Disabilities Act includes MCS as a disability.

Is there a cure for those who do have adverse reactions to chemicals? It depends upon whom you ask. The most reliable method of treatment, according to Dr. Oliver, is avoiding exposure to chemicals.

“But it requires fairly rigorous avoidance,” she says, because virtually every public place you enter, every home—especially new homes—have high levels of chemicals that are off-gassing, and that can trigger a reaction from someone like Kennedy.

Dr. Gots disputes avoidance as an effective treatment, feeling it is more destructive than helpful. “You can’t avoid all chemicals,” he says. “What ends up happening is people become isolated, they can’t function, and can never get better. There are other people who have done very well with psychological therapies.”

One treatment involves something called limbic retraining. The theory behind this is to basically reset part of the brain known as the amygdalae. The amygdalae are almond-shaped groups of nuclei located deep within the medial temporal lobes of the brain. Shown in research to perform a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions, the amygdalae are considered part of the limbic system.

And they seem to be stuck in overdrive in patients with MCS, keeping the body in a constant state of emergency and overreacting to even the slightest chemical exposure. The “reset” puts the brain back into a more normal fight-or-flight response pattern.

As for Kennedy, she’s still looking for a new home that she can live in, and plans to do all that she can to make people aware of this issue.

“I had never heard of this and had no idea I could be so affected by off-gassing from new building materials,” she says. “It wasn’t until I got sick and started doing some research that I realized what was wrong. A lot of people I talk with have never heard of this, or the effects it can have on your life.”

Despite ongoing health issues and medical bills, Kennedy remains positive. “I’m just going to keep going on with my life,” she insists. “I am not going to let this beat me or get me down.”

Vicki Kunkel can be reached on Twitter @vicki_kunkel, or on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/vickikunkel.

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