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The ‘San Antonio Seven’ still sidelined by illness years after chemical and mold exposures

Photo: Greg Harman, License: N/A

Greg Harman

Olivia Cornyn still suffers from Multiple Chemical Sensitivity 18 years after leaving work at the reservations center of Southwest Airlines.


Meanwhile, Southwest discovered bacteria and mold — including Stachybotrys, the so-called “black” mold, listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as problematic for those with compromised immune systems but regularly linked to more troubling public-health events — lurking behind ceiling tiles, carpeting, insulation, and throughout the heating and cooling system. They began to rehab, frequently during business hours, according to former employees and veteran journalist Arnold Mann, who chronicles the ordeal in his new book “They’re Poisoning Us: From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico.”

As it became too difficult to work, employees began dropping out. Some feared their range of illnesses was a sort of judgement of God (Cornyn joined another former employee in regularly attending John Hagee’s church for a year, receiving regular healing prayer from the man to no avail). Only after a lawsuit was filed by Cornyn and several other workers did Cornyn begin to recognize her symptoms worsened when she came in contact with certain chemicals. She sprayed a deodorizer in her car and immediately felt her heart erupt in an “off-kilter rumba beat.” After working briefly with photographic chemicals one afternoon, she was unable to get out of bed. “I felt like a millipede that couldn’t get my legs going in the right direction,” she said.

Burt lasted a few years longer than Cornyn; she wouldn’t retire until 2006 when she joined a second unsuccessful lawsuit. First came the brain swelling that affected her vision. Then she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Four years later the bottom half of her heart stopped beating. At 39 she was fitted with a pacemaker. And she returned to work. Her belief that she was being poisoned on the job didn’t develop until she discovered the company was having the building fumigated with pesticides a mere 30 minutes before she reported for work in the morning. Unfortunately, her lawsuit hit district court about the same time that thousands of stolen Southwest Airlines travel vouchers were circulating through the Bexar County Courthouse. It took the judge a weekend to rule in Southwest’s favor.

When it comes to MCS and TILT, so-called “sick” buildings like Southwest’s are just one tip of a multi-horned iceberg. In his book, Mann found that as many as 15 percent of Americans say they have negative reactions to certain everyday chemicals. Six percent of those list their sensitivity as severe. And, despite the fact that only a minority of doctors are versed in the modern malady, 3 percent have been diagnosed with MCS.

Part of the difficulty is that TILT is a “multi-system” disorder: it impacts the nervous system, endrocrine system, and immune system collectively. So someone may be diagnosed with a bi-polar disorder for their mood crashes if they’re routed to a psychiatrist for the behavior problems TILT inevitably involves. Or, if a sufferer hits an allergist first for the severe reactions to foods and smells that develop, they may be misdiagnosed again there. “Many of those symptoms are neurocognitive symptoms. Well, we have names for those sorts of things, don’t we? It’s depression, it’s chronic fatigue, it’s post-traumatic stress,” said San Antonio-based Dr. Claudia Miller, who coined the term TILT in a groundbreaking paper. “But that doesn’t mean that exposures didn’t initiate and cannot trigger it.”

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