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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.


When you consider how many mental health professionals stalk the halls of medicine compared to the number of medical doctors versed in the subtitles of environmental illness, those seeking assistance are facing what Miller, an allergist and immunologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center’s School of Medicine, calls a “David and Goliath” scenario.

“People were overlooking the fact that this is a two-step mechanism. There’s this initial exposure event, the loss of tolerance, and then people start being triggered by things,” Miller told the Current last week. “They often don’t even realize the fragrances that are now triggering their symptoms are not the cause of their illness, necessarily. It may be pesticides in their home, it may be the sick building, their home or workplace.”

In essence, TILT is a product of our oil age, with the most frequently fingered chemicals being volatile organic compounds derived from petroleum. Miller sees cases dating back to the use of mustard gas in World War One, to the sprayed farmworkers in the United States, and in the tens of thousands of Gulf War veterans still struggling for assistance from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. “We’re in a petrochemical age now. I think that’s what hasn’t been understood or recognized to this point. Most of these are petrochemical exposures, certainly the volatile organic chemicals in the sick buildings. There are all kinds of out-gassing from construction materials, adhesives, cleaning agents, everything used in the building.” And as buildings have been built to be more energy-efficient, they tend to hold more of those pollutants within their walls.

Frequently sufferers find themselves trying to educate their own doctors about their conditions. “They know a lot from personal experience, Miller said, “but because this doesn’t fit the usual toxicology — the symptoms are often cognitive and neural-psychological — it gets rejected.”

Such rejection came on a mass scale during the fight with the Veteran’s Administration over Gulf War Syndrome, when both the VA and U.S. Department of Defense were quick with money to study and attempt to treat stress and mental disorders but not for claims of toxic exposures and chemical illness.

Leah Burt describes living with TILT akin to living with a “short-circuit”. “Today is predominantly good. It’s like, ‘OK. Let’s get back with the program. We’ve got so much lost time to make up for.’ Then out of nowhere — well not nowhere, sometimes you know, but frequently you don’t — you’re out again. You can’t get your stride. It’s just an insane way to live. I don’t know how to describe it.”

First described in the scientific literature in the 1950s by a Chicago-based allergist, the symptoms of MCS are frequently linked to scented consumer products. A recent study by researchers at the University of Washington analyzed the chemical makeup of 25 popular scented products, including fabric softeners, dishwashing detergents, and deodorants, finding that 24 of 133 volatile organic compounds released by the household goods are listed under federal law as hazardous or toxic. Alison Johnson, an activist, author, and MCS sufferer who’s been tracking the issue for 30 years, blamed industry for keeping the disease from getting recognition that could reform what chemicals are allowed in consumer products. “It’s like, go back 40 years and say, ‘What is delaying research into the problems of smoking,’” said Johnson. “It’s like: money. … The tobacco industry, which is a really small part of American industry, managed for decades to keep anybody from doing research showing smoking was dangerous, and they would work actively against people who said it was dangerous. Nowadays, the percentage of American industry that is threatened by the idea that chemical exposures could be causing illness in some people, that’s virtually 95 percent of American industry.”

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