Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#220 - New Data On The Condition Known As Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, 12-Feb-1991

According to the National Academy of Sciences, 15% of the American
people--some 37 million individuals--may experience "increased allergic
sensitivity" to chemicals. A recent report, CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY,
issued in 1990 by the New Jersey State Department of Health, concludes
"that chemical sensitivity does exist as a serious health and
environmental problem and that public and private sector action is
warranted at both the state and federal levels.... Our review of the
existing evidence suggests that chemical sensitivity is increasing and
could become a large problem with significant economic consequences
related to the disablement of productive members of society."

The New Jersey report, by chemist and lawyer Nicholas Ashford of the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and by physician Claudia Miller
of the University of Texas, had two aims: (1) to clarify the nature of
chemical sensitivity, and (2) to identify ways the New Jersey
Department of Health can assist those who are affected.

Different people who suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity exhibit
a bewildering variety of symptoms and behavior, captured by the
following words: distraught; excited; agitated; enraged; panicky;
circuitous or onetrack thoughts; muscle-twitching and jerking of
extremities; convulsive seizures; aggressive; talkative; clumsy
(ataxic); anxious; fearful; apprehensive; alternating chills and
flushing; ravenous hunger; excessive thirst; giggling or pathological
laughter; tense; jittery; "hopped up;" argumentative; overly
responsive; sweating and chilling; insomnia; alcoholism; obesity;
running or stuffy nose; clearing throat; coughing; wheezing; asthma;
itching (eczema and hives); gas; diarrhea; constipation (colitis);
urgency and frequency of urination; various eye and ear syndromes;
tired; dopey; somnolent; mildly depressed; edematous with painful
syndromes (headache, neck ache, back ache, neuralgia, myalgia,
myositis, arthralgia, arthritis, arteritis, chest pain); cardiovascular
effects; confused; indecisive; moody; sad; sullen; withdrawn or
apathetic; emotionally unstable; impaired attention, concentration,
comprehension, and thought processes (aphasia, mental lapse, and
blackouts); unresponsive; lethargic; stuporous; disoriented;
melancholic; incontinent; paranoid orientation; delusions;
hallucinations; amnesia and coma.

Of course any one individual suffers from only a few of these symptoms,
but the baffling spectrum of problems associated with sensitivity to
chemicals has made many doctors wary of treating patients who think
they may suffer from the disease. Indeed, many doctors have
traditionally refused to acknowledge the existence of a single disease
called "chemical sensitivity" or "multiple chemical sensitivity." As a
consequence, a person who exhibits a cluster of debilitating symptoms
will visit, on average, 6 or 7 physicians before he or she finds one
who will take the problem seriously and will try to unravel the causes-
-or at least look for things that trigger the symptoms. Most doctors
simply say, "I can't help you," or, "It's all in your head--take this
tranquilizer." One of the worst aspects of this mysterious condition is
the sense of loneliness and abandonment that patients feel; rejected by
doctor after doctor, patients begin to believe it is somehow their own
fault that they have gotten sick.

The situation is complicated by ongoing professional turf battles
between traditional physicians, allergy specialists, and a group of
specialists called clinical ecologists. They argue about definitions,
diagnoses, causes, and appropriate treatments. The patient becomes a
double victim--first to the disease itself, then to the medical
profession that doesn't do well in the face of complex problems that
may come and go, symptoms that encompass multiple organ systems, and
vastly different medical training that causes doctors in different
specialties to "see" different things when they look at the same
patient. Medicine is not an exact science and nowhere is this more
clear than when a person responds strongly--even violently and
dramatically--to mild odors of perfume or paint, or to faint smells
from a new rug or a new sofa, or from exposure to some new detergent or
solvent in the workplace. The chemically sensitive are victims of the
modern industrial environment; their inalienable right to the pursuit
of happiness has been taken from them by corporate production and
marketing decisions made without their votes or even their opinions
being sought or considered.

Unfortunately, until the New Jersey report was issued, there was no
really good single book or report that tried to put these problems into
perspective and tried to sort out what was really known from what was
merely suspected or assumed. (We reviewed the only other really good
study we had come upon in RHWN #165, but for all its virtues it did not
clarify many of the issues that the New Jersey study manages to throw
light upon.)

The New Jersey study, CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY, is available from National
Center for Environmental Health Strategies (NCEHS), 1100 Rural Ave.,
Voorhees, NJ 08043; phone (609) 429-5358. $15.00 for members of NCEHS,
$17 for non-members. The New Jersey study is essential reading for
anyone interested in this problem. NCEHS also sells copies of the new
book (which we will review at a later time) by Ashford and Miller,
Reinhold, 1990); $14.50 for members; $16.00 for others. (The New Jersey
study is stronger on public policy aspects of the problem--what your
state government can do to help the chemically sensitive.) Join NCEHS
for $15.00; $10.00 for limited-income, seniors, and students. Request
their publications list. Hats off to Mary Lamielle, NCEHS founder--a
truly effective advocate for the chemically sensitive.

--Peter Montague



The National Wildlife Federation (NWF), one of the largest U.S.
environmental groups, voted Dean Buntrock onto its board of directors
in 1987. Mr. Buntrock is the head of Waste Management, Inc. (WMI), the
nation's largest waste hauler and the world's leading practitioner of
the art of putting dangerous wastes out of sight by burying them in the
ground. Waste Management owns or operates 128 landfills in 36 states,
plus others in several foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia and
Venezuela. Now that Waste Management has acquired a controlling
interest in the Wheelabrator incinerator company, the burial of toxic
ash in the ground is one of the firm's most promising lines of
business, according to Wall Street analysts. For example, in Falls
Township, PA, Wheelabrator is pushing forward aggressively with plans
to bury 205,000 tons of incinerator ash each year containing 1.2
million pounds of lead, six tons of arsenic, six tons of cadmium, and
25 tons of nickel. During the 20-year lifetime of the Falls
incinerator, the total quantity of toxics buried in the ground at this
one site will be large indeed, if Mr. Buntrock's firm has its way with
Pennsylvania environmental authorities. The proposed toxic ash dump
borders the Delaware River.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists Waste Management as a
potentially responsible party at 96 Superfund sites--8% of all the
Superfund sites in the country. If penalties paid are a good indicator,
Mr. Buntrock's firm is the least law abiding waste hauling firm in the
U.S., having paid a record $43 million dollars for violations of law in
recent years.

National Wildlife Federation has come under some criticism from
environmentalists since 1987 for allowing Dean Buntrock to sit on its
Board of Directors. In a recent interview (GARBAGE magazine Jan./Feb.,
1991, pgs. 54-57), Jay D. Hair, president of the National Wildlife
Federation, defended Waste Management's record. According to the
interviewer, Mr. Hair said, "There has not been one lawsuit filed
against Waste Management that has to do directly with environmental
degredation [sic]. All of these are anti-trust kinds of issues." The
interviewer, Art Kleiner, went on to say, "Hair says he's made a
standing offer to environmental groups: 'If they present me with data
to back up claims of environmental abuse or groundwater contamination
at any WMI facility, I personally will have the NWF file a lawsuit
against Waste Management,'" Mr. Kleiner quotes Mr. Hair as saying. Mr.
Kleiner could not locate environmentalists who had heard of Mr. Hair's
standing offer, "But now the offer is public," Mr. Steiner said.

Anyone believing they have evidence of environmental abuse or
groundwater contamination by a Waste Management dump or incinerator
should contact: The Waste Management, Inc., Encyclopedia Project in the
Chicago office of Greenpeace (1017 West Jackson Boulevard, Chicago, IL
60607; 312/666-3305). As a public service, Greenpeace will assist all
interested parties in getting relevant information into Mr. Hair's
hands, to expedite the initiation of a lawsuit by the National Wildlife
Federation against Waste Management, Inc.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: allergies; mcs; studies; medical treatments; clinical
ecologists; fumes; national center for environmental health strategies;
nwf; dean buntrock; wmi; wheelabrator; falls township, pa; encyclopedia
project; greenpeace;