AUSTIN -- Let's talk peanut butter and jelly. According to an account in `The New York Times,' more and more schools are banning peanut butter, that childhood staple, because peanut allergies are apparently on the rise. In rare cases, the allergy is so severe that it can kill, although there is an antidote.
Asthma and allergies are the Rodney Dangerfields of disease -- unless, of course, you happen to have them. Years ago in the Texas Lege, a fellow named E. W. Robinson of Amarillo was going through a confirmation hearing on his appointment to the Air Pollution Control Board. Not precisely a militant environmentalist, Robinson allowed that he would be against air pollution that was very harmful to people.
How about pollution that causes asthma and allergies? Well, you don't die of it, replied Robinson reasonably.
He would have had an easier time getting confirmed if there had not been a senator on the committee who had serious allergies and felt that his suffering should be taken seriously.
One trouble with allergies is that their cause is hard to pin down. A bewildering variety of natural substances cause allergic reactions. Other people have reactions to man-made products, and a depressing list of toxic pollutants, which can cause cancer and other fatal diseases, end the litany of their consequences with "can also cause asthma and allergies."
Something called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) afflicts somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of all Americans, according to different surveys. That's between 37 million and 75 million people who report that they are unusually sensitive or allergic to certain common substances, such as detergents, perfumes, solvents, pesticides, pharmaceuticals, foods or even the smell of dry-cleaned clothes.
`Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly,' a valuable newsletter that usually addresses graver consequences of pollution, reported in February: "An estimated five percent (13 million people) have been diagnosed by physicians as being especially sensitive. Many of these people react so strongly that they can become disabled from very low exposure to common substances. Typical symptoms include prolonged fatigue, memory difficulties, dizziness, difficulty concentrating, depression, feeling spacey or groggy, lack of motivation, shortness of breath, headache, nervousness, muscle aches, joint pain, chest pains, nausea and more."
As you can see from this partial list of symptoms, practically anything can be blamed on MCS. It sounds like hypochondriac heaven, which makes it easy to dismiss.
But `Rachel's' reports: "MCS has been recognized by its symptoms for 50 years because MCS sufferers in many geographical areas, researchers studying them and doctors treating them have reported a remarkably consistent picture of disease. However, because MCS sufferers react to chemicals at levels that are hundreds or thousands of times lower than allowable occupational exposures, traditional toxicology dictates that their symptoms cannot be caused by chemical exposure . . . . In sum, because MCS does not fit any of the three currently-accepted mechanisms of disease -- infectious, immune system or cancer -- traditional medicine has not known how to explain MCS, and so has often labeled it `psychogenic' -- originating in the patient's mind."
In a rare moment of comedy in all this, the first time MCS came to public attention here (the Canadians are well ahead of us on this) was in 1987, when the Environmental Protection Agency remodeled its office space at the Watergate Mall, causing about 200 employees to develop "sick building syndrome." The National Research Council now accepts that sick building syndrome is a real phenomenon, and several dozen EPA employees later reported developing MCS.
Meanwhile, the chemical companies, like the tobacco companies before them, are dismissing all this as "junk science." They have funded their own research group: the Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute. `Rachel's' reports that Dow, Monsanto, Procter & Gamble, the Cosmetic Toiletries and Fragrances Association, and other companies involved in the manufacture of pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other chemicals each pay $10,000 a year to keep ESRI going. The head of ESRI, Dr. Ronald Gots, also runs the National Medical Advisory Group, which provides expert witnesses to defend chemical corporations in tort lawsuits.
As `Rachel's' also points out, "The stakes are enormous and the chemical industry knows it. If a clearly-defined disease emerges from research of MCS, with chemical causes that are understood, then it can't be too many decades before chemical corporations will have to face liability and compensation claims from millions of citizens harmed by their products."
`Rachel's' recommends the book `Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes' by Nicholas Ashford and Claudia Miller as a lucid and thoughtful account of the current science and medicine on MCS.
Molly Ivins is a columnist for the `Star-Telegram.' You may write to her at 1005 Congress Ave., Suite 920, Austin, TX 78701; call her at (512) 476-8908; or email her at email@example.com.
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