I was struck when I opened this book for the first time by how much San Antonio is in it. You really got into this story [of environmental illness] with this group of employees from the Southwest Airlines ticketing center.
I was writing for Time Magazine. I suggested to my editor we do something on Sick Building Syndrome, which was barely on the radar at the time. It started out just a simple story. And then we went looking for a building in which people were sick and we found that San Antonio Southwest reservations center. We went in looking for respiratory problems and fatigue and what we found was quite shocking. We found seizures. We found strokes. And there was death in there, too. It was pretty serious stuff.
What did they eventually link this to? Reading your book it seems there was a lot of things wrong with that building. It was almost set up for a disaster.
They had very high levels of mold and bacteria in the air-handling units in the HVAC system that was servicing all four quadrants of the building — they had 600 employees working three shifts. Mold-infested ceiling tiles, the carpeting and the insulation. One of the big problems that was found was that the building was under negative pressure, it wasn’t getting enough fresh air in. And when you opened the door, some of the employees said it was like being sucked in. When a building is under negative pressure there’s a tendency to have condensation form on the inside walls, which is just a recipe for mold growth. When they peeled off the carpeting from the inside walls, the employees reported the walls were just covered with black mold. They were also spraying pesticides inside the air-handling system and around the employees themselves while they were working. So there were several toxic situations going on there.
Is the first time you had engaged in a story on environmental illness like this?
That was my baptism. It was indeed. Followed by three covers in USA Weekend on mold in homes, mold in schools, and mold in apartments buildings. I guess you could say I was Mr. Mold for about three years.
And where did that lead you? I saw a number of San Antonians in your book.
I did run into Dr. Claudia Miller. In fact, I first quoted her in the Time story. It was Dr. Claudia Miller who first opened my eyes to the bigger picture. In other words: Yes, toxic mold is a problem today because we seal up our buildings and there’s no place for toxics to go. If it gets wet and moldy in there it’s going to concentrate itself. But this is much more than toxic mold. Dr. Miller opened my eyes to the large number of toxic exposures in our living spaces today. They can be volatile organic compounds in a sick building; they can be pesticides sprayed in a sick building; it could be sarin, that the soldiers experienced in the Gulf War. And they’re producing the same type of disease syndrome, which is brand new, an entirely new disease process whereby an initiating exposure causes a person to become sensitive to or intolerant to things that would ordinarily not bother them, like perfumes and gasoline fumes, you name it. They’d develop these multiple-system symptoms — and we all know about them — chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, chronic digestive problems, cognitive and memory impairment. Millions of people have these problems. But they don’t necessarily make the connection between the symptoms and what’s triggering them in the environment.
You get into the Gulf War Syndrome. Obviously this was a high-profile long-term conversation nationally. The Department of Defense and the VA really tried to sit on this stuff.
The main problem, it would take about six months from the initiating exposure before they would develop this thing, where Gulf War vets suddenly couldn’t find their way home from, let’s say, work, or they couldn’t remember that they were going to work. They started developing all these problems. The VA was looking at this as a stress-related problem. They didn’t want to look at this as an exposure-related problem. The DOD was sitting on this thing, denying there were even chemical weapons over there, or that people were exposed to them. We were the ones that originally supplied Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons when he was our pal and was fighting the Iranians. Now when we go over there we’re sending our troops into a very toxic battlefield. The military didn’t want the American public knowing that it was us, really, that provided what was making our troops sick.
And we’re sending them off with these massive shots, the anthrax vaccine and everything else. Can you describe that?
That was probably the most toxic battlefield of all. You had the anthrax vaccine, which normally takes 18 months for it to become effective. So they had to give it a booster, and they gave it a Squalene booster to stimulate the immune system and make it much, much quicker. What happened was, in the words of one of the physicians who was one of the troops there, he said, ‘It just boosted the immune system too much.’ So what did we wind up with? There were large numbers of vets showing up developing lupus and other auto-immune diseases. And that might have been attached to that vaccine. The pyridostigmine bromide tablets that were given to protect them against the nerve gases over there. Those too have been implicated in Gulf War Syndrome. As well as organophosphate pesticides. They were bombing the inside of these tents that the troops were sleeping in the minute they set them up, and then the troops would actually have their uniforms sprayed with pesticides, and they were told to sleep with flea collars. And then there were the Kuwaiti oil fires which burned the skies completely black for months. One fellow told me you could not distinguish between the sun and the moon in the sky, whether it was night or day. And there was depleted uranium. We were firing depleted uranium rounds, mostly anti-tank stuff, and our men and women were being subjected to those types of exposures as well.
And then it’s taking several months after they get home to develop symptoms. Sort of like at the Southwest processing center.
That’s right. In the Southwest building, let’s say a person was becoming sick as a result of mold exposure, it can take several months, it can take several years at low levels before someone starts getting sick. The Gulf War vets, maybe it took them a year before this thing went into full bloom. It’s a neuroimmunological assault by a toxin. The title of the book is “They’re Poisoning Us,” and the reason I titled it that is because so many people kept telling me, “I feel like I’ve been poisoned.”
It’s important to point out also, that the science today shows it doesn’t take an overwhelming amount of petrochemicals or mycotoxin from black mold to generate an environmental illness, that it can be a low-level exposure. Is that right?
Oftentimes people say, “Well, why are you sick and the person sitting next to you is not sick? And why is it that 80 percent of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, or Toxicant Induced Loss of Tolerance, victims are women?” There are reasons for this. Number one, some people are more susceptible by way of their genetics. There was one study that showed that estrogen seems to play a role. So there are a number of different factors that make some people more susceptible to this illness than others, but it does not invalidate the fact that they are sick.
How widespread does your research suggest that MCS and TILT are in the United States today?
There have been several studies, and very good ones. The National Academy of Sciences estimated that 2-3 percent of the country has been diagnosed with MCS. There’s 15 percent of the American public that could be experiencing a heightened sensitivity to chemicals. The big deal, though, lately a very good national study was done by Dr. Stanley Caress. In his study, 12 to 15 percent of adults report reactivity to everyday chemicals, 6 percent suffer from severe chemical sensitivity, and 3 percent have actually been diagnosed with MCS. I think the most shocking number that I came across: Dr. Caress did a study in metropolitan Atlanta and found that 2 percent of the metropolitan Atlanta adults were out of work because of MCS. That’s a knock-out.
If the science of this ever sunk in, we’d be living in very different built environments. Have you found that politically the deck is just stacked against us to get reform that recognizes these types of illnesses?
Yes. A lot of it is about money. It would be naive to say that everything’s going to change overnight and industry should just lie back and say, ‘Look. What can we do to help?’ That would be naive because industry would suffer. Since this thing started in the post-World War Two petrochemical revolution everybody’s been caught with their pants down. What do we do? There’s been some really bad behavior on the part of industry. Yes, there has. What’s keeping the science down? It’s not just the fact that the treatment of all these people would be so expensive, if in fact there were effective treatments for them. That’s very limited. The research, of course, needs to be done. The universities are funded to a great extent by business, as you know, by industry, by the insurance industry, the petroleum industry, the chemical industry, all of whom would suffer greatly. And those researchers who have tried to hang out a shingle at university saying, “I’m looking into environmental medicine,” usually have their funds cut and may even lose their jobs pretty quickly. But, especially in regards to mold, the insurance industry is looking at huge litigation. When this started in the late ‘90s, they all started circling their wagons.
In light of everything that you’ve found, when you are engaged with people over dinner and this momentous challenge before us comes up, what kinds of things do you find yourself offering in terms of how should people live in our toxic environment?
One thing that struck me is how many people I know or am meeting now, randomly, who have this problem or know somebody who has this problem who can’t go into somebody’s house who has perfume on. Or that have fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue and just don’t make the connection between their symptoms and what’s in the environment in their own home. I know a number of people who have this problem and I never realized it until I wrote about it. We’re talking about 15 percent of the population that reacts to outside chemicals. How many people in this country suffer from chronic fatigue? They’ve tried to throw that one at every virus in the world, and in every case the virus turns out not to be the cause. The researchers believe that the vast amount of chronic fatigue is environmentally driven, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia too.
With this neurological side to this, the explosion of everything from depression to autism, what role are toxins playing?
The science right now is looking at environmental factors in the rise of autism, which is just through the roof. Can you imagine, 1 in 100 children born in this country now are born autistic? That’s huge.
Where do people go from here?
Oftentimes, people who suffer from MCS are portrayed as environmental hermits with masks and everything. That’s not the way it is. There’s maybe 1 percent who have to live in the middle of nowhere. The other 99 percent, they’re like you and me. They have to pick their way through the chemical world. You have to figure out what you react to. There are ways of doing that, and there are books that can guide you. But the most important thing is that if somebody in the family suffers from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, it’s really important for family members to understand. That’s a big reason I wrote this book. I wanted other people to understand what these people are going through so they won’t be looked at as slackers. •
They’re Poisoning Us! From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico
34th Street Press
$19.95, 260 pages
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