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Chemically Sensitive Doctor Brings Media Attention to Environmental Medicine
by Lisa Lavine Nagy, MD

I am a medical doctor with a horrifying story shared with Nightline in 2008. I hope my story illustrates a serious, yet underplayed and growing problem in our country: chemical sensitivity.

I became deathly ill due to a toxic mold exposure from a huge aquarium in my California home. Since then, I have realized that a large proportion of the U.S. population (75% of females and 10% of males) has mild symptoms associated with Environmental Illness (EI) that they are not aware of.

In cases of mold exposure, mycotoxins can overload the liver, its detoxification pathways, as well as the nervous and immune systems, leading to chemical sensitivity. Environmental Medicine is really a misnomer and generally is concerned with not only toxic exposures, but also declining hormone and neurotransmitter levels, genetic predispositions, nutritional deficiencies, and anything else that affects the body and autonomic nervous system.

Symptoms of my illness began with intolerance to touching the mail, which would cause my hands to become red and itchy. This led to headaches, depression, ADD, feeling fatigued in stores, dizziness upon standing, weight loss, and intolerance to diesel exhaust, perfume, and other chemical smells. My muscles weakened on par to that of Lou Gehrig's disease. Then my husband began to experience similar symptoms. He denied any problems as many men do. But there was no denying his face was turning bright red, that clothing tags were driving him crazy, or his tremors, short-term memory loss, depression, or adrenal insufficiency.

It may be beneficial to understand some of the principals of Environmental Medicine in order to keep the toxic load on our bodies low. Avoidance is a key principal. Eliminate personal care and domestic products filled with chemicals. Some of my favorite natural-ingredient products include Herbatint hair color, olive oil soap, goat's milk lotion, AFM's Super Clean Degreaser, and Seventh Generation's laundry soap, fabric softener, and kitchen spray. I also suggest avoiding contact with perfumes, pesticides, diesel exhaust, gasoline fumes, and wood smoke among many offending agents, which can wear down your tolerance and immune system. Another principal important to review is the cause behind the health problem. Mold and mycotoxin exposure is one of the most common exposures and avoiding it is paramount for sensitivity. Exposure may lead to depression, neurological problems (Parkinson's, MS), and chemical sensitivity. My guess is that it is involved in some cases of autism as well.

If mold is present in the basement, it is safer to assume this is the problem rather than be sorry that you didn't. I recommend leaving for five days and acquiring new clothing (washed outside the home) to test your theory. If your health improves while away and worsens upon returning to home and your clothing, then you have likely proven that mold is the source of your problem. Information on mold plates that test levels in your home and where to obtain them is available on my website. The trichothecenes, which have been classified as agents of bioterrorism, are the worst group of toxins and often found in clothing of those living in moldy buildings. Senator Ted Kennedy and the Senate Health Committee have authorized a Government Accountability Office investigation this year on the health effects of indoor mold, which may bring these facts to the public.

Another way to maintain a healthy home is by keeping sources of your air, water, and food as clean as possible. Consider using charcoal-based air filters (my favorites are Aireox with its low EMF filter for smaller bedrooms and offices and Austin Air HealthMate Plus for regular-sized rooms). Storing leftovers in glass or cellophane bags is also a must. Placing newspapers in large cellophane bags makes reading without headaches possible. Water should be filtered and stored and drunk from glass; no plastic bottles. Whole-house water filtration systems are great because they make bathing free from toxins and chloroform exposure! Alternatively, individual shower charcoal filters and bath balls are easy to install and use.

Making your bedroom an oasis cannot be overemphasized. This should be a place you eliminate toxins as you sleep, not absorb them. This involves the removal of books, magazines, carpeting, radio alarm clocks, animals, and clothing (especially rubber-soled shoes, which outgas offensive volatile organic compounds [VOCs]). It is also a place where your first air filter should go. Using cotton bedding and pillows can make a tremendous difference. Cracking the window if outdoor air is "fume free" is a good idea. Sleeping with an I Can Breathe! mask may be an option for those with bedrooms not yet up to standard for them.

If any of my symptoms feel or sound familiar to anything you are experiencing or you even suspect a mold issue in your home, I encourage you to read, learn, and seek help. It was frightening being a doctor and not knowing where to go for help, let alone a lay person. It is my hope that my story helps prevent others from suffering with a similar fate.

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