Posts tagged ‘environmental medical unit’

Gulf War Research Misses the Point (Again)

Brain damage? That’s the latest theory from researchers trying to explain Gulf War illness. I’m skeptical of the new study and disappointed because medical research again is missing the point.

Thousands of Gulf War veterans have been sick and undiagnosed for more than decade as doctors grope for answers. No one can convincingly explain their many symptoms, which include pain, fatigue and cognitive impairment.

Things won’t change until medical science acknowledges that we are dealing with an entirely new mechanism of disease. We recognize how germs and immune-system failures cause disease. Now we need to recognize that chemical exposures cause disease, too.

The Gulf War veterans are suffering the effects of chemical intolerance probably brought on by one or many such exposures in the war zone. I said so in congressional testimony as far back as 1999.

Photo of Civil War soldiers

Wartime in the past has opened new thinking on the origin of disease. The germ theory, for example, emerged from the Civil War. Photo: Library of Congress.

My conclusions are based years of study. I also served as the environmental medical consultant to the Department of Veterans Affairs regional referral center in Houston for seven years in the 1990s. I’ve evaluated dozens of ill veterans. They have what is called TILT, or Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance.

A single exposure or repeated chemical exposures can cause TILT. People with TILT suffer from chemical intolerances that can impair cognitive abilities and cause multi-symptom illnesses.

With the Gulf War veterans, it doesn’t matter so much which exposure caused their breakdown in tolerance — be it pesticides, smoke from the oil fires or pyridostigmine bromide pills. Those things have long since left these veterans’ bodies. It’s the aftermath of these exposures — the new-onset intolerances to low-level chemical exposures — which appear to be perpetuating their symptoms. In some cases, it may be difficult to sort out individual intolerances, or “triggers,” because of a phenomenon called “masking.” This occurs when individuals are reacting to so many exposures that they have overlapping symptoms.

How can we help these people? The single most important task is to sort out and “unmask” the causes or triggers for their symptoms. This requires an environmental medical unit, or EMU. Congress once endorsed EMU research for the Gulf War veterans but never funded it. Only a few EMUs exist in the world. They are environmentally controlled in-patient hospital units designed to isolate patients from exposures that set them off.

Once we get patients to baseline, we can reintroduce things like caffeine, foods and various substances to identify what causes their flare-ups.

This is not the first time doctors have been baffled by wartime disease. During the Civil War, doctors faced a similarly mysterious “syndrome” characterized by fever. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers died. The doctors did what good epidemiologists do today. They classified the cases. Since the hallmark symptom was fever, they classified the cases by fever type — remittent, intermittent, or relapsing. In doing so, they unknowingly lumped together dozens of unrelated illnesses — everything from typhus and typhoid to malaria and tuberculosis.

Today we face this same situation with Gulf War veterans, only this time the hallmark symptom is not as simple as fever. It’s newly acquired intolerances these veterans have been experiencing since the end of the war.

Air Pollution’s Harm Reaches into the Cradle

Chemically intolerant patients have for years moved from cities and other pollution sources, e.g., locations that burn wood to heat homes in winter, like parts of the Pacific Northwest, because of air pollution.

Where is the nation’s worst particulate pollution? In 2011, the American Lung Association published a list:

1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
2. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
3. Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.
4. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
5. Salt Lake City-Ogden-Clearfield, Utah
6. Provo-Orem, Utah
7. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.
8. Birmingham-Hoover-Cullman, Ala.
9. (tie) Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.; Logan, Utah; Sacramento-Yuba City, Calif.

Smog cloaks Salt Lake City’s skyline in 2011. (Photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

But this is new: Now couples are being advised to avoid air pollution when they try to conceive a baby. See the Salt Lake Tribune story “Docs: Wait – or get out of Utah’s bad air – to conceive.”

Cities in Utah endure days and even weeks of concentrated air pollution created by temporary atmospheric inversions. Common in winter, inversions trap air pollution close to the ground and push it to unhealthy levels. Utah is not alone. Los Angeles and Pittsburgh live with an even higher risk according to the American Lung Association.

If concentrated pollution can endanger a fetus, think about its overall threat to public health.

Exposures like those in Utah have the potential to initiate TILT, or Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance — the two-step disease process that is affecting growing numbers of people in the United States and abroad. Unfortunately, these people may not recognize their illness because of “masking.” Masking? Think of a frog placed in boiling water. Legend has it that the frog immediately jumps out, but if the water is slowly heated, the frog remains and boils to death. He adapts but to his detriment, even demise.

Masking is why we need doctors to screen patients with the QEESI, or Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory, a medical questionnaire to detect loss of tolerance. And the rise in TILT shows the need for EMUs, or environmental medical units, to isolate the masking elements in patients. Then we can begin to “see” what these exposures are doing to us. The QEESI and EMU are important modern-day tools much like the microscope and physician Robert Koch’s 19th-century postulates, which helped “prove” the germ theory a century ago.

Salt Lake City is rightfully concerned about a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. It showed the risk of having a baby of low birth weight jumps 10 percent in areas with higher concentrations of particulate matter, including PM2.5. That’s the pollution that spikes in winter inversions and leads to Utah’s pollution. Ultrafine particles easily enter human airways and can travel through the nose to the brain’s limbic system, which regulates mood, behavior, short-term memory and a host cognitive functions.

There are no good choices to avoid the inversion threat, but inaction is the worst of them.

Are we going to become like China, where wealthier individuals equip their cars and homes with sophisticated air filtration devices? Where children wear masks in cities to filter air? What about the vast majority of families who cannot afford this?

Groundbreaking National Academy of Sciences Workshop on Individual Susceptibility

I presented April 18 at the National Academy of Sciences Workshop “Biological Factors that Underlie Individual Susceptibility to Environmental Stressors and Their Implications for Decision-Making.”

The proceedings are available by recorded webcast so you can view and listen to the speakers. View the webcast at:

http://www.tvworldwide.com/events/nrc/120418/
(Supply your email adress to log in.)

The title of my presentation was “Human Variability in Chemical Susceptibility (Intolerance/Sensitivity): Research Findings to Date and Their Implications for Future Study Design.” I’ve posted my presentation for your review.

I was asked to describe our findings from the QEESI, the Quick Environmental Exposure and Sensitivity Inventory, and to discuss the use of EMUs, environmentally-controlled medical units, for research. Here is a synopsis:

“The QEESI is a validated research tool widely used to identify and characterize chemically intolerant individuals and groups. Results from these studies provide evidence for broad endogenous variability in susceptibility and point to the complex nature of susceptibility in humans, with susceptible persons generally reporting adverse responses to chemically diverse substances, including foods and drugs. Future investigations to assess human variability that is ‘endogenous or biological’ will benefit from the use of EMUs. Such studies will enable us to correlate symptoms and clinical measures (such as pulmonary function and EEG measures) with changes in the ‘-omics’ in real time at key points, i.e., when subjects enter the EMU, once they have achieved a clean baseline, and pre- and post- low level challenges.”

The QEESI is available free for download.

Details about the workshop are at:
http://nas-sites.org/emergingscience/workshops/individual-variability/