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Exposing an Invisible Enemy

Health Science Center researcher works to solve mystery of environmental illnesses

February 2005

by Natalie Gutierrez

Black soot covered nearly every inch of every wall in Mary Rodriguez’s home. The fire had destroyed furniture, television sets, exercise equipment and other appliances. The pungent odor of melted plastic, singed electrical wires and scorched carpet lingered in the ashes. Although she and her husband, Armand, weren’t home at the time of the fire, Rodriguez says she now bears the scars of damage the fire left behind.

For nearly three months after the fire, Rodriguez revisited the remains of her home to work with contractors and to search through ashes to recover any salvageable belongings. Little did she know she was causing irreversible damage to her health. Rodriguez never wore protective clothing or a face mask and would leave with soot covering her body and embedded in her nostrils and ears.

Today Rodriguez suffers from a rare autoimmune disease called scleromyxedema, characterized by skin lesions and the presence of an abnormal protein in her system. She also suffers from multiple chemical intolerances, which involve an extreme sensitivity or heightened response to everyday household cleaners, solvents in paints and preservatives, and dyes in foods and medications.

"My quality of life is not as good as it used to be because I can no longer hold a steady job or just do any of the things I used to," Rodriguez said.

Claudia Miller, M.D., M.S., professor of environmental and occupational medicine, said 2 percent to 6 percent of the U.S. population reports multiple chemical intolerances. She said it is possible Mary’s scleromyxedema, multi-system symptoms and intolerances resulted from dangerous substances and cleaning agents she absorbed through her lungs and skin for several months at her home.

Rodriguez recalls that a visit to a hospital emergency room in 2002 nearly killed her. "I was sitting in a chair in the ER and the next thing I knew I was having a seizure. I ended up in a coma for four days."

  Dr. Claudia Miller and Dr. Kou Sakabe
Dr. Kou Sakabe, attending physician for the environmental medical unit (EMU) at Kitasato University Hospital in Tokyo, takes Dr. Claudia Miller on a tour of the EMU in Japan.
Dr. Armand Rodriguez, Mary’s husband and a local anesthesiologist, watched over her 24 hours a day while she was in the hospital to ensure her condition did not worsen or become fatal. He monitored the medications she was given as well as the housekeeping routine in her room.

"Even a hospital can become a dangerous place for someone with chemical intolerances," Dr. Miller said. "Some patients with chemical intolerances, asthma or autoimmune diseases have reported severe reactions when placed in a hospital environment where fragrances, routine medications, cleaning agents and disinfectants are often found."

Dr. Miller is the deputy chair for community medicine and director of the South Texas Environmental Education and Research (STEER) program. She is board-certified in allergy/immunology and internal medicine and co-authored the highly acclaimed book "Chemical Exposures: Low Levels and High Stakes," now in its second edition, as well as numerous journal articles. In February 2000 Dr. Miller was invited to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform regarding her findings involving symptoms, including fatigue, pain, neurological/cognitive/mood disorders, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory problems and skin disorders, experienced by Gulf War veterans.

Research Dr. Miller conducted on 59 Gulf War veterans she evaluated at the Department of Veterans Affairs Regional Referral Center in Houston found that symptoms reported by veterans were strikingly similar to those of civilians exposed to pesticides or indoor pollutants in a new or remodeled building. The vast majority of the veterans reported new chemical, food or medication intolerances that were not a problem before the war. Researchers in more than a dozen industrialized nations reported similar observations. These findings led Dr. Miller to coin the term Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) to describe what appears to be an emerging new theory of disease.

"These observations fit in with what world-renowned physicist and author Dr. Thomas Kuhn referred to as a ‘compelling anomaly’ - a scientific observation that cannot be explained by existing paradigms and therefore drives the search for a new paradigm," Dr. Miller said. "TILT appears to be just such a new paradigm."

With construction of tighter, more energy-efficient schools, workplaces and homes, Dr. Miller said researchers are beginning to see more cases of TILT. "Research is beginning to connect many cases of asthma, chronic fatigue, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, depression and autoimmune diseases to environmental factors," she said.

Dr. Miller is working to secure funding needed to establish an Environmental Medical Unit (EMU) where research would be conducted on environmentally related illnesses. It would be the first of its kind in the country. An EMU is a hospital-based facility in which chemical exposures from all sources - air, food and water - are minimized through the selection of construction materials and furnishings that do not release volatile organic or other chemicals in the air. The unit features state-of-the-art ventilation and air filtration systems and restricts chemical use and entry.

Four EMUs were established in Japan and physicians there report successful studies. Japanese physicians learned about the need for a research EMU from Dr. Miller’s publications.

"An EMU would allow physicians to isolate patients from background chemical exposures in order to determine whether their health problems are environmentally triggered. Patients would stay at the unit for a period of time while they are being tested," Dr. Miller said.

"I could have lost my wife to illnesses that were caused by things I couldn’t see or understand," Dr. Rodriguez said. "An EMU would help people with illnesses like Mary’s to finally solve the mystery of the symptoms they may experience."

Dr. Miller said establishing the nation’s first research EMU inSan Antonio would place the Health Science Center in a lead role in environmental medicine.

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