Other Environmental Diseases


Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS)

Myalgic Encephalopathy/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/(ME/CFS), also known as Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome (CFIDS), is a disease characterized by extreme fatigue (tiredness) that is not connected to an underlying medical condition. Because so many illnesses have fatigue as a symptom, a diagnosis of ME/CFS may be reached through a process of elimination, as a doctor rules out any other illnesses which may be causing the patient’s symptoms. To confirm a diagnosis of ME/CFS, a patient must have unexplained persistent or relapsing chronic fatigue that is not lifelong, is not the result of ongoing exertion, is not substantially alleviated by rest, and results in substantial reduction in previous levels of occupational, educational, social, or personal activities. In addition, the patient must have four or more of the following symptoms: problems with short-term memory or concentration, sore throat, swollen or tender lymph nodes, muscle pain, multi-joint pain without swelling or redness, headaches, unrefreshing sleep, and exhaustion lasting 24 or more hours following physical or mental exertion. These symptoms must have persisted or recurred during 6 or more consecutive months of illness and must not have predated the fatigue.

Although the causes of ME/CFS are still not clear, many different theories have been proposed. The most common theories are: viral infection, mycoplasma infection, immune or endocrine dysfunction, autonomic nervous system dysfunction, environmental toxins, genetic factors, candida overgrowth or gut dysbiosis, heavy metal sensitivity, and emotional or psychological stress or trauma. A large portion of ME/CFS patients report that everyday exposures to volatile chemicals trigger or worsen their symptoms, leading some researchers to investigate possible links between MS/CFS and multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). If you are concerned about potential chemical exposures in your home, air quality testing can give you a clearer picture of which chemicals you encounter in your everyday life.

Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS)

A recently discovered disease (first case in 2007), MCAS is a condition where mast cells (a key white blood cell component of our immune system) release an overabundance of chemicals (mast cell mediators) too frequently, causing repeated episodes of anaphylactic symptoms such as hives, swelling, low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, headaches, vomiting and diarrhea.  The cause of MCAS is unknown.  In individuals with MCAS, there is a wide range of triggers for mast cell activation, including certain foods and medications, infections, fungi, bacteria, insect bites, odors, stress, weather conditions and exercise. 

While there is no cure for MCAS, this condition can be mitigated by self-management and medication.  Self-management is achieved by avoidance of triggers, which can include dietary changes, elimination of scented candles and other fragrance-emitting products from the home, preventing mold exposure, etc.  Medications can be used to alleviate MCAS symptoms.  Due to the wide range of symptoms, the types of medications vary, and many patients experience multiple symptoms requiring multiple medications.

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS)

Sick Building Syndrome (SBS) is a term that describes a situation in which individuals experience acute health effects linked with time spent in a building. SBS is linked to problems with indoor air quality, often stemming from problems with the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system. Other possible causes include exposure to chemical vapors such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by building materials, ozone, and mold. SBS is a serious issue in office buildings and commercial environments, where it decreases productivity and increases absenteeism. Maintaining a healthy indoor environment is a vital step in sustaining a vibrant, productive workplace.

SBS can have a wide variety of symptoms, depending on each individual’s exposure and personal sensitivities. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose or throat irritation, dry cough, dry or itching skin, brain fog, fatigue, sensitivity to odors, hoarseness, allergies, cold, flu-like symptoms, increased incidence of asthma attacks and mood disorders or personality changes. Sufferers report that symptoms are relieved upon leaving the building. If you and your colleagues are experiencing these symptoms, or if decreased productivity or increased absenteeism are problems in your workplace, an indoor air quality investigation can find the causes of these problems and help you find effective solutions.

Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning occurs when lead builds up in the body over a period of months or years. Although everyone is vulnerable to lead, it is most dangerous for young children. Signs of lead poisoning in children include: developmental delays, learning difficulties, irritability, loss of appetite or weight, fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, constipation and hearing loss. In adults, lead poisoning can cause high blood pressure, abdominal pain, constipation, joint or muscle pains, numbness or tingling in extremities, declines in mental function, mood disorders, memory loss, headache, and reproductive problems. In milder cases, lead poisoning can be treated by removing the exposure. In more serious cases, lead poisoning is treated with chelation therapy or EDTA therapy. Depending on the level of exposure and the resulting health consequences, some effects of lead poisoning may be irreversible.

The most common source of lead exposure, especially for children, is lead-based paint. Lead-based paint has a sweet taste, and young children may eat paint chips, suck on windowsills or banisters, or put lead-painted toys in their mouths. Although lead-based paint has been banned in the US since 1978, if you live in an older building, there may be old layers of lead-based paint on the walls or woodwork. Other sources of lead exposure include lead pipes, which may release lead particles into drinking water, imported canned goods, some traditional medicines, soil, household dust, some pottery, and kohl. If you are concerned that there may be lead-based paint in your home, an environmental health investigator can inspect your home and perform laboratory tests that can determine your risk of exposure.

To prevent lead poisoning, take steps to reduce exposure in the home. Clean regularly and dust with a wet cloth to remove lead-containing dust, wash hands and toys, keep children from eating soil, and use cold tap water for cooking. If you are performing any renovations in your home yourself, take precautions to protect your health. Some lead-based paint can be removed, and some must be sealed over. Do not attempt to remove lead-based paint by sanding or by using a blow torch. Wear protective clothing, and do not eat in your work area. Do not cut corners on safety to save a few dollars! Your health is not work the risk!

Mercury Poisoning

Mercury is a naturally-occurring heavy metal which exists in three states: elemental, inorganic and organic. Each type of mercury has its own exposure route and toxic effects. Recovery from mercury poisoning can vary widely from person to person, depending on the level of exposure and the type of mercury involved; while some effects are reversible, others may not be. If you think you have been exposed to mercury, talk to your doctor and consider having your home inspected to assess any possible mercury exposure.

Elemental mercury (also called quicksilver), is liquid at room temperature. It can be found in some thermometers, dental fillings (where it is mixed with silver), fluorescent light bulbs, and some industrial processes. Exposure to elemental mercury occurs most often by inhaling mercury vapor in dental or smelting operations. A high-level vapor exposure can cause immediate lung damage, while low-level exposures over time can cause kidney disease, skin rash, and memory and neurological problems.

Inorganic mercury is formed when elemental mercury combines with other elements, such as oxygen or sulfur, to form mercury salts. Mercury salts occur in nature, and are used in some industrial processes; people who work with these compounds may be exposed. If ingested or applied to the skin over an extended time, inorganic mercury will have similar health effects to elemental mercury.

Organic mercury forms when mercury naturally combines with carbon. This compound is ingested by microorganisms, which transform it into a compound called methylmercury. When animals eat these microorganisms, mercury enters the food chain, where it collects in fish (a process called bioaccumulation). This is the most common and most well-known type of mercury exposure: humans ingest mercury when we eat contaminated fish or shellfish. Pregnant women in particular should avoid consuming mercury, as it can pass through the placenta and harm the fetus. If you are concerned about mercury in seafood, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program provides comprehensive, free information.

Potentially interesting historical note/possible supplement:
Remember the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland? In the nineteenth century, workers who made hats used elemental mercury to make felt from animal fur. Exposure to mercury vapor over the course of a years-long career caused neurological damage which caused hatters to act in strange ways that seemed crazy to the people around them. This was such a common occupational hazard that “mad as a hatter” became a common expression. Alice’s friend the Mad Hatter wasn’t mentally ill – he was suffering from mercury poisoning.

Peripheral Neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy causes numbness, tingling, weakness or pain in the peripheral nerves, most often the hands and feet. People with peripheral neuropathy often describe the pain as burning or stabbing. Peripheral neuropathy often disappears, especially if it is caused by a treatable underlying condition. Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism, diabetes, trauma, medications, or environmental exposures. Common environmental causes include exposure to lead, mercury, arsenic, thalium, and some insecticides or solvents. If you suspect that your peripheral neuropathy is being caused by an environmental factor, an environmental health investigation can determine what chemicals or heavy metals you are in contact with.

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS)

Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) is a condition whose sufferers are noticeably physically affected by everyday, low-level chemical exposures. MCS patients attribute their symptoms to chemicals such as scented products, pesticides, plastics, synthetic fabrics, smoke, petroleum products, and paint fumes. MCS can cause a vast range of symptoms, but the most common are headaches, brain fog, fatigue, muscle aches, and nausea. Because the symptoms of MCS are non-specific (meaning they are associated with a wide variety of illnesses), it can be difficult to recognize, and diagnosis may be arrived at through a process of elimination. Many possible causes of MCS have been proposed, including allergies, immune dysfunction, neurological sensitization, or somatoform disorders. However, MCS is still being investigated, and none of these causes have been confirmed by science If you suffer from MCS, an environmental health investigation can help you determine which chemicals or substances in your home may be triggering your symptoms.

Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS)

Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS) is a potentially severe, flu-like disease which is caused by exposure to organic dust. Organic dust is made of particles of living things such as bacteria, plants or animals; the people most likely to contract ODTS are farmers and people who spend a lot of time around fungi or birds. Symptoms, which usually begin within 4-12 hours after exposure and last for 1-5 days, include fever, chills and upper respiratory symptoms. Like the flu, ODTS is treated with rest and supportive treatments. The best way to prevent ODTS is to limit your exposure to mold in your home.