Each year we see scores of teachers who have the same story. It goes something like this: Because there was an increasing need for their special educational services, a new classroom has to be created for them. Sometimes the “new” room was actually a larger room that was partitioned off into smaller rooms. This partitioning often left the newly created room without windows and/or without the full use of a ventilation system. Sometimes the room was a converted janitor’s closet where cleaning supplies, pesticides, mops and buckets were stored. Because it was originally designed as a storage closet, it also had no windows and was not part of the ventilation system.
As part of the renovation, the newly partitioned room or closet was emptied, painted and carpeted. Children who took classes in this room usually did so for a maximum of one period a day, but the teacher often spent her entire day, five days a week, in this renovated, under-ventilated small room.
Over a period of time, she developed a large array of symptoms, depending upon the individuals, but the commonest by far was always “brain fog”. She gradually became spacey, dizzy, dopey, felt as though she couldn’t concentrate well and was exhausted or depressed for no apparent reason. She usually had a host of other complaints that seemed unrelated, such as irritable bowel, headaches, recurrent sinus infections, body aches and arthritis, nausea and irritable bowel, unexplained mood swings, painful or irregular menstrual periods, and much more.
Also, she often had begun to react to (have symptoms associated with) exposures to chemicals that never before bothered her, such as new carpeting, perfumes, cigarette smoke, paint, felt tip marking pens, and auto exhaust. The same thing happened with many foods, where she could not precipitate symptoms by eating certain foods that had never bothered her before. For example, eating sugars or wheat would accentuate the brain fog or fatigue.
Some of these toxic teachers were better on weekends, other were not. But they all passed their physical exams, blood tests and x-rays with flying colors, and no abnormalities could be found.
So, what was the culprit of this mysterious malay? It was CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY. It is caused by the inability to metabolize or detoxify the extra burden of chemicals from the renovation materials. The problem was compounded by having inadequate ventilation. When chemicals are unable to be detoxified, this results in the slow accumulation of chemicals that back up in the blood and begin to create damage and symptoms.
Everything to a different degree is aging or oxidizing, a chemical reaction that is spontaneous and unavoidable, and part of the basis of life. As this happens, amounts of the material are in the air, regardless of whether we can smell them. This is called off-gassing. Some off-gassing is more noticeable than others. For example, the off-gassing by a new car puts vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, toluene, and other chemicals into the air. These comprise part of the “new car smell”.
Everything that is in the air reaches an equilibrium with the body, and some of the chemical is also in the blood stream, because we are breathing the air. For example, carbon monoxide is odorless, but when it is in the air in sufficient concentration it can kill us. In lesser amounts, though, our body detoxification system metabolizes or neutralizes the chemicals and gets rid of them in the urine or bowel.
Some of the modern day chemicals are more difficult for the body to detoxify and they linger in the body undetoxified. When this happens, not only can they cause symptoms, they back up and damage other parts of the body, thus causing a domino effect of perplexing undiagnosable symptoms.
You see, we are the first generation of humanity every exposed to so many new chemicals. The average person in the home and work environments is exposed to over 500 chemicals a day. Normally these do not cause any problem as most people have health detoxification systems. Every chemical, whether we can smell it or not, quickly diffuses across the lung membranes into the bloodstream, where if the detox system is health, the body gets rid of the chemical.
Most of us are healthy enough to detoxify these chemicals without even being aware of them. However, in some people, because the detox pathways are not healthy, the chemicals back up. One sign of people who may be becoming chemically sensitive is that they often perceive odors that others cannot. And many odors seem exaggerated and actually cause symptoms that they don’t cause in other people, such as inability to concentrate, headaches, depression and fatigue. As if that were not a big enough problem, the symptoms they cause cannot usually be easily diagnosed with regular blood tests or x-rays, so often the victims are labelled malingerers or are told the symptoms are all in their heads.
In a newly renovated room, there is a higher than average level of chemical out-gassing, such as toluene from the paints and formaldehyde, 4-PC, and trichloroethylene from the carpets. But as we saw, when the EPA put in new carpeting in 1988, only 126 of the 2,000 workers developed the sick building syndrome or tight building syndrome. The rest of them were able to detoxify the 4-PC that the carpet emitted and had no symptoms. Whereas those unable to detoxify had a variety of the typical indoor air sensitivity symptoms. Some recovered and some never have.
If, when the teacher goes home at night, her home is much les chemically contaminated. Often she will clear out and feel rejuvenated for the next day. However, if at home she also has new carpeting or has recently painted, or someone smokes, her detox system continues to be overstressed and she does not clear out. Too much mold growth, a poorly vented gas stove or wood stove, vinyl wallpapers or drapes, or furniture coverings with stain-resistant coatings are some of the other items that can add to home pollution.
Or if she is hooked on a lot of sweets and junk foods, her detox pathways are not as strong, because they are invariably low in certain vitamins or minerals necessary for optimal function of the detox enzymes.
When the body detoxifies chemicals, it does so at the expense of nutrients. In other words, for every molecule of a pesticide or a chemical that we detoxify, we also use up or lose a certain number of molecules of nutrients: vitamins, minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids. Some of these are lost forever, so the net effect of breathing a higher level of chemicals is to also become nutritionally depleted.
In fact, pesticides are among the worst offenders in terms of being able to convert a previously healthy person into one who is now chemically sensitive. One problem is that many schools and offices use pesticides by contract. In other words, they do not wait to see any bugs; they have someone spray the poison regularly, regardless of activity.
If we have a strong healthful diet, high in nutrients, low in processed foods and sugars, we are usually able to keep up with the daily loss of nutrients from the work of daily detoxification. But people who have been on multiple antibiotics, birth control pills and other medications, have a high chemical exposure, eat a lot of sweets, have a high stress environment or have had years of off-and-on dieting, frequently have abnormally low vitamin or mineral levels to begin with, levels which are crucial in the operation of the detoxification pathway.
When you add to this type of compromised person an additional load of renovation chemicals, some systems can no longer cope. Once these deficiencies are discovered, however, with blood and urine tests, they can be corrected and the integrity of the detoxification system can be restored.
As an example, Jane S. was a 34-year-old special ed teacher who was moved into one of these renovated closets. Within the first three months, she started having headaches, depression, exhaustion, she couldn’t think straight, she was getting recurrent sore throats, and she was placed on multiple antibiotics. Her blood level of toluene, after a day at work, was twice as high as it was after a weekend at home. Measuring some of the vitamins and minerals that are important in the body to detoxify toluene showed that she was indeed low in zinc.
Zinc is in the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, which, as the name implies, is important in detoxifying alcohol from the diet as well. It made it easy for Jane to understand why, over the last few months, if she had a glass of wine with her husband and friends, it suddenly seemed like two or three. This is because when the enzyme to detoxify alcohol is deficient in zinc, the alcohol cannot be degraded or metabolized as quickly as normal and it builds up in the system; hence, one drink seems like two or three. The body also uses this zinc-dependent enzyme to detoxify many common indoor air chemicals. By correcting the zinc and increasing the ventilation in her classroom, her symptoms diminished and she lost her concomitant sensitivity to alcohol.
Many cases are not this simple. After a while many people develop sensitivities to indoor molds and chemicals, and commonly eaten foods, as well as have multiple nutrient deficiencies. The phenomenon is called the spreading phenomenon, whereby people suddenly start developing sensitivities to many things that never bothered them before.
If the problem is diagnosed early enough, merely improving the ventilation in the room has solved the problem. Other times, the temperature is increased in the room, for example, over weekends, to very high levels. This heat accelerates the oxidizing or out-gassing of the chemicals in the new paint and carpet. Of course, open windows and an overactive ventilation of the area is crucial to ensure that the chemicals get out of the building and are not merely circulated throughout to the other rooms. Unfortunately, though, some materials will not finish out-gassing for years. Often the installation of air purifiers in the small classroom is necessary, too.
The quicker the situation is remedied, the easier it is to turn it off. For, as it continues undiagnosed or untreated, the backed up or unmetabolized chemicals can further damage other enzymes in the body, creating new symptoms and new problems. The condition snowballs and is more difficult to correct the longer it goes unrecognized, since more damage has occurred in the body.
A bakeout, air purifiers, increasing the ventilation and sometimes removing the culprit, such as a carpet, or painting over an oil-based paint with a less toxic water soluble one, can often be all that is needed, if remedied early. The symptoms and solutions vary tremendously with the individual circumstances. Good classroom ventilation, a less toxic home environment, and a healthy detoxification system of the teacher with good levels of all the vitamins and minerals, amino acids and essential fatty acids are the requirements for getting well.
Obviously, there are many documented cases of children, also, who have become chemically sensitive. And with their immature detoxification systems, sometimes they are hit harder. Only, they do not possess the verbal sophistication to be able to say they can’t concentrate. Instead, they go on to be labelled learning disabled. Hopefully, as information about the toxic teacher syndrome becomes more well-known, we will be able to nip it in the bud and prevent more teachers as well as students from becoming unsuspecting victims of this 21st century malady.
2. Morrow, L.A., Callender, T., Lottenberg, S., Buchsbaum, M.S., Hodgson, M.J., Robin, N., P.E.T. and Neurobehavioral Evidence of Tetrabromoethane Encephalopathy, Journal of Neuropsychiatry, Vol 2, Issue 4, pp. 431-5, Fall, 1990.
3. Rogers, S.A., Zinc Deficiency as a Model for Developing Chemical Sensitivity, International Clinical Nutrition Review, 10:1, 253, 1990.
4. Rogers, S.A., Magnesium Deficiency Masquerades as Diverse Symptoms, ibid., 11:3, July, 1991.
5. Rogers, S.A., Chemical Sensitivity,
Parts I, II, III, February-April, 1992, Internal Medicine World Report,
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