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Life in a Fog

Did a dose of pesticides ruin a Denver family's health?

"It's entirely possible that we're dealing with a system [the human body] that wasn't made for chemical exposures of the twentieth century," says Dr. Ken Gerdes, a member of the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, which is based in Denver. "It's possible that major-league exposure damages the enzymes that are supposed to get rid of foreign chemicals." In other words, Gerdes says, overexposure to one chemical could leave someone vulnerable to ill effects from others.

However, Cindy Lynn Richard, an industrial hygienist and manager of the Maryland-based Environmental Sensitivities Research Institute (which receives funds from consumer-products companies and universities), says, "It is not reasonable to believe that many different chemicals would cause people to have the same reaction.

"All of the people who claim this disorder are not all alike," she continues. "Some don't fit the profile, so you can have somebody who doesn't buy into the belief system but they got the diagnosis and they'll run with it. Some people have invested in the belief system for a while."

People who suffer from what they call MCS "want nurturing" and "tend to react negatively to suggestions they may need behavioral therapy," says Richard. But many people on the other side of the argument claim that the medical community suffers from the same kind of denial.

"Many doctors don't feel comfortable with listening to patients," Gerdes says.

Government officials are caught in the middle. "Maybe it's psychosomatic; maybe it's real, too," says Niedzwiecki, the health department toxicologist. "I don't think anyone knows the answer."

The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently provided $1.2 million to build an "Ecology House" designed fr those with MCS. But the medical establishment is far from convinced that the syndrome is real. Five major organizations, including the American Medical Association and the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, have ruled that MCS is at best an unsubstantiated hypothesis. That is why testimony of those who treat MCS--such as Johnson of the Dallas institute--can be more easily discarded by the courts.

"In the medical community, this diagnosis is extraordinarily controversial," Garr says. "Most medical organizations said it didn't have scientific basis. That's why he wasn't allowed to testify."

Since May, Nolan and Ralya have been renting a one-story home in a working-class neighborhood of Cheyenne. Nolan has found a job at a motorcycle shop with better ventilation, he says, than one where he worked in Englewood. Ralya says she hopes to be called for an interview with a program run by AmeriCorps called the Crime Victims Compensation Commission.

"You can either let this eat you up and wallow in your self-pity," she says, "or you can scrape it up and move on."

Inside their house, the living room is full of all sorts of plants--to increase the flow of oxygen, says Ralya. The front doors and all the windows are open, except when the Wyoming wind carries pollutants from the Frontier Refinery right over their house once or twice a day. When that happens, they close the windows.

When something bad is in the air, Ralya says, Ryan throws a fit, sometimes screaming for an hour or more, kicking and biting, and running senselessly into walls until he wears himself out or the wind changes direction.

They insist the air in Cheyenne is better than it was in Denver. Still, Ralya and Nolan exhibit a certain haunted quality, as if hidden aromas and fumes surround them wherever they go.

Ralya admits that she worries Ryan will continue to have problems as he grows older, especially when he gets to school. She wonders whether others will think he shows signs of attention deficit disorder when what he really suffers from is chemical sensitivity.

Yet in a final twist in the hazy world they live in, in court records even Dr. Alfred Johnson, the family's most supportive medical expert, recently indicated that the boy's chances for a healthy adolescence are good.

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