Life in a Fog

The day was chilly, Teri Ralya recalls, when she returned to her Arvada apartment in March 1994 to air out the pesticides that had been sprayed there that morning. As she opened up all the windows in her third-story unit and switched on the stove's exhaust fan, she hoped that this latest batch of debuggers had worked. Ever since she, fiance Mike Nolan and their infant son, Ryan, had moved into the one-bedroom government-subsidized apartment the month before, they'd had problems with cockroaches.

Previous efforts to get rid of the pests had failed, and Ralya was squabbling with the management at Parkview Village Apartments and with Kauffman Pest Control, the company that routinely sprayed the complex. Ralya had had a tense confrontation with exterminator Greg Kauffman that very morning. She says he started spraying her apartment without telling her what chemicals he was using, and she'd felt compelled to grab her young son and flee.

Now it was 5 p.m., and the exterminator was gone. Ralya had left Ryan with her ex-husband, and she ventured into the apartment with the boy's flannel baby blanket held tight to her mouth.

The apartment smelled "buggy," she says. Even with all the cold air pouring in, the pesticide odor hadn't abated by the time the rest of the family returned to the apartment around midnight. They went inside anyway and went to sleep.

By morning, their lives had entered a sickly haze from which they say they may never fully emerge.

Nolan left for his job as a motorcycle mechanic with his head aching and his nose literally stuffed with Kleenex. Ryan, just a few months old, was crying and unusually cranky, his eyes puffy, a rash on one side of his face and head. Ralya, who already suffered from asthma, recalls waking up with the feeling that she'd been smacked in the head with a baseball bat. She had a nosebleed and wheezy sinuses. "I was moving in slow motion," Ralya says. "It was a funky, coma kind of day."

Even their apartment looked sickly. A sticky, opaque film covered the headboard of their bed, a dresser mirror, the sliding glass door to the porch, the bathroom mirror and some of their dishes.

Ralya and Nolan claim that exposure to the pesticides sprayed that day has left them with "multiple chemical sensitivity," a condition that has stirred considerable debate in the medical community--much of it over whether the condition even exists. MCS, as it is called, is a strong reaction to chemicals--natural and synthetic, commonplace and rare--that don't affect most people. But now, Ralya and Nolan say, everything from mold to perfume to smoke to disinfectant to pesticides bothers them, causing symptoms that range from nausea to skin rashes to headaches to fatigue. And Ryan, who already had breathing difficulties, today requires continual medication and treatment, his parents claim.

Few doubt that people like Ralya, Nolan and Ryan are sick with something. But what is it?

Those who say they suffer from MCS can exhibit an array of symptoms, and that's a real stumbling block to making a diagnosis: Many experts say there's no way to prove that a multitude of symptoms can be traced back to one chemical, or even several of them.

Mark Simon, former president of the Governor's Council for Disabilities and a self-described advocate for the disabled, calls MCS "the carpal tunnel syndrome of the Nineties. Because they look fine, because they function fine, the employer starts going, 'What the hell's going on here?'"

Simon believes that MCS exists and that the day is going to come when the condition becomes widely accepted. "Right now," he says, "the problem is this: There's a huge body of anecdotal evidence to support it, but very little empirical evidence because there's been little funding."

Much of the debate over MCS focuses on whether the symptoms originate primarily from toxic chemicals in the environment or from the mind's perception that toxic chemicals exist.

Ralya and Nolan insist that what they're suffering from isn't in their heads.

"I cannot see how a person could psychologically create a rash or psychologically create a pulmonary problem," Nolan says. "Or how a person can create a headache for themselves--there's just no way. None of us have a psychological history...that's so farfetched for them to say that."

Whatever the trigger, Nolan and Ralya have become hypersensitive to aromas. Although they don't walk around the streets wearing masks, as do some people who say they are plagued by chemicals, they are intensely curious and apprehensive about what they're breathing. During a recent excursion into an office building, they speculate that mold is present in the ventilation system. To Nolan, the atmosphere sometimes seems almost palpable. "You can taste the air in Denver just outside of Westminster," he says.

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T.R. Witcher