See, here's the perplexing thing: my body is acting like it has tumors.
But it doesn't.
We tried treating me as if I did have the tumors and that stopped the symptoms but created a new ball of problems. So we stopped treatment.
My main question is why? My next question is how do we fix it?
The doctor visit today was confusing because there really wasn't time to have an actual conversation; it was, instead, a simple exchange of information. He'd been lecturing all morning and was running late, so I felt like I was spinning in a tornado.
However, he proposed a new theory, the first time I've heard a doctor mention this although as I've slugged my way through the syrupy thick bayou that is medical investigation and diagnosis, I've come to my own hypothesis, which interestingly matches this new one.
New hypothesis: I'm being poisoned.
That's what I said: I'm potentially being poisoned by Houston, aka Toxic Town.
Today this endocrinologist paused and said, "Where is it that you live?" I told him and he said, "Ah yes, south, by the bay. Hydrocarbons."
I paused silently for a second waiting for the musical swell to die down, and said, "What?"
He said, "Oh well there are some mutagenic carcinogenic toxins floating around your area."
I was silent. Dumbstruck you could say.
"It could be a problem," he said, hurriedly continuing, "But then again, maybe not. Not everyone down there is sick."
Ummm. Actually. I know a number of people who are, in varying ways. In fact, it was a conversation with a friend of mine last week that solidified my suspicion into a theory. I casually mentioned that my symptoms all began after moving here, and I wondered whether the environment had a hand in it. I meant the high amount of allergens. My friend took it differently, "Funny you mention that," she said, "I've even contacted the EPA to check on pollutants and chemicals. The guy I spoke to suggested I move."
(Remember my Language Arts life? Take note of that quote from my friend. That constitutes both foreshadowing and motif.)
I started thinking. I've often worried a bit and complained about the effects of the chemical plants to the north of us, and about the chemicals they spray our neighborhood with (saying they are "safe" bwahahaha, and any risk is worth the benefit, BWAHAHAHAHAHA) to kill mosquitoes and prevent wider spread outbreaks of West Nile virus.
And slowly this thought formed in my head: inexplicable endocrine malfunction with symptoms that would typically indicate a tumor, but no tumor...hmmm...toxic chemicals + sensitive system = endocrine malfunction.
(MOTIF! MOTIF! FORESHADOWING!)
Today I headed to the doctor, driving along a route that has toxic chemical plants on the right and a protected wildlife refuge and wetland on the left (toxic company bribe to locals). Through the trees I saw a huge flame. This isn't rare, but it is unusual. What in the world? I thought.
I recalled driving down a similar street with my friend J, on the way to Galveston (about the same distance as Houston to me, maybe a little closer or faster to get to). We were both perplexed by a large flame we saw in the distance, "Oh," she said as we drove past it, "It's one of those gas valves or something, I'm not sure, but they do that now and again, I don't know why." Later, she was diagnosed with lupus, and is the person who referred me to her endocrinologist. She lives in my neighborhood.
It's probably just one of those flames, like that time, I reassured myself. And as I drove past, I noted the usual chemical company guys in their chemical company trucks wearing their chemical company jumpsuits and hard hats working around the large pipeline from which the huge flame erupted (think: much, much larger than Olympic bowl).
Then I got to the doctor and he mentioned hydrocarbons.
He asked where my husband's office was. I told him, and he said (as if my husband's office site is what matters most? is the only thing that matters? never mind the fact that the kids are deeply integrated and involved in our local community through schools, activities, and so forth, and my entire support network is here), "Okay, good so if it is this you can easily move."
Easily move? Isn't that an oxymoron? (Note appropriate integration of other literary term.)
There are apparently tests to do for this, blood tests, that check to see if the pollutant has bonded to your cells.
Let me say that again so it can send a shiver of horror down your spine, too: carcinogenic, mutagenic pollutants bonded to MY cells in MY body.
We don't know yet, and I feel sick to think this is it, and sick to think they won't find evidence of it. I've been hesitant to be very specific when talking about my problem because I haven't felt like we've been on the mark. Until now. It's like my arrow just found the target. I feel freed up to talk about this now.
I came home and Googled hydrocarbons and endocrine system.
Here's what I found:
An endocrine disruptor is a synthetic chemical that when absorbed into the body either mimics or blocks hormones and disrupts the body's normal functions. This disruption can happen through altering normal hormone levels, halting or stimulating the production of hormones, or changing the way hormones travel through the body, thus affecting the functions that these hormones control. Chemicals that are known human endocrine disruptors include diethylstilbesterol (the drug DES), dioxin, PCBs, DDT, and some other pesticides. Many chemicals, particularly pesticides and plasticizers, are suspected endocrine disruptors based on limited animal studies.
Exposure to endocrine disruptors can occur through direct contact with pesticides and other chemicals or through ingestion of contaminated water, food, or air. Chemicals suspected of acting as endocrine disruptors are found in insecticides, herbicides, fumigants and fungicides that are used in agriculture as well as in the home. Industrial workers can be exposed to chemicals such as detergents, resins, and plasticizers with endocrine disrupting properties. Endocrine disruptors enter the air or water as a byproduct of many chemical and manufacturing processes and when plastics and other materials are burned. Further, studies have found that endocrine disruptors can leach out of plastics, including the type of plastic used to make hospital intravenous bags. Many endocrine disruptors are persistent in the environment and accumulate in fat, so the greatest exposures come from eating fatty foods and fish from contaminated water.
Did you read all of that? If not, please do. It might make a difference to you.
It made a difference to me because (a) when the wind begins to flow from the north, it brings with it the horrible harsh smell of burning plastics from the company slightly north and east of my town. It's so foul that even though the weather is finally nice (read: cooler and dryer) I often stay indoors with the kids because the air makes my sinuses burn and eyes water, and (b) polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (the hydrocarbons my doctor referred to) are listed as endocrine disruptors.
To learn more about PAHs, read the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) (part of the CDC) article about PAHs.
The ATSDR lead me to the EPA, which it said had a list of the 1408 most hazardous sites in the US. I decided to enter my zip code in the handy dandy EPA envirocheck form.
When I read reports from the ATSDR, EPA and NOAA, all contained information about PAHs released into air and water in my area, with one right in my town.
I can be affected simply by breathing and by eating locally grown foods (a Green goal).
What happens to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) when they enter the environment?
* PAHs enter the air mostly as releases from volcanoes, forest fires, burning coal, and automobile exhaust.
* PAHs can occur in air attached to dust particles.
* Some PAH particles can readily evaporate into the air from soil or surface waters.
* PAHs can break down by reacting with sunlight and other chemicals in the air, over a period of days to weeks.
* PAHs enter water through discharges from industrial and wastewater treatment plants.
* Most PAHs do not dissolve easily in water. They stick to solid particles and settle to the bottoms of lakes or rivers.
* Microorganisms can break down PAHs in soil or water after a period of weeks to months.
* In soils, PAHs are most likely to stick tightly to particles; certain PAHs move through soil to contaminate underground water.
* PAH contents of plants and animals may be much higher than PAH contents of soil or water in which they live.
How might I be exposed to PAHs?
* Breathing air containing PAHs in the workplace of coking, coal-tar, and asphalt production plants; smokehouses; and municipal trash incineration facilities.
* Breathing air containing PAHs from cigarette smoke, wood smoke, vehicle exhausts, asphalt roads, or agricultural burn smoke.
* Coming in contact with air, water, or soil near hazardous waste sites.
* Eating grilled or charred meats; contaminated cereals, flour, bread, vegetables, fruits, meats; and processed or pickled foods.
* Drinking contaminated water or cow's milk.
* Nursing infants of mothers living near hazardous waste sites may be exposed to PAHs through their mother's milk.
Note that last bullet point. Persistence. My poor, constantly sick, respiratory challenged, allergy-laden Persistence, who is on anti-histamines despite AAP recommendation against it for children 2 years of age and younger. She cleared up her phlegmy asthmatic ways as soon as we left the area. Within one week of being back, her symptoms returned.
Mine did too. I felt so much better in so many ways on our vacation. I got tired still but not the all-consuming, I can't function fatigue. I still took my herbs and vitamins, trying to maintain the careful balance of functional body.
I kept thinking the allergies were a symptom, rather than a cause, of the problems I experience. Further research shows this to be true.
For me, I think it is a matter of predisposition. For some reason, I think I have always been predisposed to a sensitivity to these chemicals.
I have always been very sensitive to smoke, any smoke, but especially cigarette smoke. It makes me rabidly against smoking and a strong advocate for the smoke-free zoning going on. In college I went to smoke-filled clubs frequently. Such prolonged exposure lead to a brief hospitalization stay for me due a serious lung reaction. It cut back my socialization seriously. Ever since, I've done my best to avoid smoky places and am thrilled with the new smoke free rules. However, a month ago, I went to a town that didn't have it and agreed to go to a bar to watch a football game with friends. Even before half time I was wheezing, and it took me hours to stop hacking and grunting and choking like I had some form of emphysema. I knew cigarette smoke bothered me but this was the most extreme reaction I'd had since college.
I've had other lung issues in addition to immune and autoimmune and endocrine system issues since moving here. I contracted a form of pneumonia that took three types of antibiotics and about three months to knock off.
Something about my body type and chemistry potentially renders me susceptible to PAHs. This prolonged exposure to higher levels just might be more than my body can handle.
It seems a reasonable answer.
I can only hope we find the proof and answers.
My area isn't unique for PAH and other problematic hazardous materials. Texas is a leader, but so are Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania. Not to mention California (life could be worse for me, I could live in Los Angeles). The 1,408 sites the EPA listed are the National Priority List for sites to clean up due to the major hazards they pose to human health and the environment. The areas involved contain carcinogens.
You know what I'm talking about. You've heard of the Superfund. Go here to see if your area is on the list.
There are eighteen (18!) NPL Superfund sites near me. That's nearly half of the total in Texas (42).
In fact, one violator is within a couple of miles of me. It gets a special spot on the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) at the EPA.
Creeped out? Scared? Skeevy?
This is where I live. Where I am raising my kids.
It might be a problem for you and your area, too.
Why this is opens a big can of worms. It involves our economy, and our system of government. And is another post entirely.
In a few weeks I'll hopefully know one way or another, but to tell the truth, in one small way it doesn't even matter what the blood tests show. In my mind, I am already convinced this environment is a problem.
Note: I know I have barely scratched the surface of this issue, don't half understand of it, and the reports are awfully confusing to decipher. I need an expert. But I can tell a problem is here.
* Note: I sarcastically named this Toxic Town, not realizing that USA Today just printed an article about Port Arthur, naming it Toxic Town. You should read that. It's charming. Lure in money now, never mind we kill off all our residents later. It is so sickeningly indicative of how we think now.
FTR, Port Arthur is the area where the hurricane hit. It's also the area where my husband is building new schools. The high school his firm is working on is the high school that got a huge settlement after a tragically high number of its students became ill from (and died of) terrible cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. My friend's mother was affected.
The comments to this article distress me almost more than anything. "Just move," and "get your handouts elsewhere" make me sick.
P.S. If your area is clean, will you let me know? So far it looks like Idaho and Nevada are possibles for safe locations. We're compiling a list. I prefer seasons, if I must move. And nice people.
Some light bedtime reading for you:
Public Health Statement for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)
ToxFAQs™ for Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) (from ATSDR-DHS)
Endocrine Disruptors (Wikipedia)
Endocrine Disruptors (NRDC)
Brio Refining (An NOAA PDF about one of the NPL Superfund sites)
"POTENTIAL PAH RELEASE FROM CONTAMINATED SEDIMENT IN GALVESTON BAY-HOUSTON SHIP CHANNEL" (article by Chunlong Zhang, Gabriel Zheng, Gregory Holston, and George Lambert University of Houston-Clear Lake, Houston, Texas 77058) (and I wish I understood this better...I'd like to reach one of the authors)
Toxics Release Inventory Program (US EPA)
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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