Although much has been written about food allergy in causing arthritis, far less is known about the role of chemical sensitivity to the the chemicals we inhale or those we eat, in bringing on arthritic symptoms.
The man who first developed the theory of chemical sensitivity was Dr Theron Randolph of Chicago, Illinois. Dr Randolph had observed enormous improvements occurring in many patients with arthritis of varying types as a result of eliminating foods they’d proved allergic to. However, a proportion of people only partially improved or didn’t improve at all.
In 1947 he was consulted by a patient who had been generally regarded by her medical advisers as a hypochondriac. Later in life she developed extremely severe headaches, severe fatigue, tension and asthma. She noticed that whenever she drove through heavily polluted parts of Chicago or found herself behind a diesel lorry, she would become very ill and sometimes virtually unconscious. On several occasions she almost crashed her car, only to be saved at the last minute by her passenger.
She also noted that she felt particularly ill when she visited her pine cabin in the woods, which she often used for holidays. Dr Randolph tested various samples from this cabin, and it turned out that the pine itself was the culprit. Later she noticed that gas from her gas cooker and odours from rubber mattresses, soft plastics and the like all produced adverse responses.
After receiving 50 pages of typewritten observation of what appeared to be making this patient ill, Dr Randolph suddenly realized that virtually all her problems were related to the time of specific exposure to petrochemicals or man-made chemicals derived from petroleum. Even reactions to pine fitted into the picture, as oil and gas are ultimately derived from the decomposition of huge primeval pine forests over a period of millions of years crushed beneath rock strata. Pine trees, incidentally, give off an odour called turpenes which, when combined with low oxygen in the atmosphere, tend to lead to a condition called “mountain madness” in susceptible individuals. Later it was discovered that this patient also reacted to ingested chemicals, such as artificial food colourants, the phenolic resin lining of tinned food cans, and food sprayed with insecticides, which of course are derived from petroleum.
After this breakthrough, it soon became obvious that this patient was not unique. Other patients with seemingly incomprehensible disease patterns began to fall into a distinct group. As more cases were seen, it emerged that the most important pollutants were household gas, formaldehyde, and the pesticides found in the food supplies.
It is not surprising that some human beings should have some problems with chemicals. Living organisms can adapt to many changes in their environment, but this adaptation often takes many generations and even then isn’t necessarily universal. Since the Second World War, there has been an enormous explosion in newly discovered chemicals, which have quite revolutionized modern life. In Europe and the US, hundreds of billions of pounds of chemicals are produced annually and over 25,000 different chemicals are in common use in the UK alone. Many of these chemicals find their way into our bodies.
Perhaps the most important research into this area has been carried out by Professor W J Rea, head of the environmental Health Centre in Dallas. To date, the association between arthritis and chemical sensitivity is anecdotal that, is based on the experience of individual patients. Nevertheless, the many case studies reported and those I myself have experienced are highly convincing.
In my own practice I treated a Swiss woman named Irene, who suffered from multiple joint pains and swelling so severe she’d been on cortisone treatment. When her doctor put her on a low-allergy elimination diet of five low-allergy foods, she had the most spectacular improvement in a week, and was able to identify about five foods that caused her symptoms. But even eliminating these foods left her only 70 per cent improved. Soon thereafter, during a visit to her mother in Zurich, she was delighted to discover her joints had improved 100 per cent. However, when she returned to her home in Britain, many of the joint pains returned, which is when she came to me.
Once I’d taken her history, it appeared obvious to me that she was reacting to household gas, since her mother’s flat in Zurich was all electric but her home in Surrey had a gas cooker and gas-fired central heating with the boiler situated in the kitchen. Skin testing confirmed my suspicions, so she underwent a trial of turning off the gas at the mains, making sure that the house was well ventilated. Within a few days, Irene’s joints were as good as they were in Switzerland. The gas central heating boiler was moved to an outhouse, so that the gas was burned outside the home. Five years on, she has had no symptoms ever since.
With another patient of mine, we eventually pinpointed his arthritis as being caused by the chlorine in tap water, which we discovered by trial and error, concluding that he was not reacting to tap water that was boiled for several minutes. (Chlorine is eliminated in water by boiling.) Tony, a farmer, had been using concentrated chlorine for many years to sterilize his dairy equipment, and this practice had probably sensitized him to the chlorine, causing him to react to even minute doses.
Over the years, a couple of hundred of my patients with chemical sensitivities have moved their boilers out of the house or traded a gas cooker for an electric one. Once they did so, many stubborn cases of arthritis finally disappeared.