Linda’s story appeared in my 2008 book Amputated Lives: Coping with Chemical Sensitivity. A heavy exposure to pesticides often leads to the development of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).
Pesticide poisoning was about the last thing on my mind on April 28, 1997, when I went as usual to the school where I taught. Eager to begin my day, I opened the door to the physical education office as I had done every Monday morning for sixteen years. What happened next changed the course of my life. A strong chemical smell that I later learned was pesticide hit me, immediately making me nauseous. Within a couple of minutes my hands became numb, my heart started beating erratically, and a migraine headache sickened me. It was hard to think logically, dizziness set in, and breathing became very difficult. On legs that felt too weak to hold me up, I stumbled up to the principal’s office. Both secretaries got up to help me and asked what in the world that awful smell on my clothes was. It smelled like a cross between petroleum and ether to me, but I had no idea what it was. I had an overwhelming chemical taste in my mouth that no amount of mouthwash or toothpaste could get rid of for several days, but that was the least of my concerns.
It is no exaggeration to say that I felt like I was dying that day. I was unable to get my head clear and several times I thought it might be my last day on this earth because the chemicals triggered severe heart arrhythmias. I barely remember showering twice, trying to get rid of that chemical smell. I put the clothes I had removed in a garbage bag and set it in my laundry room to deal with later. My doctor told me emphatically that we had to find out exactly what I had been exposed to. The principal gave me the name of a pyrethrin insecticide that had been used; two and a half years later I found out that was not the full story. My doctor called a National Pesticide Hotline but learned of no specific treatment to help me, although he did advise me to stay away from further exposure to pesticide.
Being an active physical education teacher and coach, I assumed— incorrectly—that I might be sick the rest of the day but would be able to fulfill my teaching duties the rest of the week. Although I went back to work at noon the next day, I felt like I had a horrible flu all week. The day I went back to work, my mom called me at school to say, “Something terrible has happened at your house. When I opened the door, there was a very strong chemical smell.” Just smelling the clothes I had left in the trash bag made her nauseous, so I told her to throw them away. Since I was still unable to enter the school building without severe symptoms returning, I taught outside the rest of the week. As it turned out, I taught outside through the end of that school year and into the first week of October of the following year, when I was forced to take a leave of absence.
To say I got no cooperation from the school administration is an understatement. These people had been my friends, so I was greatly disappointed to find that money meant much more to them than their employees. I was also appalled that they had so little concern for the students’ health. If the pesticide could deck a healthy adult, what could it do to the children? They didn’t seem to care. After much discussion, I finally talked them into hiring an industrial hygienist to check the building. They let him come but refused to let him bring any testing equipment. Thus I lost my only real chance to find out what pesticides I had been exposed to and at what levels.
Even though I repeatedly tried to re-enter the building and got sick time after time, the administrators kept trying to convince me—and everyone else—that my illness was “all in my head.” I can still hear them saying, “You could go in that building if you thought you could.” That hurt, as I had given them my best effort for sixteen years and had rarely taken a sick day. They also ignored a number of students who became ill with unusual symptoms: chest pains, head-to-toe rashes, severe stomach aches, migraine headaches, and difficulty concentrating. Some asthmatic kids had to bring their breathing machines to school.
The administration made it as tough on me as possible. I taught outdoors on 95-degree days, and they didn’t even check to see if I had water. The area around a pine tree on the playground became my classroom. Other teachers and students brought out needed supplies, and my faithful friends would come out after school to check on me. But none of that was helping me get back into the building. I was forced to take a sick day every time it rained, and the business manager who supervised our self-funded health insurance refused to pay my medical bills. When I filed a workers’ compensation claim, they fought it, even going so far as to bring in state school board attorneys.
It was my hope that the summer would bring healing and that I could start school as usual in the fall. I did regain some strength during the summer vacation, but that strength vanished when I returned because they had sprayed the school with pesticide the week before classes started. I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn’t breathe inside that building. Pesticide exposure was wrecking my health and my career.
Not only was I forced to take a leave of absence, but I was also forced to see a workers’ comp doctor who had a reputation of siding with employers. Fortunately, in my case he recognized the symptoms of pesticide poisoning and recommended that I be given a leave with pay until the projected new gym was built. This was my only hope of being able to teach again. By this point, I had learned that just prior to the day I had been poisoned, the business manager had ordered the entire building sprayed heavily and that pesticide residue had blanketed the building. If no pesticide was applied in the new gym, I was confident that I could return to teaching.
When the administration’s own workers’ comp doctor requested in writing that they use nontoxic building supplies and nontoxic pest control, I thought I had a chance. But the administration tried to discredit their own doctor by asserting that my physician brother had told him what to say. My brother did not, and would not, do anything like that, and I really resented their accusation that he had done some-thing unethical. At this point, I was forced to see a second workers’ comp doctor who had a fierce, business-friendly attitude. I was shocked when he walked in the room and said, “I don’t work for you, the patient. I work for the insurance company.” Even more shocking was the false report he wrote that included tests that I had never taken. But he made a big mistake. He said that I had had a normal chest x-ray. Since I had never had a chest x-ray, he was eventually caught in his lies. He was reported to the State Board of Healing Arts and received a reprimand.
As the months dragged on, the medical bills began to pile up, even though the string of doctors I saw really didn’t know how to help me. I was now experiencing symptoms not only upon exposure to pesticide and herbicide, but also when I encountered a number of petroleum products, smoke, plastics, cleaning supplies, and virtually anything with a scent. At that point, I had never heard of multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). I didn’t know what was happening to me, and neither did the doctors. The school district refused to pay my salary or my medical bills, so I went eight months without an income. It was quite humbling to have the other teachers take up a collection so that I would have money for food. Despite these difficulties, I continued to hold out the hope that I would be able to teach in the new building, and I had a series of meetings with district officials to make sure they knew how to keep the building safe for me.
When the first in-service day came in August of 1998, I was very excited to be going back to work. The administration had assured me that they had honored my requests for a nontoxic environment, so I thought that I was finally going to be able to teach again. I was disappointed beyond words when I entered the new gym that day and the pesticide-related symptoms began at once. They quickly became life-threatening, but I stayed in the gym as long as I could because I knew if I left this time, I was walking away from the career I loved.
Less than thirty minutes after I had entered the gym, I had to leave because my life was more important than my job. I stumbled onto the playground, thinking the fresh air would make me feel better. Even though I was barely able to comprehend what was going on around me, I was appalled to see that herbicide had been applied in wide circles under all the pieces of playground equipment. Herbicide had never been used on that playground in the sixteen years I had worked there, but they were making sure I couldn’t even teach outdoors now. Nauseous, dizzy, breathing with great difficulty, and with my heart beating erratically, I made my way to a tree that I could lean against. A substitute teacher saw me and alerted the secretaries, who raced to my side. Afraid for my life, they put me in a van and rushed me to the doctor’s office. I couldn’t walk without help and felt like I was going to pass out at any moment. I spent the morning sprawled on an examining table, praying to live. I will never forget the look on the doctor’s face when he came in. It is not a good thing to see fear on your doctor’s face, but he could not hide his concern. I knew at that moment that pesticide had permanently ended my teaching career.
My doctor would not allow me to return to that toxic environment, but I was too sick anyway to even think about it. For the next eight months, I couldn’t even walk across the room without help. For nearly a year, reading a newspaper was impossible because the words just didn’t make sense to me. I remember trying to watch a football game and finally just turning toward the wall in tears because I couldn’t figure out what was going on. This was a sport that I knew so well I had even been asked to coach it one year, and now I couldn’t even watch a game. It took me over a year to build up enough strength to walk the 100 yards down the driveway to get my mail. My family and friends did my cooking and shopping and anything else that needed to be done around my house. This was all very distressing because I had formerly been a very active and independent individual. Before I got poisoned, I had twice gone on 5,000-mile solo camping trips. Now that was only a dream, and my goal each day was simply to survive. Many, many days I didn’t know when I opened my eyes in the morning if I would live to see the sunset. My mom would come to my house and peek into the bedroom to see if I was still breathing. It was an extremely tough time for my whole family.
At last I heard about a doctor in Maryland who specializes in chemical injury cases. She is not only an M.D. but also has a doctorate degree from Harvard School of Public Health. I decided to go Maryland to seek her help because she knew how to treat pesticide poisoning. Although my teaching days were over, I was still fighting workers’ comp and ADA claims, and I knew I would need this doctor’s support in that effort.
As soon as I was strong enough to travel, I headed east. Since I was unable to stay in motels because of their use of pesticides and strong cleaning products, I packed my tent and camped my way back to Maryland. It was worth the trip to find a doctor devoted to helping those poisoned by pesticide and treating the chemical sensitivity that it so often triggers. She told me that I had all the signs of chlorpyrifos poisoning, even though the district was still maintaining that all they had used was a pyrethrin insecticide. (Pyrethrin is in fact a neurotoxic chemical that is capable of producing numbness, headaches, breathing difficulties, and allergic reactions. It is also a suspected sensitizer and endocrine-disruptor.) The physician also suspected I had been exposed to more than just a new finish on the gym floor on that day when I tried to return to school and got so sick. She immediately began trying to find out what I had really been exposed to. Her persistence paid off, and I was shocked at what she discovered.
Despite claims by district officials that no pesticide had ever been applied around the new gym, paperwork showed that nearly $2,000 worth of pesticide had been applied under the new addition, despite the fact that it was a concrete block building. We also have the paperwork to prove that not only had they used a pyrethrin insecticide the first day I was poisoned, but they had also used diazinon and chlorpyrifos. (Both of these last two pesticides have since been banned for indoor use because so many people have been poisoned by them.) A janitor who had no specific training in pest control and who by his own admission could barely read had applied the pesticides. Actually, his failure to keep the school clean had triggered the complaint that led to the business manager telling him to spray the building heavily. After he received this order, the janitor went to the school board office, grabbed three cans of pesticide left by pesticide salesmen, and applied them indiscriminately in the building. And he didn’t just apply the pesticides to the baseboards. There was pesticide residue all over the pictures that had been hanging on my office wall. Clearly, these pesticides that would have been toxic even when applied using the best precautions had been mishandled and misapplied. We also learned that one of the pesticides he used had not been registered for sale in my state since 1989, but it was technically not illegal to apply it. Unethical, yes—illegal, no. It was particularly distressing to realize that children have very little protection from toxic pesticides applied in and around school buildings.
I called the State Agricultural Department to see if they had any jurisdiction over which pesticides were applied in schools. When they heard what had happened to me, they offered to come down and investigate the school building and interview people involved in the pesticide incident. Two investigators came to my home for what they thought would be a thirty-minute interview, and they left four hours later. They admitted that they had initially thought they were coming to “talk to another nut.” But as they left, they both agreed that they had just talked to a true victim.
These officials went immediately to the school building and began to take samples and ask questions. This time the principal couldn’t stop them. Although too much time had elapsed to get clear readings from the samples, they did discover one reason I had become so ill. My office had no back wall, but instead an open tunnel that ran under a hallway to the janitor’s room. The janitor admitted he sometimes mixed up pesticide near a drain that led into the opening of that tunnel. He had either spilled or poured pesticide down that drain, and when the door to the janitor’s room was opened, the positive pressure created had shoved the chemicals straight into my office. I had received a heavy dose of these pesticides, one that could easily have killed me.
Life over the next few years was extremely difficult. For nearly three years, I didn’t leave my own house or yard because exposure to pesticide or herbicide made me deathly sick. My dad did all my grocery shopping, and friends often called to see if I needed anything when they went shopping out of town. I missed being able to attend church, and social events of any kind were out of the question. With my coaching background, I missed going to ball games, and that reality became nearly unbearable when I was forced to miss my nephews’ high school basketball careers. Three years in a row I was too ill to spend Christmas with my family, and I also missed countless birthdays and other celebrations. I lived in isolation. I felt like I was in prison, even though I was not surrounded by bars. The barriers created by pesticide and herbicide were every bit as real.
Unfortunately, my mother also became chemically sensitive as a bizarre result of my pesticide poisoning event. Previously, she had never had an allergy of any type. Blessed with good health and limitless energy, she was an active person whom people half her age could not keep up with. All that changed the day she tried to clean the pesticide residue off the pictures from my office. She knew how much those pictures meant to me so she picked them up, spread them out on a sidewalk and began to scrub off the pesticide residue. She had to stop when she began to feel like she was coming down with the flu. She put the pictures in an old shed and took it easy for a few days until she felt better. In about a month, she once again spread the pictures out on a sunny sidewalk and began to clean them. As happened before, she soon felt like she had the flu. This time it was more severe and lasted longer. Severe nausea, stomach pains, and diarrhea sent her to the hospital, where they ran several tests. Of course, the tests were not designed to detect pesticide poisoning, and they all came up negative. It took her a long time to feel better, but she eventually did recover and tried to clean the pictures one more time because the connection between that pesticide residue and her illness was still not clear to her. But this time, she became so ill that there could be no doubt as to the cause of her illness. I told Mom to bury the pictures in a landfill, but it was too late to save her health. She also developed multiple chemical sensitivity as a result of exposure to the same pesticides that poisoned me. Like I had done, she camped her way back to Maryland to get help from the chemical injury doctor who had helped me so much.
My mom was not the only person besides me to be affected by the pesticide sprayed at school. A librarian and three aides had moved into my old office, and three of the four developed fibromyalgia and one developed breast cancer. Two of them had to have hysterectomies. A string of autoimmune diseases struck people in the building. Five were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. One was told she had lupus, although her symptoms disappeared when she transferred to another building and was able to avoid pesticide exposures. Another teacher has peripheral neuropathy that threatens not only her job, but also her life. Diabetes, asthma, and allergies are common, as are migraine headaches. Three other people from the building are also on disability, and five have developed cancer. The special education teacher who taught just down the hall from me died of breast cancer. Depression, sleep disorders, pain syndromes, and breathing difficulties are common. Approximately 75 percent of the staff is dealing with some sort of chronic illness, even though the vast majority of people suffering with these illnesses would have rated their health as good or excellent prior to the pesticide application. I do not believe this is coincidental. Knowing the consequences of chemical exposures for adults, I shudder to think what it must be doing to all the children.
Although life was bleak for a long period after I first got so sick, the coach in me would not give up and the Christian part of me would not lose hope and faith. I thanked God every day that I had family, friends, and doctors who still believed in me and would do anything in their power to help me. Buoyed by their support, I gradually began to improve enough to start trying to educate others about the hazards of toxic pesticides and how to switch to nontoxic alternatives. A student teacher I had worked with the year before I got poisoned was now a principal and working toward his doctoral degree in education. He was aware of what happened to me and quite concerned about the people he was responsible for in his own building. He wanted to make sure he did everything in his power to protect them, so he decided to write his doctoral thesis on the problem of pesticides in schools and how schools could switch to nontoxic pest and weed control. I was honored when he asked me to help him with this project, and we spent many hours gathering information. We sent pesticide surveys to every school district in the state of Missouri and found that although some districts were committed to using only nontoxic pest control methods, many district superintendents and principals didn’t even know what chemicals were being used or when they were applied.
Until more national protections are in place, my mother and I continue to work with local officials to reduce pesticide use in our community. After a five-year battle, the local school district switched to a nontoxic pesticide, but unfortunately, they have fallen back to their old ways of spraying toxic pesticides monthly. We continue to try to educate them about nontoxic alternatives. Our city manager has instructed the Public Works Department to use only nontoxic pest and weed control. Our church also now uses only nontoxic pest and weed control, and they have also established a “fragrance-free” section that allows me and my mom to attend church again. The railroad gives us forty-eight-hour advance notice before they spray the tracks and leaves a three-block section of track near my mom’s home unsprayed. The highway department also gives us forty-eight-hour advance notice of spraying near us and honors my request that no herbicide be used within a half mile of my home. My friends and family are very careful to be fragrance-free when they come to visit. They tease me about causing lots of “bad hair days.”
I am especially grateful that a local state park where we have a little cabin made out of an old caboose is kept safe for us. The park manager has cooperated with us by switching to nontoxic pest and weed control, which allows us to use our cabin as a safe retreat during times of heavy herbicide use by homeowners in the city.
This little cabin has literally been a life-saver for me this year because I have not been able to live in my own home for the past ten months. Neighbors who had never sprayed anything toxic before this year recently decided to spray a fence row. That herbicide application kept me out of my home for about six weeks. I had only been back in my home for five nights before a new neighbor, who apparently did not understand the severity of my illness, used a very toxic pesticide to treat his property for termites. I became ill immediately. I keep my camping gear packed in my truck for just such emergencies, so I grabbed some food and water and left as quickly as possible. As I type this story, I am still not able to return home and do not know when that will be possible, if at all. I have lived in a tent a good portion of this year but came to our cabin when it got too cold to live outdoors. I am so grateful to have a place to live that doesn’t make me sick. Way too many people with multiple chemical sensitivity have nowhere to go to escape from chemical exposures.
I have always been a “people person,” and the isolation forced upon me by MCS has been almost as difficult to deal with as the physical illness. I wondered how I would ever be able to interact with people and meet new friends when I was trapped in my own home. As I have been able to get out a little more, I have been amazed at how many people I have met are also struggling with pesticide poisoning and MCS. Make no mistake about this one point: anyone can be poisoned by a pesticide– anytime and anywhere.
So how has pesticide changed my life? It ruined my teaching career, my health, and my independence. It ruined my ability to enjoy simple pleasures like eating in a restaurant or attending sporting events. It has cost me well over $100,000 in medical bills and lost retirement benefits. I have missed out on family moments I will never get back. My normal life was turned upside down. The last thing on my mind that day in April when I was poisoned by the pesticide has now become the first thing on my mind because I must avoid pesticide exposure in all my daily activities. Before going anywhere, I must evaluate my chances of chemical exposures. If I guess wrong, I pay the consequences.
Fortunately, pesticide could not touch my faith or optimism or character or determination to make the best of my current situation. My life is now devoted to educating the public about the intolerable risk of pesticide exposures, and I pray daily that somehow I am making a difference. I know what a severe pesticide exposure did to me. I don’t want it to happen to you.