To the editors:

I was very happy to see your cover story on Environmental Illness [“The Yeast of Our Problems,” January 22], especially as I suffer from this problem which has yet to be recognized in the mainstream press. I would like to expand on a point Mr. McClory touched on in the article: the role of exposure to chemical substances in weakening the immune system and leading to environmental illness.

Since the end of World War II there has been a chemical explosion. Chemical companies now produce 60,000 different chemical substances, many of which were not adequately tested before being approved and whose danger is only now being recognized. Their cumulative effect on the body is still unknown.

It is apparent that many people today are suffering from environmental illness in a more moderate form than described in your article, and are unaware of it. More and more frequently, office workers complain of headaches and fatigue; many office furnishings such as carpeting are treated with formaldehyde. This is one of the most widely used chemicals (Mr. McClory mentions that it is found in 8 percent of all products manufactured in the United States), now being implicated in many symptoms.

Sulfites, recently banned from use in salad bars after they caused illness and several deaths, are still used as a preservative in many foods. There are other preservatives, plus pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide residues, in the fruit, vegetables, meat, and prepared foods sold in grocery stores.

These substances collect in the body, especially the fatty tissue. The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that 86 percent of all Americans have pentachlorophenol, a toxic wood preservative, in their urine. This is not surprising considering that the chemical may be found in virtually anything made of wood, like furniture, packaging, and toilet paper. In one study, OCDD, a type of dioxin, was found in every sample of human fatty tissue examined. Ninety-eight percent of the samples were contaminated with HxCDD, another dioxin, described by the EPA as “one of the most potent carcinogens identified by the Agency.”

Chemical exposure is not limited only to those involved in an isolated incident like a chemical leak from a factory or a mixing tank explosion. All of us are subject to a constant barrage of chemicals in the air outside, in the air in homes and offices, in water and in food. When one’s immune system has already been compromised by chronic exposure to these substances, additional factors mentioned in the article, such as rounds of antibiotics, may be the last straw. Suddenly one is made ill by almost everything in the environment. “There is a growing body of evidence linking many toxic chemicals with a weakening of the immune system,” says Dr. William Marcus, chief toxicologist at the EPA’s Office of Water. “If this is the case, then the notion that a given chemical causes a specific disease may be invalid in many instances. Toxic substances may simply predispose us, through the weakening of the immune system, to contracting a wide variety of illnesses.”

Chemicals and their effect on our health are an issue the public, the medical profession, and the government will, out of necessity, have to face as the incidence of environmental illness increases.

Many thanks to Mr. McClory and the Reader for helping to bring this growing problem to the public’s attention.

Susan Kaplan