WRAL Investigates

WRAL-TV Investigates: Sick Buildings - Part Three

Posted March 2, 1996 7:48 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2009 2:33 p.m. EST

— A growing number of Americans are finding that everyday chemicals make them sick. Chemicals such as perfumes, cleansers and pesticides. While they don't bother most of us, the chemicals cause extreme allergic reactions in some people. WRAL Investigative Reporter Stuart Watson examines what happens to workers who complain their workplace made them sick.

Most weekday afternoons, Sharon Scott would be at work at for Moore County.

"I want to work," Scott says. "I've always worked."

But these days Sharon's desk sits empty. And Sharon is at home under a doctor's orders.

"Next week will be the first time I have ever been without a paycheck since I got out of college."

Sharon suffers from so-called multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS - an allergy to everyday chemicals such as cleansers, perfumes and pesticides.

She says she first got sick when she worked in the community services building. So did five of her co-workers, but county administrators don't think the building caused the illness.

"I have heard it said that we were sympathizing with one another," said former employee Frances Huffman.

Moore County Manager David McNeill says workers would get together and compare notes on their symptoms. "One employee or two employees would know pretty much how the others were feeling," he said.

Some of the employees say co-workers didn't take symptoms seriously until men complained.

Frankie McCaskill worked as the Moore County planner until she took disability because of her illness.

"We were too busy to go from department to department and say, 'Are you going to be sick today?' We didn't realize how sick the others were."

The bigger picture...

This might sound like a small town squabble confined to Carthage, N.C.

But it's not.

It's part of a huge medical debate in which doctors line up on one side or the other.

Dr. Howard Kehrl is a researcher with the EPA's health effects lab in Chapel Hill, where he studies multiple chemical sensitivity.

"There's a lot of money involved, a lot of politics involved, legal issues," Kehrl said.

Dr. Kehrl says MCS patients do learn some of their symptoms from others. "I'm sure it plays a role," he said. "It plays a role in sick building syndrome."

Jerry Tulis, who lectures on MCS at Duke University, says it's hard to tell whether MCS stems from the environment or from the patient's mind.

"Some of that is real and some of it is perceived," Tulis said, "but to determine which is which is literally impossible because they both suffer symptoms."

Dr. Bill Meggs is an allergist at Eastern Carolina University Medical School. He sums up the medical establishment's view on MCS in two blunt statements.

"The patients who have these complaints are crazy and any doctor who sanctions their illness are quacks," Meggs said.

He knows the line and he doesn't buy it.

"The patients are accused of faking their symptoms for secondary gain sometimes," Meggs said. "At the same time it seems that other bodies may have some other gain from denying this illness."

The stakes stretch far beyond Moore County because if small amounts of household chemicals make some people sick, that has implications for the makers of perfume, chemicals, carpet, paints and tobacco -- not to mention employers and taxpayers.

"A a major concern of the MCS community is medical illness recognition," Kehrl said. "And everything that comes with that -- disability payments, toxic, tort, special accommodations."

But people like Frankie McCaskill have more modest interests.

"I've got five beautiful grandchildren," she says. "I can't keep them no more."

The conventional medical wisdom tells people like Frankie that their symptoms are "all in their head." But some researchers believe what we put into our homes and workplaces is coming back to haunt us.

"Forty years ago people didn't use chemicals like they do now," says Sharon Scott. "Even when people cleaned they used old-fashioned ways of cleaning. Now the whole world is made up of using chemicals. People are going to continue getting sick."