Rick Smith/AP
Elizabeth Feudale-Bowes

Skeptics Doubt ‘Bubble’ Woman’s Environmental Illness

October 22, 2008 11:57 AM
by Josh Katz
The legal case of a town against the accommodations of a woman suffering from an “environmental illness” draws attention to this obscure condition and controversial doctors who diagnose it.

Judge Calls for “Bubble” to Be Taken Down

Elizabeth Feudale-Bowes, 52, resides in a “galvanized-steel-and-porcelain shed” next to her house, referred to as “the bubble,” for 10 hours a day. Feudale-Bowes claims that the confinement is necessary given her “environmental illness,” a condition that consists of heightened sensitivity to substances such as “fabric softener, nail polish, perfume, new sneakers” and upholstery, the Associated Press reports. She claims that her illness—diagnosed by Dr. William Rea of Texas—consists of a number of maladies, such as “migraines, joint pain, bladder inflammation, seizures and temporary paralysis.”

But a judge recently ruled that the “bubble” must be dismantled by the end of October because it violates zoning rules. Some of her neighbors in South Whitehall Township, Pa., say that the building is an eyesore, and could pull down the value of their homes. The utilities for the shed were also secured without the proper permits. Elizabeth and her husband may now argue that the township is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.   

The Texas Medical Board has charged Dr. Rea in the past with advocating “pseudoscience,” as some doctors claim that environmental illness is purely psychological.

Background: MCS and Dr. William Rea

A July 1, 2007, Chicago Tribune article, available in PDF format, explains that an estimated 12 percent of the population suffers from the loosely defined illness called multiple chemical sensitivity, or MCS.

The U.S. medical establishment does not officially recognize MCS as an illness, but the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences considers it a “chronic, recurring disease caused by a person’s inability to tolerate an environmental chemical or class of foreign chemicals.” The Americans With Disabilities Act also protects individuals with MCS.

ABC News' “Nightline” had a feature on Dr. William Rea in March, reporting on how the Texas Board of Medicine is working to strip him of his medical license. Dec. 1 is the date set for his hearing.

Rea said he has treated more than 30,000 people who have complained of environmental illness. His Environmental Health Center–Dallas, established in 1974, prohibits cell phones, regularly filters the air, and has porcelain walls and floors, “because there are no fumes and particulates,” Rea said.

Rea tests his patients for allergens and “detoxifies” them with “saunas—to ‘sweat out’ the toxins—purified air, and certain kinds of food in a controlled environment,” according to ABC News.

The Texas Board of Medicine claims that his methods have not been substantiated by impartial studies, and that he poses a public health danger to the state. Rea argues that some Japanese medical schools have environmental clinics in line with his procedures, and Texas would be limiting citizens’ right to choose their medical treatment if his center is shut down.

Some immunologists insist that stress and psychological afflictions are the root cause of Rea’s patients’ illnesses, not the environment.

“You can have people stressed out and they can break out in a rash or hives or all sorts of things just from the nervous excitement,” said Dr. David Khan, a board certified allergist and immunologist from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. “These things are real events. But it’s not because of the substance they just ingested, it’s because of their conditioned response and so when they smell whatever the odor is, they have this conditioned response, they feel ill, their pulse rate may go up, they have a headache, a variety of things.”

Reference: Environmental medicine; Allergy Web Guide


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