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Battling Ailments of High-Tech Life : Health: Many are sure that environmental problems are poisoning them, but they aren't sure exactly how.


CHICAGO — Ruth Robin has chronic fatigue syndrome, a mysterious and debilitating illness that can last months, or years. After months of querying doctors, it was a relief to finally have her persistent weariness diagnosed.

But it was only a start. She was left to grope for the hows and whys.

"My problem, like everybody else's, was that I didn't know what to point a finger at," she said. "It's kind of an eerie feeling to know that something is amiss . . . and yet nobody can put their finger on a specific cause."

It is a feeling shared by many. They feel ill in countless ways, and in seeking to explain why, turn a gimlet eye on a toxic world of possibilities:

Radiation from microwaves and video display terminals. Toxic waste dumps, pesticides, faulty ventilation systems, formaldehyde.

Chernobyl's nuclear fallout, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), birth control devices, the pill, fluorescent lighting, synthetic carpeting, food additives, smog and water pollution.

All these are environmental realities, many of which have not been widely documented or studied. We live today with an estimated 60,000 chemicals that didn't exist 25 years ago. Is it too much, too fast?

"These are very thorny questions," said Walter J. Gunn, epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "The environment is capable of poisoning us . . . but I don't think at the moment anyone would say (it) is killing us."

His prescription: "More studies need to be done to determine which parts of the environment are causing health problems for people."

Chellis Glendinning, author of "When Technology Wounds," says it is ironic that "technologies created to enhance life are bringing death . . . and the vanguard of awareness is among people who have already gotten sick."

Glendinning, a psychologist and environmental activist, spent 20 years suffering, among other things, pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic allergies and an immune dysfunction that at one point landed her in bed for six years.

"People are being required to educate themselves because our environment is toxic," Glendinning said from Tesuque, N.M. "But there's a sense of victimization--total outrage that so much damage has already been done."

Ruth Robin, 40, suspects that environmental chemicals or stale air that circulated at the insurance office where she worked may have triggered her illness.

But she can't prove it. "It may take years and years of research," said Robin, head of the Chronic Fatigue Society of Illinois. "Still, just because somebody can't point to something specific doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

Medical researchers face a considerable challenge, however, in trying to trace and define technology's physical effects.

The variables are daunting. Try separating out the stress of a baby crying at home from the strain of waiting for the computer at work to blink "on-line," or determining whether today's headache was spurred by the office photocopy fluid, recycled air, sinus congestion or last night's glass of wine.

"Medical science often lags behind in awareness of new disorders," said Alan Hedge, a Cornell University psychologist and professor of ergonometrics. "(But) it's clear there are physical challenges in the environment and that people's systems are being affected."

The modern workplace is the focus of much suspicion. Over the last three decades, America has watched technological progress usher billion-dollar databases, fax machines and satellites into its hermetically sealed, fluorescently lighted offices.

Marge Ciancio feels that she is a victim of that exponential progress. Ciancio loved her job as a directory assistance operator with Illinois Bell Telephone Co. right up until she had to leave it.

After 23 years, she had finally been outpaced--passed up by ever faster computers; stressed out by on-the-job electronic monitoring; done in most of all by shooting pains in her arms, spine and neck.

"I couldn't sleep nights. I lay in bed crying," Ciancio said, tears starting again. "It's awful because of the pain. But what's really painful is people can't see what's wrong with you, so they think you're nuts."

Ciancio tried giving up coffee, exercising more rigorously, buying a new mattress, new pillows, even sleeping pills. She tried wrist splints, physical therapy, ultrasound and cortisone injections.

But the throbbing pain--sometimes tingly, sometimes sharp--persisted until she was eventually diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, a degenerated spinal disk and neck strain injuries similar to a severe whiplash.

"All the joy went out of the job because it was always 'Faster, faster, go faster' until finally you say to yourself: 'My God, how much more can I take?' Stress at the office affects so many people. So many people are in pain.

"I'm 49 years old and I feel like I'm about 100," said Ciancio, whose disability pay runs out in mid-February. "I feel robbed."

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