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He Fights So Your Next Breath Won't Make You Sick

Health: When an environmentally related disease took his freedom, Alan Bell started a foundation to increase public awareness.

May 05, 1996|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TUCSON — From his bedroom, Alan Bell walks stiffly down a long tiled hallway, through the unfurnished living room, dining room and den and on into his office.

Then he turns around and walks back.

This is the only exercise Bell, a former runner, weightlifter and racquetball player, will get today--or tomorrow, or the day after that.

Four years ago, he was found to have Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome, a condition he traces to contact with toxic chemicals while growing up in south Florida. Exposure to even minute amounts of chemicals or pollen triggers a host of agonizing symptoms.

Trying to live as free from synthetic chemicals as he can, Bell effectively is a prisoner in his own home.

But the illness that robbed him of his health and freedom also spurred the 41-year-old lawyer to action. In 1993, Bell and his younger brother, Robert, founded the Environmental Health Foundation, which is dedicated to research and raising public awareness of environmentally related diseases.

"The foundation is focusing on mainstream problems facing the masses," Alan Bell says. "My particular problem is not an issue. It was merely a catalyst that forced me to open up my eyes."

Tall and sandy-haired, Bell is a man with a mission. He reels off statistics regarding environmentally linked diseases with practiced ease: One of six preschoolers has dangerously high lead concentrations; indoor air pollution affects 75 million Americans; one in 20 deaths in cities is linked to air pollution; levels of cancer, childhood asthma and Parkinson's disease are rising dramatically.

He asks, "With all the billions we're putting into research, why is the incidence of all these diseases rising?"

Bell started the Environmental Health Foundation to "look at how all these diseases are interrelated to common, ordinary factors."

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Little in Bell's background would have suggested a future career as an environmental crusader.

Born in New York City, he was raised in Miami, where he attended college and law school at the University of Miami.

As a prosecutor in Fort Lauderdale from 1980 to 1986, he worked with an organized crime strike force. Later, he handled personal-injury defense for an insurance firm and then went into practice on his own.

He was in excellent health and rarely saw a doctor. "I'd get up in the morning and run a minimum of three miles," he says. "I'd work out with weights at least three days a week. I did that all the time."

But life as he knew it came to a crashing halt in November 1991.

"My house [in Miami] was being renovated," Bell recalls. "There were a lot of sprays and pesticides. There was also some renovation in my office, so I was hit from both ends at once."

He started having flu-like symptoms--fatigue, joint pain, fever and digestive problems. "Over a month or so," he says, "there was a gradual decline. My immediate reaction was to try to ignore it, because I was always healthy, and I thought it would go away. I pushed myself and it got worse and worse."

Puzzled, Bell started paying closer attention to his symptoms. "I noticed I was becoming sensitive," he says. "I would have adverse reactions to chemicals I was exposed to. . . . It took a while for me to put the pieces together. When I would go to the beach, it would almost disappear, because there is no pollen there, no chemicals there--just sand and water."

Meanwhile, his marriage was breaking up and his wife moved to Tucson. Bell followed, wanting to be near their daughter and hoping that the desert climate would improve his health.

A diagnosis of immune dysfunction was first made in 1992 after blood work was done. "For some reason, my immune system had become damaged and disregulated," Bell says. "A lot of times [the condition] resolves itself, but it didn't. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would last. I never healed."

Then, in November 1994, Bell's sister Judi died of cancer at the age of 34.

"I think we were exposed to something as kids that set us up for what happened to us later in life," he says. "I can remember as a kid growing up in Miami riding my bike as the planes hovered overhead spraying DDT--riding my bike into clouds of DDT."

Bell looks outwardly healthy, but he says he suffers constantly from congested breathing, joint and muscle pain and nausea. At 6-foot-2, he also has dropped about 15 pounds over the years and now is almost gaunt at 178.

Subtle signs betray his ailment, such as the labored stiffness with which he walks, gaps in his short-term memory and momentary confusion. He says his immune system appears to be attacking the myelin sheath protecting his nerve cells.

"In my quest to regain health, I talked to the top scientists in the country, because I couldn't understand what was happening to me," Bell says. "They told me very little was known, and there was no money for research on this kind of thing."

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