What is environmentally acquired illness?

Environmentally acquired illness (EAI) refers to serious chronic health problems caused by exposure to mold and other biotoxins, Lyme and other persistent infections, toxic chemicals such as pesticides, heavy metals, air pollution, dust, and other irritants found in the environment. Unhealthy indoor air and persistent infections are two primary causes of EAIs.

Many buildings that have had roof leaks, plumbing leaks or flooding become contaminated with molds and bacteria. These produce toxins that are inhaled by occupants and may cause illness. While outdoor toxins also can make people sick, indoor exposures tend to be worse because the toxins are more concentrated in closed spaces.

Infections that are not completely cleared and remain in persistent forms or are reactivated are a second, significant cause of EAI. Just as the chicken pox virus can be reactivated and cause shingles, these infections can flare when a person’s immune system is already impaired (sometimes by mold and the other biotoxins found in water-damaged buildings). When an individual is exposed to both infections and mold, the result can sometimes be severe chronic illness.

EAIs include:

  • Chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS) (also called mold illness or biotoxin illness),
  • Persistent Lyme disease and other infections caused by Bartonella, Babesia, Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), mycoplasma and others,
  • Mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), and
  • Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), among many others.

Many people who have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (or CFS, also called myalgic encephalomyelitis or ME) or with fibromyalgia may be suffering from exposure to mold, biotoxins, and/or other environmental hazards. Some ME/CFS and fibromyalgia patients may find improvement if they address their exposure to mold and other environmental toxins. Similarly, there are some patients who have “recovered” from multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other illnesses after they discovered that environmental triggers were making them ill and reduced their exposure. It is not yet known how many illnesses may be caused by environmental exposure.

How do environmental toxins make people sick?

Exposure to triggers such as environmental toxins and infections may cause chronic inflammation in multiple body systems. These triggers may cause damage to the immune system, the brain, the heart, the lungs, and other body systems. Exposure to triggers may be cumulative and can, over time, cause debilitating chronic illness in some individuals. Why certain people seem to be affected by certain environmental exposures more than others is being investigated. The treatment of EAIs often involves reducing exposure to environmental triggers and helping the body to expel toxic buildup through detoxification. Treatment of EAIs is more likely to be successful if the patient and physician can identify the specific triggers affecting the patient’s health. EAIs are interconnected. For example: a person with biotoxin illness is likely to become more sensitive to chemicals and develop multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). Likewise, a person who suffers from chronic Lyme disease is likely to become more sensitive to mold and other toxins found in water-damaged buildings. Some people who have become ill from exposure to one set of triggers may become sensitive to wi-fi exposure.

It is thought that various illnesses not mentioned above may be caused or exacerbated by a person’s exposure to environmental toxins. These may include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
  • Epilepsy and other seizure disorders
  • Dysautonomias such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS)
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Autistic spectrum disorders
  • Depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes (Type 2) and metabolic syndrome
  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Celiac disease, and other food sensitivities
  • Leaky gut syndrome (LGS) and dysbiosis
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Pneumonia and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Psoriasis and eczema

Treatment of EAIs may lead to substantial improvement of a person’s health.

What symptoms are experienced by people suffering from EAIs?

Chronic exposure to harmful environmental toxins and other triggers may interfere with the normal functions of your body. They can even affect your mind. It is not uncommon for children or adults with recurring exposures to moldy indoor environments at home, work, or school to develop multiple symptoms. Some of the symptoms of EAIs may include:

  • Brain fog, memory problems, loss of mental sharpness, trouble organizing tasks or getting things done
  • Headaches, light/sound/touch sensitivity
  • Neuropathy, numbness, tingling, loss of coordination, paralysis, seizures
  • Fainting, dizziness or lightheadedness, vertigo
  • Insomnia, poor sleep, sleep apnea
  • Anxiety, depression, irritability, emotional outbursts, mood swings, suicide
  • Fatigue, problems recovering from exercise or even daily activities
  • Muscle weakness, cramping and aching
  • Low blood pressure, elevated blood pressure, palpitations, fast heart rate
  • Frequent respiratory infections
  • Wheezing, allergy symptoms, shortness of breath, air hunger
  • Joint aches and stiffness
  • Swelling of lips and face, nosebleeds
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting, stomach upset
  • Frequent urination and increased thirst
  • Rashes, itching, prickling skin, blotching and redness
  • Heavy periods, irregular periods, PMS symptoms, difficult menopause, miscarriages
  • Significant weight gain or weight loss
  • Young children are likely to develop fatigue, headaches, and abdominal complaints

This list may sound long, as if every ailment in the book is a symptom of EAI. But people suffering from environmental exposure sometimes have an astonishingly wide range of severe symptoms. And though the list is long, it understates the importance of understanding environmentally acquired illness.

What causes environmentally acquired illness?

Common environmental triggers

Here are some of the common sources of exposure to environmental triggers that cause EAIs:

  • Mold and many other toxins present in buildings that have been damaged by water through flooding, roof leaks, plumbing leaks, etc.
  • Infections such as Lyme disease, Bartonellosis, Babesiosis, mycoplasma, Epstein-Barr virus, parasites, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Asbestos, lead, fiberglass, and other toxic substances found in many buildings
  • Formaldehyde, flame retardants, and toxic chemicals often present in drywall, carpeting, flooring products, OSB board (used in construction), insulation, glues, sealants and other products used to build homes and offices. Many toxic chemicals also are found in mattresses, upholstered furniture, clothing and other products.
  • Pesticides used in fertilizers and methane from animal waste used as fertilizers
  • Pesticides, hormones, mycotoxins, arsenic, and other irritants found in produce, grain, meat, fish and other foods
  • Smoke from forest fires, campfires, cigarettes, etc.
  • Phthalates and parabens found in cosmetics and personal care products
  • RF, EMF, and microwave radiation
  • Cyanobacteria and other biotoxins present in many lakes, rivers, ponds, and in soil

Growing exposure to environmental triggers

Environmentally-caused illness has been a long-standing, if poorly recognized, part of the medical landscape. Even the Bible includes a passage discussing the need to tear down a house that has become contaminated by mold growth. (Leviticus 14). However, there is a recent epidemic of difficult-to-diagnose chronic illness, some of which may be caused in part by the massive increase in use of toxic chemicals and other environmental irritants.

For example: Changes in construction practices have included the use of building materials that contain a number of toxic chemicals and we are constructing tighter, energy-efficient buildings. Many office buildings, hotels, and even hospitals are built without windows that can be opened. If the HVAC system in a building is not maintained properly, the occupants may be constantly exposed to contaminated air. Meanwhile, many people spend more time indoors using computers, watching TV, etc. In a water-damaged building, the occupants are inhaling toxins and inflammagens during every hour spent indoors.

Lack of awareness of environmental toxins and other triggers

Mold and other toxins in indoor air in water-damaged buildings may cause a large of people in the US and elsewhere to become ill or have negative symptoms each year. One issue with EAIs is a lack of awareness among doctors, builders, lawmakers, landlords, school administrators, manufacturers, farmers and others of the serious health risks posed by various exposures.

At present, there are no national standards for what amount of mold or water damage in a building is considered unsafe for human health. Schools, universities, hospitals, office buildings and apartment buildings all over the country may have indoor air quality issues, yet most of those responsible are not aware of the grave health hazards in their buildings. Some building owners postpone replacing roofs or other maintenance and “clean up” mold by wiping down walls with bleach (this is not recommended) and repainting. Students, tenants and employees who report feeling sick in buildings are not always taken seriously.

For example: It is estimated that 25 percent of cases of childhood asthma are caused by mold exposure, but at least half of schools are thought to have indoor air quality issues, and most school administrators have no idea that many students and teachers are experiencing symptoms due to the buildings.

Why do doctors so often fail to notice environmental exposure as a factor in their patients’ illnesses?

Very few doctors visit the homes or offices of their patients. They diagnose illness based on physical examination, interviews of patients, and lab tests. Patients whose homes or offices have poor indoor air quality usually are not aware that these buildings are making them sick, so they may not mention this issue. Most doctors don’t ask about indoor air quality issues or other environmental exposures. Until recently, when persistent Lyme disease became more accepted in the medical community, most doctors did not believe that some bacterial infections could persist after treatment with a few weeks of antibiotics. Fortunately, the medical community is beginning to recognize this phenomenon, although many physicians remain unaware of the risk of chronic infections caused by tick-borne bacteria.

A patient suffering from environmentally acquired illness may come in reporting a dizzying array of symptoms. The person may be exhausted, cognitively impaired, and a bit incoherent. Most doctors are busy and can’t stop to spend several hours figuring out what is the matter. A primary care doctor will often refer such a patient to one or more specialists. Many EAI patients have visited various doctors, including allergists, gastroenterologists, rheumatologists, infectious disease specialists, cardiologists, psychiatrists, and others, without getting significant help or relief, or determining the root cause(s) of their issues. Many such patients are eventually labeled as having chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.

Why are the health risks from exposure to water-damaged buildings so poorly understood?

In the 1990s, there were scores of news reports of people suffering from “sick building syndrome.” This represented a dawning awareness of the hazards of contaminated indoor air. But the issue was gradually escorted off the radar screen by a host of insurance companies and corporations who did not want to shoulder the very significant cost of cleaning up all the water-damaged office buildings, apartment buildings, schools, shopping malls, etc. Homeowner insurance policies may cover damage caused by flooding or other catastrophes, but most often exclude coverage for mold. Homeowner insurance exclusions are one example of institutional efforts to turn a blind eye to the health hazards of environmental exposure.

The health risks from environmental exposures are poorly understood for other reasons as well. For example:

  • More women than men seem to be affected by EAIs. Our society has a long-established tendency to discredit or to disbelieve women’s complaints of chronic illness.
  • Very little research funding has been allocated to investigate ME/CFS, fibromyalgia, or other illnesses that may be caused or exacerbated by environmental exposures.
  • In homes, office buildings, and schools where there are biotoxins caused by water damage, some people get sick while others seem not to react. This is confusing and often leads those who are unaffected to discredit the reported symptoms of the people who develop EAIs.

How do I know if I have an environmentally acquired illness?

If you are sick and tired a lot of the time, and doctors have found no cause for your symptoms, explore whether your illness/malaise may be at least partly caused by environmental exposures. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel better when I leave my home/workplace, and worse when I go back there? For example, if you get a headache or have sinus issues or cognitive problems when you go to your home or office, and feel better when you go outdoors, this is a red flag.
  • Am I exposed at home or at work to chemicals that might be affecting my health?
  • Might I have a chronic infection from a tick or flea bite?
  • Have I had serious dental problems? Do I have mercury amalgams?
  • Am I living in a place where air pollution, water pollution, sewer leaks, gas leaks or other environmental exposure may be affecting my health?

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “yes,” consider taking a break from these exposures.

For example: If your home may have indoor air quality issues due to leaks or other water damage, you may want to try to stay somewhere else where you feel better, for a week or two. During your time away, you might want to spend a lot of time outside, and when indoors (if the outdoor air is clean) open windows as much as possible. During your time away, don’t go into your house any more than absolutely necessary. At the end of your time away, go home, and monitor how you feel. If you start feeling worse again, your body may be telling you that there is a problem. Then you need to investigate the cause of the problem, but your time away will give you valuable information.

If you suspect that you may have an EAI, find a health care professional and indoor environmental professional who is knowledgeable about EAIs and can help you to understand and address your illness. Most physicians are not yet familiar with EAIs. See ISEAI’s Find a Professional for a referral list of qualified professionals.

How are EAIs treated?

There is a growing group of doctors who are specializing in the treatment of EAIs. Some of these are involved in research to better understand the mechanisms of injury for different environmental exposures. Others develop improved treatment plans for sick patients. Physicians and other health care professionals who are interested in this field can join ISEAI to build their understanding and skills in the treatment of EAIs.

Many people who have been quite ill from EAIs have mostly recovered their good health as the result of lifestyle changes to avoid toxic exposure and by working with doctors who are knowledgeable about EAIs and can treat underlying infections and other triggers. The work of recovery may take years and can require patients to make significant changes in their life. Some patients remain sensitive to toxic exposures but can otherwise recover good health.

Read our EAI In Depth page for more detailed information about environmentally acquired illness.