This is the third and concluding part of the interview with David Brooks that talks about his son’s exposure to environmental illness and the journey of discovery and the long path to recovery.
We are going to speak to David about the steps that he and his family have taken to help his son in terms of reducing his exposure to toxic mold and toxic chemicals and the rebuilding of his son’s immune system. Would you mind beginning our talk by sharing with us about your experience with multiple systemic infectious disease syndrome in your experience with your son?
We started hearing of people injured by toxic mold exposure like our son but who also were struggling with Lyme disease, or chronic fatigue syndrome, or fibromyalgia. These conditions can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Dr. Richard Horowitz feels there’s often a link between different types of chronic diseases and biotoxins, including mold. MSIDS, or multiple systemic infectious disease syndrome is a more encompassing term, suggesting potentially shared root causes for immune system dysregulation among some of these chronic diseases.
For someone battling mold illness or MSIDS, chemicals play a big role too. Toxic chemicals are a part of everyday life. Take new carpet for example. It has formaldehyde. It has benzene. It has toluene. All of these chemicals constantly off-gas around us and they’re putting a load on our system. Most of us don’t even think about it.
Bedding can also contribute to our immune system’s environmental load. A study on new beds reported in Environmental Science and Technology (February 2014) examined 20 different mattresses and cribs for babies. They found new mattresses on average emit four times the level of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) as an old mattress. The research team also reported that VOCs at the infant’s breathing zone was twice what it would be typically if you’re standing in the room breathing ambient air.
With our son Wes’s extreme sensitivities, we could use only non-toxic paints and sealants when we built our “non-toxic” house. In buying anything new, if we could still smell the finish, we’d keep it away from Wes until it cured. We avoided shelving and furniture made with pressed wood (lots of aldehydes in the glues) or MDF (medium density fiberboard). It’s a whole different way of thinking. The common denominator with multiple systemic infectious disease syndrome seems to be system load, or total body burden. It all adds up.
The multiple chemical sensitivities that you’re describing in the home has become a huge problem in the last century. That’s exactly what I find with my patients as well, which is that you may begin with a sensitivity to a particular chemical or to mold or you might begin with Lyme’s disease or fibromyalgia and because the immune system is already compromised you become more sensitive to things that you might’ve ordinarily been fine with.
Our houses are built now that they have become airtight, they have become well insulated so that there’s very little outside air that comes inside and whatever is off-gassing from our carpeting, from building adhesives, from our bedding, from cleaning products, from finishes and from paint – all of these things go into the air and then we breathe them and they go into our bodies and they add to the chemical load.
Actually a host of other very serious illnesses that are not well understood, can be attributed to this allergic load and to this toxicity within the body that compromises the immune system. So it sounds like you have taken some very significant steps in terms of your home to improve the air quality. What kinds of things have you done, David?
Our mold doctor in Arizona looked us in the eyes and told us because of the severity of Wes’s environmental injury, we HAD to build a new house, watching every stage of construction meticulously. We’d have to make sure there was no lumberyard mold. We’d have to avoid all toxic finishes, and build with non-toxic construction adhesives and sealants. We went with non-toxic bamboo and porcelain tile for flooring, and used non-toxic finishes for all cabinetry.
It was daunting but I’ve got to tell you… we moved into the new house last summer and it’s made a world of difference. One day last fall our family spent a day away in a less than pristine environment. We arrived at home late that night and Wes was struggling. As soon as he walked through the door he took a big breath and said, “I can’t tell you how good it is to be home. The air is fresh and just feels healthy!” Indoor air quality in many environments is not the best. But it’s great to know our son can come home and recover where we know the air quality is consistently good.
Wes is doing SO much better. One of the keys is how the air is filtered and conditioned. An energy recovery ventilator (ERV) brings in fresh, outside air, which ties into the furnace/AC. Stale air is exhausted outside. Air enters the house through a MERV 8 pre-filter. It’s filtered again by the internal ERV filter, which is MERV 12. Then all air passes through a large area MERV 13 pleated furnace filter. Next it is conditioned further by three carbon filters and three UV lights, to prevent microbial growth in the air conditioner coil and drain pan. So it’s very aggressive, creating an almost hospital “clean room” type environment throughout the whole house.
We still have an Austin Air Healthmate air purifier running non-stop in Wes’s bedroom to put a final finish on the most critical air space in the house. The Austin has a large HEPA filter and a massive carbon activated charcoal, which does a wonderful job filtering chemicals. We love the Austin line.
Another critical area is diet. This was hard to sort through, especially early on. In addition to environmental reactions, Wes would have reactions after eating certain foods. It could be within a couple of minutes of eating. All of a sudden he would go into a mode where he could not stop talking along with a shift of personality and behavior. Some foods made him hyperactive. Some made him lethargic. We kept a food log and did our best to identify and avoid the offenders. We try to avoid foods with pesticides or dyes. Digestive enzyme supplements help.
We found that for our son, the G.A.P.S. diet and Paleo diet both work well. Both limit the sugars gut pathogens love. Fermented foods, probiotics, green smoothies (low on fruits), and raw foods help restore gut health, which is so important in overall health. Activated charcoal capsules (away from supplements) help in de-toxing. We use vitamin supplements aggressively to provide antioxidant support, helping to fight the effects of oxidative stress.
Exercise brings remarkable immune system regulation. When Wes is showing signs of struggle, he can go for a long walk or bike ride and he’ll come back with renewed resilience. Deep breathing (in a clean environment) is another powerful immune system booster. It resets the vagus nerve. When Wes has a bad reaction from a mold or chemical exposure, he can usually bring noticeable improvement with a few minutes of deep breathing from the diaphragm. Lots of tools work together to help get the immune system back on track with mold illness or MSIDS.
I think with toxic mold in particular, this is sometimes the only solution is to change environments – sometimes it just means moving. If a building has been significantly damaged by toxic mold – sometimes really there is no remediation. But in many, many situations remediation is possible. With mold obviously one would have to tear apart the water damaged areas and have a licensed mold contractor deal with both removing and seeing that no mold is left inside the walls and in roofing. Often simpler fixes go a long way for people removing carpeting and having either a hardwood or a linoleum floor can make a huge difference.
It’s really a remarkable a story that you share and also in our talk earlier you had mentioned the role of prayer and how that has contributed. I would be interested for you to speak a little on that and we can close our discussion after that.
Wes’s mold crisis hit hard in 2009. In 2011 after MANY doctor visits and lots of costly testing, we got the mold illness diagnosis and began treatment. Our doctor told us treatment would take several years and avoiding re-exposure was critical. We lived day to day in acute crisis mode for three years. Things improved but progress was slow. We went through lots of ups and downs.
Watching our son lose capacity and become immobilized by mold illness year after year was unspeakably hard. Something was SO deeply impairing Wes’s ability to think and be who the person he wanted to be. Yet as parents we felt helpless. Progress through treatment was slow and the set-backs were devastating.
Throughout those hard periods, friends came alongside and prayed every single day with us (we are followers of Jesus Christ). Prayer became our lifeline. Their constant support and prayers pulled our family through the five year crisis. If Wes went into an awful reaction, I would text a close friend. He’d text back something encouraging and immediately lift us in prayer. When my wife and I were depleted, leaning on friends and family made all the difference. A miracle began unfolding.
Over the past several years we had to learn a lot about mold and how to support recovery from environmental illness. Our hope is that our story could help other families “fast-forward” through things which took a long time for our family to learn. We went through really difficult losses. For a few years, Wes struggled to get out of bed after a 12 hour night of rest. Now he gets up every morning before I do. He gets ready for school, washes the dishes and makes breakfast for my wife and me.
Wes is back! He is sharp. Energetic. Creative. His personality is back. He’s studying to be a film maker and is nearly done directing and producing his first 2 ½ hour feature length original film as a college freshman. Wes is an absolute delight.
When we remember where we’ve been and then look at where our family is today, I have to say David, we are living a miracle.
DAVID FROME: Wow, that’s a wonderful closing note and you know I want to really reiterate that the power of community and for the power of prayer and the importance of sharing the journey and sharing the load when things are so difficult. Really delighted that you would share so intimately with our listeners on both your travail and your experience and your insights – these are invaluable. I want to thank you so very much David for joining us and sharing with our listeners.
DAVID BROOKS: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our visit as well. I want to encourage your listeners and readers, if you don’t have answers yet, don’t give up. Take that next step. That’s what it was like for us. We just kept trying one thing, then another. Keep at it.