CENTER ON BEHAVIORAL MEDICINE
BODY- MIND CONNECTION
ENVIRONMENTAL INTOLERANCES and TOXINS
Environmental Intolerances and Toxins-Chemical: Related Paper
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Into Thin Air: Exploring Cases and Causes of Phantom Fumes
Jerimy G. Blowers, MS, NCC
The strange events occurring in Mattoon, Illinois in the mid 1940s presents an enigma persisting into contemporary times. However, the mystery surrounding seemingly random and frightening attacks by ‘Mad Gassers’ is illuminated through the lens of a behavioral medicine paradigm. This paper explores the environmental constituents, most likely pesticides, which induced hysterical reaction in a small geographic area. A backdrop of world conflict, exacerbating fears, created an experience far beyond the sum of mere biological and psychological components. Discussion of Body-Mind mechanisms along with assessment and treatment considerations highlight this discourse.
SECTION I: Overview of Phantom Illness and Potential Contributing Factors
The year is 1944 and the war-weary United States is nearing the end of a long and costly world conflict. The loss of many brave servicemen and women paint a picture that the world is far from safe; fears of a distant enemy fall like shadows upon the minds of many. The once welcoming countryside now slips under a blanket of darkness, as pondering the unknown fate of nations weighs heavy on restless thoughts. Perhaps this backdrop provided a perfect stage for one of the greatest drama-mysteries of the past century. The sudden appearance of ‘Mad Gassers,’ as history now knows them, offers an interesting glimpse into a very strange and intriguing set of events.One of the most prominent phantom attacker cases unfolded in the town of Mattoon, Illinois. According to author Jerome Clark (1999), whose name is associated with the investigation of many unexplained puzzles, Mattoon ranked as a relatively “small east-central Illinois town,” recording nearly 16,000 people in 1940 (p. 446). The attacks themselves, starting with the first, fit an identifiable pattern involving an unknown assailant(s) assaulting residents with the use of an unidentified gaseous substance. Assassins, armed with toxic vapors, used the cloak of darkness in selecting residences for potential attack. These perpetrators then used an unidentified means in forcing the gas into designated homes, only to be seen disappearing into the night. A previous incident, occurring in 1933, carried a parallel etiology of events (Clark, 1999); the author dismisses the latter incident’s influence on Mattoon, although the happenings are strikingly similar. Both cases described a distinctive odor often accompanying the attacks. Those seemingly preyed upon experienced “nausea, paralysis, facial swelling and unconsciousness” (p. 450) subsequent to the actual gassing incident. Physical illness and attack frequency would logically yield eventual clues to this string of brash and poignant strikes. Alas, only a few bits of information exist in offering any explanation.
Very few tangible clues remain in solving one of the most mysterious enigmas of the recent past. Aside from a woman’s footprints, lipstick tube, and a piece of cloth, little data exists suggesting the deliberate coordination of such wide spread incidents. Probably the most helpful bit of physical evidence consists of an oily substance found at one alleged crime scene consisting of “sulfur, arsenic, and mineral oil” (Clark, 1999, p.450). Such ingredients remain consistent with pesticides, a hypothesis presenting the foundation of this contemporary analysis.
A second offering involves the presence of a nearby chemical factory in Mattoon, which produced the pesticide carbon tetrachloride. Clark (1999) contends that no satisfactory explanation is ever given for the industrial unit’s failure in impacting “Mattoon residents prior to August 31,” the premier gassing event (p. 449). However, this man-made material is extremely volatile and carries many of the same exposure symptoms as that experienced by phantom gas victims (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1995). This very fact provides some tantalizing questions that demand answers utilizing the modern knowledge of a body-mind paradigm.
The premise of this paper rests with the contention that attacks suffered by the residents of Mattoon and related incidents are real. Certainly, individuals succumbed to an unseen foe that crept silently into one’s room, bringing illness and fear. This enemy, however, represents neither ghost nor flesh and blood attacker; the real culprit is much more complex in nature. Sifting through the limited evidence while armed with knowledge of body-mind interaction reveals the most plausible explanation. Victims of ‘Mad Gassers’ fell prey to the influence of noxious chemicals upon one’s own physiological and psychological being; solving the obscurity requires a more rational analysis of existing facts. The extraction of these truths requires a closer examination of toxic substances and relative impact on the human organism.
Found in the previous cases, all victims experienced a distinct smell accompanied by feelings of sickness, muscular paralysis and loss of consciousness. Sightings of the culprit(s) also ensued, yet despite circumstantial evidence (i.e. footprints); the offenders remained elusive (Clark, 1999). This fact suggests that sufferers also succumbed to visual hallucinations in the progression of this event. Several studies point to a similar set of symptoms, all centering on the exposure to poisonous agents. For example, contact with hydrogen cyanamide, used in aiding vegetation growth, produces many negative consequences. Sickness, breathing distress, sedation, sensory disruption and diffuse mental clarity all manifest with chemical contact (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 2005). Bradberry, Proudfoot and Vale (2004) contend that herbicides produce distinct consequences as well; visual disturbances and paralysis result from this chemical classification. Basic sequencing of a toxic response in each case involves an individual coming in contact with the agent followed by a discrete set of consequences on multiple body symptoms. Agricultural compounds represent only one possibility; many other agents exist, promoting a wide array of effects on the human body.
Environmental Factors. Establishing the definitive impact of herbicides and growth enhancement products, exploring alternative environmental causes is also important. One contemporary theme is that of ‘sick building syndrome.’ This malady is defined as “non-specific complaints, including upper respiratory irritative symptoms, headaches, fatigue, and rash which are usually associated with a particular building by their temporal pattern of occurrence and clustering among colleagues of inhabitants” (Redlich, Sparer & Cullen, 1997, p. 1013). The contributing environmental factors to this phenomenon commonly reflect the presence of mold and fungi sources (Scheel, Rosing & Farone, 2001; Kilburn, 2003; Straus, Cooley, Wong & Jumper, 2003; Laumbach & Kipen, 2005). Even building materials (Lundholm, Lavrell & Mathiasson, 1990) and interior conditions appear as dismantling occupant health status (Li, Hsu & Tai, 1997; Reinikainen & Jaakkola, 2001). Aside from sick building constituents, other substances in one’s surroundings contribute toward physical and psychological illness.
Research into the immense damage caused by heavy metals and related elements remains plentiful; examples of contemporary concern are mercury (Trasande, Landrigan, Schechter, 2005; Zahir, Rizwi, Haq & Khan, 2005), lead (Alkondon, Costa, Radhakrishnan, Aronstam & Albuquerque, 1990), thallium (Peter & Viraraghavan, 2004), cadmium, and nickel among others (Pulido & Parrish, 2003). The influences of these metals possess great potential in producing physiological problems as well as psychological abnormalities. Mercury provides an excellent illustration; its poisoning is sometimes characterized by Erethism, a condition mimicking symptoms of psychosis through erratic and anomalous behaviors (Volz, Weaver & Shooltz, 1997). This interface between environment, physiology, and mind urges a more detailed examination of psychological states.Psychological Factors. Understanding that mental state constitutes both a preceding factor and result of present toxic stimuli (Bauer, Greve, Besch, Schramke, Crouch, Hicks, Ware & Lyles, 1992), examining this premise remains important in establishing a link between human poisons and psychiatric expression. Individuals themselves may possess a predisposition toward outcomes after chemical exposure, as demonstrated by Hudnell, Otto, House & Molva (1992). Taken in context, the interaction of all factors may illuminate the mysteries of phantom illness; isolating potential components now requires placing each element in its proper place in solving the mystery at hand.
Section II: Exposing the Phantom: Specific Contributions to ‘Mad Gasser’ Phenomenon
Information presented in the preceding section outlines the development of ‘Mad Gasser’ events as recounted by Clark (1999). Also previously suggested, such happenings did not represent solitary, isolated events. Similar attacks and unknown illnesses smatter both past and present times, creating a wave of hysteria among the populous (Knight, Friedman, Sulianti, 1965; Stahl & Lebedun, 1974; Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 1996). According to Clark (1999), symptoms of the specific case in point involved physical illness, immobility, swelling of tissue, and unconsciousness. Another notable fact in this case, most likely a very significant etiological point, is the presence of a nearby chemical factory. This industry, it is reported, produced chemical pesticides, which constitute the most probable contributory factors.
Pesticides are known for being
in eliminating unwanted insect populations, but remain equally
for incidental human poisonings. Reviewing the properties and types of
industrial repellants (Weiss, Amler & Amler, 2004), many produce
consistent with those reported by allegedly gassed victims. For
toxins inhibiting acetylcholine esterase function may induce paralysis
(Weinbroum, 2005); chloroform, once utilized as an anesthetic,
unconsciousness (Occupational Safety and Health Administration, n.d.).
However, the strongest pesticide examples paralleling ‘Mad Gasser’
are carbon tetrachloride and chloroform (Environmental Defense, 2004;
Safety and Health Administration, n.d.). A comparative review of the
evidence gathered from Mattoon ‘Mad Gasser’ reports as well as facts
carbon tetrachloride and chloroform is displayed in Table 1.
Mechanism of Action
Physiological. Dissecting the mechanisms of action between the two suspect toxins, tetra hydrochloride and chloroform command a basic understanding of an insecticide’s main ingredients. Weinbroum (2005) asserts that the main action of highly potent pest control chemicals centers on nicotinic and muscarinic systems. The action or inhibition of these acetylcholine receptors plays an expansive role in the central nervous system; the stimulation or blocking of receptors increases synapse firing or, in some cases, induces muscle paralysis (Carlson, 2001). Action on the muscarinic receptor sites by a receptor antagonist “are considered second tier agents for the treatment of symptoms of parkinsonism,” arresting the excess movement of muscles in the disease’s characteristic tremors (Julien, 2005). Examples of humans being impacted by organophosphates, which operate on these same receptor sites is not uncommon. The case of a young person affected through a low –dose pesticide poisoning exhibited manifestations including disrupted cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological disruptions. Also noted are loss of muscle control and unconsciousness (Mattingly, Sullivan, Spiller & Bosse (2003). Taking all of the facts presented thus far, the incidental intake of pesticides appears as a plausible explanation for Mattoon victim’s physiological symptoms. Nausea, paralysis, and unconsciousness experiences all fit with the toxicity of strong insecticide agents. The presence and type of hallucinations invite further questioning regarding individual mind states.
evidence supports the introduction of toxic environmental compounds
the advent of hallucinogenic phenomenon appears as yet another unknown.
Contrarily, production of phantasms in this case meshes precisely with
presented data when examining the interface of body-mind
Chemical-induced mental illusions are witnessed through a
of examples; many substances acting in complex ways upon select
and neurotransmitters are well established (Bradbury, 2004; Julien,
Likewise, researchers such as Dalton (1999), suggest that mental
play a significant part in a human being’s reaction to environmental
Particularly, investigators confirmed this premise in uncovering
individual tolerances for olfactory stimuli stating that “the observed
differences in suprathreshold perceived odor and irritation…are
of a cognitive or affective appraisal of the odor rather than a change
in sensitivity” (p. 585). Bauer et al. (1992) support this contention,
reinforcing the exploration of psychological factors when studying the
impact of outside agents.
Testing for the presence of heavy metals and other poisons did not attain the sophistication, in the 1940s, as experienced in contemporary times. Superimposing modernized evaluative procedures on the resident of Mattoon potentially involve the utilization of three analytic methods: body fluid, hair, and electromagnetic imaging studies. Each procedure supplies a piece to this complex puzzle and used together, guide the detection, prognosis, and treatment of insecticide poisoning.
Ruling out a plethora of physical and psychological conditions is always a valid premiere step in determining the presence of any ailment. Drawing upon the facts of the Mattoon case, structural interviews regarding mental health status and medical history are warranted. Investigation in this way lessens the potential for psychiatric illness and non-related physical conditions in confounding true diagnoses. Once this is accomplished, a testing of body fluids for the existence of harmful compounds is prudent. Dependent on the suspect chemical classification, blood, urine and other exams remain appropriate (Pagana & Pagana, 2002).
Hair testing is a procedure
in detecting a variety of influences on psychological state. Since the
presence of carbon tetrachloride is depleted rapidly in the body
for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 1995), hair analysis
a logistical examination choice. Zakrzewski (1993) presents a
case for the use of this tool, citing its ability in uncovering a
of corporal pollutants. Thus, securing an inspection of Mattoon
hair significantly increases the chances for discovering the offending
environmental agents over an extended period of time.
Immediate intervention in
impact of pesticide poisoning involves the reversal of neurological
promoting harmful symptoms. Activity at the nicotinic and muscarinic
sites requires intervention at the synaptic level (Weinbroum, 2005).
of pharmacological agents such as atropine (Mattingly et al., 2003)
in mediating site reactions. Atropine itself is a substance
“that blocks muscarinic acetylcholine receptors” (Carlson, 2001, p.
in other terms, an antagonistic agent. Blocking these locations
the unpleasant and even deadly effects of immediate chemical exposure.
An investigation by Balali-Mood and Shariat (1998) demonstrated that
drug recommencing the function of acetyl cholinesterase, an integral
produced effective and safe treatment outcomes. When paralysis occurs
a part of exposure, medicines resuming or unblocking nicotinic receptor
function is warranted, as the inhibition of muscle activity is
with the inhibition of nicotinic function. This decision, of course is
made within the context of suspect chemicals, presenting symptoms, and
other important factors.
Extended outcomes involving pesticide-related illness remain largely unknown. Mattingly et al. (2003) clearly show that acute treatment of insecticide poisoning is a grave challenge, conceding that the presence of clinical features and treatment is a process not entirely understood. Knowing this, a scheduled and continuous monitoring of the patient is paramount. Symptoms of neurotoxin exposure potentially manifest over a significant time span (Claudio et al., 2000) and require appropriate, coordinated responses. This model requires the use of all discoursed analytical tools and research into new methods and drugs aimed at intervening in this serious medical event. Professional health practitioners remaining current in research findings, retaining an understanding of pesticide profiles, and utilizing the most contemporary intervention methods offer the greatest opportunity for client healing.
Reducing one of the nation’s most puzzling occurrences to its logical conclusions does not detract from its intrigue. Acceptance of the most probable elements, carbon tetrachloride and chloroform, in distressing the populous of 1944 Mattoon, is more interesting than any phantom menace. The interaction of body-mind elements behind this hysteria offers that collective learning of how and why these events occur is ongoing. No longer can maladies be reduced to simplistic biological or psychological components. Accordingly, this understanding also invites the use of novel assessment and treatment modalities meant in addressing the patient holistically. Seemingly unsolved mysteries akin to Mattoon are far from over, but with the expanding knowledge of behavioral health, practitioners certainly become better detectives. This case, it appears, is closed.
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