When you see a photo of a child inside a polythene tent and read the headline that says ‘Allergic to Life’ you can fairly assume that the journalist is misusing the term ‘allergy’. Such children suffer from conditions in which their immune systems do not function adequately – unless they were protected from the outside world. They would be exposed to infections against which they had no defenses and that would almost certainly be fatal. This is the direct opposite of an allergy, in which the immune system, and in particular the aggressive mast cell response, responds too efficiently to something that is an inappropriate target. The condition is caused by a faulty gene, and in some instances has been cured by gene therapy, in which the healthy gene is introduced into the patients body.
The newspaper reporters are not always wrong, however. On rare occasions, doctors and researchers come across people who have such a range of severe allergies that they are sometimes said to be suffering from ‘total allergy syndrome’, mainly because nobody knows how to characterize their condition. In such cases, normal life is nearly impossible. Sufferers find that all their time is spent trying to avoid potential allergens, wearing industrial masks and living on almost perpetual exclusion diets which are themselves unhealthy and potentially dangerous. To make matters worse, long-term use of the types of drug that can be used to control allergic symptoms is dangerous – especially steroids.
But the question is: Why do some people suffer from a wide range of allergies? Opinions vary. Some doctors believe that other conditions, such as depressive illnesses or myalgic encephalopathy (ME), are responsible; other authorities take the view that poisoning by organophosphates or some other chemical is the cause.
There is certainly some evidence to support the latter view. One 16 year old girl who had to live with total allergy syndrome since she was a baby was found to have unusually high levels of tin in her blood. Tin is known to be highly toxic, and it is also known that tin persists in the body for an extraordinary long time. When she was a baby, her garden was next to a field in which potatoes were grown, and at that time potatoes were often sprayed with a fungicide that contained organo-tin compounds. Her hair eventually fell out over the years and Cornish tin miners were once notorious for their lack of hair!
As of yet, nobody really knows why poisoning with tin or organophosphates should cause total allergy syndrome. ‘Gulf War Allergy Syndrome’ is also an allergy that is believed to be caused by organophosphate poisoning, so it just goes to show that chemicals are a threat to human health.