When I was a kid and I got sick…the doctor came to me. My mom would scurry about cleaning up the house as this honored guest was on his way. It is unfortunate on many levels that doctors can no longer offer this service. Having spent many years speaking to hundreds of people who have suffered from environmentally induced poor health I have come to wish that every doctor was trained to make at least a verbal house call as one component of a holistic case history. I interviewed my dear friend and co-author Dr. Erica Elliott, MD, a practitioner of Family and Environmental Medicine on this topic.
Why do doctors commonly fail to recognize illness stemming from poor indoor environments?
The majority of medical practitioners have not been trained to recognize environmentally induced illness and seldom ask the patient about the air they are breathing. In addition the symptoms of environmentally induced illness can mimic other medical conditions. And the symptoms can vary from person to person and can affect any organ of the body.
Which symptoms make you suspect the patient’s work or home environment as the cause of their illness?
The sudden increase of allergies, re-occurring respiratory infections, fatigue, recurrent sinusitis, headaches and fibromyalgia are common complaints of people affected by poor indoor air quality. But symptoms can range from insomnia, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, mood swings and flu-like bouts to anxiety and suicidal depression I never rule out the environment as a potential cause of illness until I have taken a thorough case history.
What questions should the physician be asking?
What else was occurring in the patient’s life at the onset of the illness?
Did the patient change jobs, renovate, or move home to a new home or office?
Was there water damage from a roof leak or a plumbing malfunction?
Has the neighborhood changed with new construction, installation of communication towers heavy use of insecticides or herbicides?
Are any other members of the family or fellow workers complaining of health problems, even if their symptoms are different?
What changes has the patient noticed in his or her condition on a daily, weekly and seasonal basis? For example a patient may report that they feel better on weekends when they are away from the workplace or that their symptoms are worse in the colder weather when windows are closed and forced air heating is turned on.
Any last words of advice?
Yes. Pay attention to the messages your body is sending you. Become a keen observer of your environment. If you suspect your home or work place is affecting your health, seek out a physician who understands environmentally induced illness. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s all in your head!