SENSITIVITY STRAINING

YEAR AFTER YEAR, DEBBIE MCQUEEN MAKES NEWS BY FORCING THE GOVERNMENT TO DEAL WITH A CHEMICAL SENSITIVITY SYNDROME THAT SHE CLAIMS AFFLICTS HER CHILDREN. THERE IS REASON TO WONDER HOW SICK THOSE KIDS ACTUALLY ARE.

Sometimes, Debbie McQueen wonders if people could possibly understand what she's gone through. The isolation. The struggles. The heartache of being the mother of chemically sensitive boys.

There was the time a family vacation soured when Jason McQueen had a seizure at Sea World. Another incident involved Michael, Jason's brother, breaking out in blistery hives after being exposed to bug repellent during a father-son camping trip.

Debbie, a 37-year-old northeast Phoenix housewife, says her two children are so sensitive to chemicals that she asks visitors to take off their shoes before entering her home. Her house is immaculate and dust-free, and she fears that tracking in chemicals from the outside world might further damage the already shattered health of her chemically sensitive sons.

The boys' health is central to a battle between Debbie McQueen and the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Debbie contends that her sons were wrongfully terminated from disability status at Eagle Ridge Elementary School. Now she won't let Jason, 12, and Michael, 9, attend district schools this fall.

The boys suffer from what she calls "Chemical Sensitivity Disability," or "CSD," which, she says, prevents them from safely attending school like normal kids--unless school administrators follow certain guidelines. Those guidelines would prevent the boys from being exposed to chemicals that trigger their flulike symptoms as well as seizures, hives and learning disabilities, Debbie says.

The condition Debbie says afflicts her sons is more commonly called "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity," and a debate rages in the medical community over whether it even exists. Some doctors say about 15 percent of the population suffers from some degree of chemical sensitivity. Others contend the malady is so rare as to be nearly nonexistent.

But beyond the medical controversy, there are reasons to wonder whether Debbie McQueen's children have chemical sensitivities--at least sensitivities so severe as to keep them out of district schools.

Michael Gray is a Benson, Arizona, doctor who believes chemical sensitivity is real. In 1994, Gray and Debbie met at an environmental conference. After Debbie sent Gray the boys' health records, the doctor concluded that Jason and Michael are extremely sensitive to certain pesticides and solvents. Later, he examined and interviewed the children and came up with the same conclusions.

The McQueen boys, however, have never undergone the sophisticated diagnostic tests that would determine more conclusively whether they actually have sensitivities to certain chemicals. Gray says he recommended the tests, which would cost about $5,000 per child.

Debbie says she can't afford to pay for the tests.
Despite the lack of critical tests, Gray remains confident of his diagnosis. Although the boys were healthy at the time he examined them at the hospital in Benson in March 1995, Jason later developed an eye irritation. The irritation could have arisen because the hospital had been recently sprayed with pesticides, Gray says.

It's "highly unlikely" that the boys' health problems simply are run-of-the-mill childhood illnesses, the doctor says.

The boys' family doctor, Robert Fauer, seems to agree with Gray. "Although I am no expert in chemical hypersensitivity syndromes, it appears that many of the symptoms these children have presented with have been environmentally induced . . ." he wrote in a "To Whom It May Concern" note that Debbie requested.

For eight years, Debbie has told doctors, lawyers, government officials, school personnel, journalists and environmental activists the story of how she and the boys developed their chemical sensitivity.

She claims the illnesses began after the McQueens moved to a west Valley house bordering farmland that was regularly crop-dusted. In the summer of 1987, a helicopter "bulk-released" an unknown pesticide right behind Debbie's house, exposing Debbie and her sons to a "noxious cloud" of pesticide that Debbie now says smelled like chlorine. (At the time, she said it smelled like horse urine.)

A 1987 state investigation was unable to prove any such "bulk releasing."
In fact, state investigators could not determine whether the helicopter was even in the area on the day Debbie says she and her children were poisoned.

As a result of the pesticide exposure, Debbie claims, the family developed chronic illnesses.

The McQueens moved out of the neighborhood, but things haven't been the same since.

Both Debbie and her husband, Doug, say the spraying not only took a toll on the children's health, but on their relationship. They've been married 16 years, live in the same house, love being with the kids. But both acknowledge being emotionally distant from each other. "For the last eight years, we've led totally separate lives," says Debbie. Sometimes, she calls Doug her "so-called husband."

"War is hell," says Doug of Debbie's battles with officials over the boys' health problems. And this is war.

Doug, a 37-year-old salesman for an electrical supply company, says his role in the war is to earn money (he won't say how much) so Debbie can continue with her important environmental work.

He's rarely around when reporters interview Debbie, and doesn't like to be photographed with the family for newspaper articles. Might hurt business, he says.

Debbie is a wonderful woman, Doug says, and he's very sorry he can't devote more time to helping with her activism. But to tell the truth, he can't always keep up with it, or understand clearly what it is she's doing. Just like she doesn't always understand what he does at work.

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