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.

Two worlds. Doug provides. Debbie fights for her children.
"What else is there?" she asks. I don't have anything else.

What is remarkable about Jason and Michael McQueen is that they appear to be so healthy. They are both sturdy, blond kids who like to camp and fish. On one visit to the McQueen home, the boys eat tamales and drink Coca-Cola. On another, they watch Conan the Barbarian on TV. They look healthy, but their disability is invisible, Debbie says. That's the problem.

Although Debbie says she also suffers from pesticide poisoning, she appears as healthy as her sons. Her blue eyes are clear. Her tan skin glows and she dresses in sensible sports clothes that show off her muscular, fit legs. She wears her thick, slightly frosted hair in a practical, short style.

Doug is a quiet, soft-spoken guy who likes being outdoors. He grew up in Flagstaff, in a happy home where guests were always welcome and you never knew who was going to stay for dinner.

But the home he lives in now is different.
"I don't really have a social life," says Debbie. She hasn't for quite some time, she adds. She often refers to feeling "isolated."
Ever since the unverified 1987 helicopter spraying incident, Debbie McQueen has been something of a public figure in Arizona. The news media, including New Times, have featured her brand of environmental activism with regularity over the past eight years.

That activism includes Residents for Alternative Pest Policy, a nonprofit group she founded to fight pesticide use. Debbie has testified before the Arizona Legislature, first about the helicopter-spraying incident, and then in support of a recently passed law that requires schools to notify parents about pesticide applications on school grounds.

And last year, the public television show Horizon featured Debbie as the driving force behind what has become a successful nonchemical pest-control program at the Paradise Valley Unified School District. Debbie had promoted a "Hug a Bug" program that helped kids learn about the benefits of insects.

Debbie uses scientific and medical terms in a facile way, and describes her sons' illnesses in clinical detail. Making these illnesses very public does not damage the boys or embarrass them, she says, because they don't read the newspapers.

And seeing her children in the press, she says, helps the public understand the human toll of chemical sensitivity.

Debbie's dealings with the press have been cordial, but her relationships with government officials and professionals, whose help she has repeatedly sought, have often become strident and adversarial. In 1993, former Arizona Department of Environmental Quality chief Ed Fox publicly called McQueen a "burdensome" woman.

"I wouldn't be such a pain if they would do their jobs," Debbie retorts.
So far, in her fights for her family's rights, Debbie has sought the aid of Hillary Clinton, Nancy Reagan, two federal agencies--the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and the Environmental Protection Agency--the Arizona Attorney General's Office, the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Arizona Structural Pest Control Board and the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners. She's also enlisted assistance from the Arizona Center for Disability Law, the American Civil Liberties Union and several medical doctors and lawyers in private practice.

If the professionals don't do what Debbie considers an adequate job, she files complaints and grievances and appeals. She does this to protect her rights. And, she says, to let officials know she "still cares" about the issue at hand.

Last spring, Debbie's war with school officials was briefly covered by the daily newspapers when she pulled her boys out of Eagle Ridge Elementary School, which is in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

The fracas started in the summer of 1994 when Debbie, concerned about the boys' possible exposure to toxins during upcoming renovations of old buildings and construction of a new building on the campus, asked the school to put the boys on disability plans to protect them against chemicals.

She provided the school with Gray's diagnosis that the boys were extremely sensitive to certain chemicals as a result of the 1987 spraying.

Gray told school staffers that some chemically sensitive kids develop temporary learning disabilities after being exposed to certain chemicals.

The Eagle Ridge staff, however, did not think the boys had learning disabilities or behavior problems, and they didn't think the boys were terribly sick, Principal Karen Gasket testified in a hearing last month on the dispute.

But for reasons Gasket has yet to adequately explain, in August 1994 she acquiesced to Debbie's demand that the boys be deemed disabled under the terms of Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Gasket later testified that she misunderstood the 1973 law. She thought the law was meant to prevent disabilities, not accommodate them.

"I made a mistake," Gasket later said. " . . . I know that Mrs. McQueen had frequently told me that the boys were chemically sensitive, and I took her word for it, that that meant there was a medical diagnosis. I never questioned it. But when we looked for the medical records, and we saw no symptoms, there was some confusion about whether [a child] perceived by the parents as chemically sensitive applied to [Section] 504. So again, because we wanted to err on the side of caution rather than make a mistake that could jeopardize the boys . . . I did not want to take a chance."
Gasket refused comment to New Times, citing confidentiality laws.
The McQueens' case is the first, and only, in Arizona schools that cites chemical sensitivity as a disability, says Linda Howard-Kurent, an official with the section of the Office of Civil Rights that monitors the Department of Education.

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