Controversial Clinic for the 'Chemically Sensitive'

Texas Doctor Target of State Medical Board for 'Environmental Medicine'


March 20, 2008—

What if you thought that the world around you was making you sick? If you feared that the house you live in, the car that you drive and everyday activities such as watching television and talking on a cell phone were making you ill?

Dr. William Rea says he has treated more than 30,000 people, from all over the world, who believe the world around them has made them sick. Very sick.

"Lots of times they know what's wrong with them, but they haven't been able to get any help," Rea said. "And they're looking for solutions to their problems."

A board certified surgeon, Rea has become one of the foremost practitioners of "environmental medicine." At his clinic, the Environmental Health Center-Dallas, no cell phones are allowed and the air is constantly filtered. The walls and floors are made of porcelain -- "because there are no fumes and particulates," Rea said -- and other non-reactive surfaces such as unvarnished wood. The clinic has been open since 1974.

"We had to de-grease all the exercise equipment," Rea said. "Because of the fumes that were coming out of it."

'Chemically Sensitive'

Lisa Nagy, a patient of Rea and a medical doctor with a degree from Cornell University, said she came to the clinic because "I knew I was dying. I knew I had, like, a month left."

You wouldn't know to look at her now but just a few years ago Nagy could hardly move.

"I knew I was sick, I thought I was depressed," she said. "I went to a psychiatrist every day for a year. I went to an acupuncturist."

Nothing worked, and Nagy became convinced that she was suffering from an "environmental illness": that chemicals and electromagnetic energy in the world around her were making her ill.

"I was unable to drive into Los Angeles to see the psychiatrist because of the diesel exhaust coming in the car," she said. "And I had no knowledge that I was chemically sensitive."

Nagy also says the mold in her former house was toxic.

"It's possible that I had other exposures before this house and other situations, which adds to my toxic load, so that this house tipped me over," she said. "We all see car exhaust, smell car exhaust on the way to work in the morning, and we all have dogs and cats at home, and we all have new carpeting at work. We all have air fresheners at the airport that we get exposed to. It's how you deal with those exposures. Do you get tired or do you get a headache? That makes you environmentally ill."

Diesel Fuel and Detox

The first thing Rea did was test Nagy for "environmental allergies." He injected a small amount of antigen -- which is a diluted amount of the very thing she may be allergic to -- which triggers an immune system response. Rea tests for a whole slew of allergens such as perfumes, fabric softeners, diesel fuels, woods like oak and many others.

Then Nagy, as with most of Rea's patients, began what is called the detoxification program that he says cleanses the body of all pollutants. The patient gets saunas – to "sweat out" the toxins -- purified air, and certain kinds of food in a controlled environment.

Nagy became so ill during detox she was admitted to a nearby hospital and ended up in the psychiatric ward.

"It was excruciating," she recalled. "The only benefit was I did oxygen every night and they had hard surface floors without carpeting. I didn't know really the principals of environmental medicine yet. I just knew that I needed to rest and oxygen seemed to help."

Nagy's husband Wes Nagy said "the psychiatrist that had me commit her told me she would never get well and that I should consider moving on." But after a month of treatment at the clinic, Wes Nagy said that his wife "was like somebody else. It was like somebody had flicked a switch. It was a different person."

Public Health Hazard?

If it all sounds a little extreme to you, you're not alone.

"We believe he is posing a threat to the public health of the citizens of Texas," said Mari Robinson, an attorney for the Texas Board of Medicine.

The board is trying to stop Rea from practicing his brand of medicine, and may even strip him of his license. The hearing is set for Dec. 1.

"The treatments that he's giving, we believe, can be dangerous to the public health, such as injecting jet fuel or natural gas," said Robinson, who added that the treatments appear to have no clinical value.

Rea says that he has never injected patients with jet fuel.

"I've used antigens of it, and,of course, as you well know, that was one of the accusations," he said. "I used an antigen, a provocation test, just like we would a food or just like we would a mold."

We asked Dr. David Khan of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who, unlike Rea, is a board certified allergist and immunologist, if any of this makes sense.

"Certainly injecting jet fuel or any part of jet fuel into someone I think would be potentially dangerous and certainly doesn't seem to have any value," he said.

When asked about the success stories of Rea's patients, Khan said, "They're feeling better living in a closed room with aluminum foil, never leaving without oxygen. Is that a cure? Absolutely not."

Countered Rea: "I might say that in Japan now they have four environmental clinics that are at university medical schools that are patterned after our methods in our clinic." And he maintains that his methods have been peer reviewed in the United States, just not in what most would consider mainstream medical journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA or Nature. And his reaction to the actions of the Texas Medical Board is that it "seems like somebody wants to limit the public's chance for freedom of choice in medical care, doesn't it?"

But Robinson, of the Texas Board of Medicine, said that "what's gotten him in trouble is that he has yet, so far, refused to submit his treatments to the double-blind sort of gold standard studies or to an institutional review board to oversee it."

'He Gave Me My Life Back'

But none of that matters to Lisa Nagy.

"I have a headset on every phone in the home because I can't really use [a regular] phone," she said. "If I hold it up, in the piece here, it's got a magnet and it gives me a headache."

Following Rea's program, she injects herself daily with all sorts of allergy shots.

"This one is terps, which is terpians from wood -- I was very sensitive to pine. Do not have raw pine in your home. Oak is OK. This is chemicals and these are the chemicals that are in this vial, whatever the chemicals are, I was sensitive to some and not to others. So the ones I was sensitive to, they were put in here with water," she said.

Nagy says yes; water with a little bit of diesel, perfume, and even mercury.

"Yeah, but we inject vaccinations with huge amounts of mercury; comparatively it's probably one-one hundredth or one-one thousandth of the amount," she said, although, in fact, most vaccines today don't contain any mercury.

To trained immunologists such as Khan, there's another possible explanation for Rea's success: His patients are ill, but from stress and other psychological factors.

"You can have people stressed out and they can break out in a rash or hives or all sorts of things just from the nervous excitement," he said. "These things are real events. But it's not because of the substance they just ingested, it's because of their conditioned response and so when they smell whatever the odor is, they have this conditioned response, they feel ill, their pulse rate may go up, they have a headache, a variety of things."

Getting away from it all was a matter of survival for Nagy. She moved to an island -- Martha's Vineyard -- and created a special pollutant-free home -- Rea style.

"Most of these patients who have these ailments actually have an underlying psychiatric problem, and one of the problems in this country is the under diagnosis and under treatment of psychiatric diseases, and I think we are all guilty of that," Khan said.

Nagy said, "I tried to communicate with the psychiatrists who take care of me, to invite him over to Bill Rea's clinic. To educate him how many of these patients appear to be mentally deranged or have mental issues, but how in fact when you treat their chemical sensitivity, then their mental situation gets much better."

It is a fact that Rea and his methods are controversial, scorned by many mainstream medical researchers and institutions. But all that simply makes no sense to those who say the world made them sick, and Dr. William Rea made them better.

"I don't want to get all choked up," Nagy said, "but he gave me my life."

Click here for more information on Lisa Nagy's Story and environmental medicine. Environmental medicine is not an official branch of the American Medical Association. Click here to find out more information on allergens from the The American Academy of Allergy Astham and Immunology. Producer Katie Escherich contributed to this report.