Monday, March 4, 2013

Lessons from Algernon

I often find myself thinking about a book that I first read many years ago. Flowers for Algernon is the story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie who undergoes surgery to improve his IQ. Algernon is the laboratory mouse who served as the first experimental subject of the procedure. The story is written from Charlie's point of view, and the grammar, spelling, and word choices change as his intelligence does.

I think about the book frequently, because a lot of my communication with fellow toxic illness sufferers is done through e-mail, and the grammar, spelling, and word choices of my friends tells me a lot about how they are doing and whether they have recently had any significant chemical exposures. People who are normally articulate and even eloquent lose their ability to spell and form coherent sentences. I often find myself reading sections of written communication over and over, trying to glean their meaning. Undoubtedly, others have similar experiences with passages I write when my brain isn't at its best.

Chemicals can affect the brain in many ways. The National Institutes of Health states that encephalopathy is a term for brain disease or malfunction and that it may be caused by a number of things, including toxins like solvents, paints, drugs, radiation, industrial chemicals and certain metals. The list of possible symptoms includes progressive loss of memory, inability to concentrate, and decline in cognitive ability.

The cognitive effects of chemical exposures are very real. Even those of us who have been managing our illness for many years find that we forget to go through our "first-aid" routines after we have been exposed. People often talk about going into a store or other toxic environment and wandering about in a daze, forgetting why they are there and failing to realize that they should leave. Unfortunately, I'm afraid that the same dynamic may be happening on a societal level. I'm afraid that we may get to a point where we are too far gone to realize the trouble that common chemicals are causing us and to make the effort to save ourselves.

Some legislators in Kansas are trying to save themselves, at least from one possible toxin. An article in the Huffington Post reports that the Kansas Republican Assembly would like city officials in Topeka to cease adding fluoride to the city's drinking water, at least during the legislative session, "to protect our legislators from potential loss of IQ.and other negative side effects of fluoride."  Fluoride is only one of many chemicals linked to a lowering of IQ levels. Just within the past few weeks I've read articles linking lower IQ levels to leadflame retardantsand chemicals related to natural gas production.

The fictional Charlie learned from the experience of Algernon that his cognitive abilities were likely to decline again after they had risen. Unfortunately, he was unable to find a way to prevent that from happening. We can prevent further cognitive decline from happening to us, though. Medicine Net states that early treatment of many types of encephalopathy can halt or reduce the symptoms and that "often, cases of encephalopathy can be prevented by avoiding the many primary causes."  We can save ourselves, but if we are going to protect ourselves from the effects of environmental toxins, we need to do it before our collective cognitive functioning is so diminished that we fail to fully understand the problem. Let's save ourselves, friends. Seriously, let's save ourselves while we still can.

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