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At odds with his world

December 01, 1996

By TERRY TALBERT

Staff Writer

On March 23, 1988, Hagerstown resident Jacob B. "Jack" Berkson breathed fumes meant for termites, and it changed his life forever.

Berkson said fumes from the pesticide Dursban TC with xylene spread through his home and his body after he hired a firm to get rid of the bugs. Breathing the stuff made him deathly ill, and eventually he was forced to move out of his house.

What followed was a frightening and painful odyssey through an unbelieving world in search of medical help and answers.

Diagnosis

Berkson, who is now 70, finally found both. He was eventually diagnosed with Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) doctors believe were triggered by his exposure to Dursban.

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The lawyer and former legislator this summer self-published a book entitled "A Canary's Tale" which chronicles his fight to regain his health and his dignity.

In his book, Berkson offers documentation for the claim that people are getting sick and sometimes dying from exposure to toxins - on the battlefield, in the workplace and in their homes.

Berkson, a lawyer and former state legislator who has become active in the fight to ban toxic substances from the environment and educate people about MCS, said he has already sold more than 60 percent of the book's first printing. He hopes to go to a second printing soon.

"Since the book came out, I've received hundreds of letters from people who have been poisoned just like I was," Berkson said in an interview from his home, where he was able to return two years ago after it was extensively "de-toxed."

Many allergies

After his exposure to Dursban, Berkson became allergic to a host of things common in the modern environment, such as carpeting, upholstery fabrics, cologne, air fresheners, exhaust fumes. None had made him sick before.

He lost 30 pounds. He suffered from eye and sinus problems, nausea and headaches. His salivary glands swelled. One was finally removed. He had prostate problems, and surgery. He ended up in the emergency room with severe abdominal pains. He suffered short term memory loss. He was hyperactive, had difficulty breathing... "I was a mess," he said.

Seeking help

In an effort to find a "clean" place to live, Berkson stayed in a tent and RV in his backyard, in an apartment, in motels, and at the homes of friends and relatives.

He traveled across the country seeking medical help. Some thought it was all in his head.

Berkson knew it wasn't. He finally found doctors who told him what he said he already knew - that his symptoms were real. He was treated for a multitude of ills, and continues to see specialists when needed.

Berkson said over the past eight years he has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" for medical treatment, and in his attempt to find a safe place to live.

He filed a lawsuit in connection with his Dursban poisoning, which he said he won. He said a court agreement prevents him from revealing any details about the case.

Berkson has spoken to doctors and legislators about the allergic chain reaction his exposure to Dursban, which affects the nervous system, created. And about his suffering at the hands of ignorance.

Victimized

"When you have MCS, you're victimized in three or four ways," Berkson said. "First, you're injured - you're physically ill. Secondly, your life is restricted. You can't go certain places because you get sick if you do. Your social relations are restricted because what's normal for most people can't be tolerated by you. You can't go to visit friends, and even your children, and they don't understand. They take it personally, so you become the bad guy. There's something wrong with you. You become the complainer, the whiner.

Berkson said he's lost friends because he has had to ask people not to wear cologne or other substances that trigger his symptoms, or had to turn down social invitations because of his illness.

Berkson's book, which is illustrated by Jack Garver, includes a forward written by psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, M.D. In it, Dr. Rosenthal chronicles his own tortuous trip from Dursban exposure to diagnosis and understanding, and cites numerous other cases of illness and even death from toxic chemical exposure nationwide.

He takes government to task for not doing more to help Vietnam and Gulf War soldiers with sickness believed caused by exposure to chemical weapons.

`We're made sick'

Allan D. Lieberman, M.D., medical director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in North Charleston, S.C., endorses "A Canary's Tale." The 480-page book costs $19.95 plus $3.95 shipping and handling per book, and a sales tax of $1 for Maryland residents. It can be ordered by writing: "A Canary's Tale," P.O. Box 2041, Hagerstown, Md. 21742-2041.

"This book teaches a very important lesson: we don't just get sick, we are made sick," Lieberman said. "Many diseases of unknown cause are environmentally triggered and often from pesticides sprayed with reckless abandon."

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