Bushes' thyroid illness spurs test of White House water

May 29, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Doctors have ordered analyses of the water zTC supplies at the White House and other presidential and vice presidential residences to see whether they contain chemicals that may have triggered the thyroid disease afflicting both President Bush and his wife, Barbara.

Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said yesterday that the White House had also asked a specialist to review the Bush family's medical history and to check for any link between the first couple's autoimmune ailment, Graves' disease, and another autoimmune disease, lupus, contracted by their dog, Millie.

The illnesses were contracted within 16 months of one another -- the president's last month, Mrs. Bush's in January 1990 and Millie's last summer.

White House physician Larry Mohr said yesterday that there was no reason to suspect a problem but that "just to allay any speculation," the Secret Service had been asked to check the president's water supply for various chemicals -- especially iodine and lithium, two substances that doctors say may trigger Graves' disease in susceptible individuals, although there is no evidence of this.

Dr. Mohr, accompanying Mr. Bush on a round of golf at the president's summer retreat at Kennebunkport, Maine, said that no special arrangements were being made to alter the Bushes' eating and drinking habits, such as providing bottled water.

Mr. Fitzwater said that the tap water was being checked at the White House, Camp David, Kennebunkport and the vice presidential mansion at the National Observatory in Washington where the family lived during Mr. Bush's terms as vice president from 1981 to 1989.

He at first pooh-poohed reports suggesting that Millie's ailment might be linked to those of his master and mistress.

"The dog story is a little far-out," Mr. Fitzwater told reporters in Kennebunkport, where the president was rounding off an extended Memorial Day weekend. But he later amended the remark with a written statement.

"Because of the remarkable coincidence of the president and first lady both having Graves' disease, the president's physician is exploring any possible link to environmental or other causes," he said.

"While the doctors feel it is highly unlikely that their thyroid condition could be related, or in any way related to the lupus disease suffered by Millie, prudence dictates that all such possibilities be examined," he said.

In addition to the analysis of the water supply, Mr. Fitzwater said, Dr. Charles Christian, a New York specialist, "has been asked to review the medical history of the first family, including Millie."

Water samples were taken from the observatory residence last week, the vice president's wife, Marilyn Quayle, told Cable News Network yesterday.

"It seems a little bit much of a coincidence," she said of the Bush family's ailments.

Graves' disease was identified as the cause of the erratic heartbeat that put the president in the hospital early this month. It reportedly afflicts about 1 million Americans but is much more common among women than men and quite rare in both a husband and wife.

Mr. Bush seemed incredulous yesterday at the news that the water was to be checked.

"I can hardly believe this," he told reporters. "But let them look into it."

He said he was "not going to lose confidence in the water at the White House until we know a little more about this."

Mr. Bush said a thyroid specialist had told him that the chance of two people in the same family having Graves' disease was "1 in 3 million," and he guessed that the odds of such a family having a dog with an autoimmune system disorder were probably "1 in 20 million."

Mr. Bush, who turns 67 next month, said that he was feeling good. By yesterday morning, he had regained 5 of the 12 to 13 pounds he lost during treatment and weighed 190 pounds.

"I get a little tired at the end of the day. Today I feel fine," he said.

The president returns to Washington today after giving a speech at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Graves' disease is almost certainly not contagious, said Dr. Noel Rose, chairman of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University.

But most experts, he said, believe that germs or other environmental factors may trigger such autoimmune disorders among those who are genetically susceptible.

He said it was doubtful that the Bushes' thyroid problem and Millie's lupus were linked, because, although both were autoimmune syndromes, they were quite different.

Lupus is related to disorders of the skin, muscles, blood and joints and is a systemic disease, he said, while Graves' is more closely associated with organ-specific diseases.

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