Women's case spotlights dispute over new chemical disorder

October 11, 1994|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Today Mary Patricia Helinski, threatened with losing her job, was planning to go back to work for the first time in several months, even though she's afraid her workplace could kill her.

Her doctor, Grace Ziem, agrees. Her employer, Bell Atlantic Corp., doesn't.

Pat Helinski's story is one of a growing number of cases that pit ailing employees against doubtful employers in legal and moral struggles over a baffling disorder. Called multiple chemical sensitivity, it leaves sufferers vulnerable to a wide variety of substances found in the workplace.

And it illustrates the potential for contention over a syndrome, not even described until 1987, that can force previously healthy people into lives of forced isolation and strain the patience of employers whose best efforts never seem to be enough.

For Mrs. Helinski, a telephone company service representative, Bell Atlantic Corp. is the company that destroyed her health by flooding her office with carbonless copy paper -- a seemingly innocuous but chemical-laden product her doctor has identified as the trigger for her condition.

For Bell Atlantic, the 45-year-old Glen Burnie woman is a demanding employee who has spurned its every attempt to accommodate a syndrome that it doesn't believe is as serious as she thinks it is.

At least three other current or former Bell Atlantic employees also are taking legal action against the company for its handling of their multiple chemical sensitivity cases.

So far, multiple chemical sensitivity has produced a trickle of lawsuits and discrimination complaints, but a flood is on its way.

Ms. Helinski and the three other Bell Atlantic workers are suing four manufacturers of carbonless copy paper in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. A Virginia lawyer has asked federal judges to consolidate four other cases he is handling, which involve an employer in New York, with the ones here in a move that could make Baltimore the national center of such litigation.

Dr. Robert Rubin, a professor of toxicology at Johns Hopkins Medical School, said that in just the past three years the syndrome has won broad -- though not unanimous -- scientific recognition as a valid complaint.

"So many people are now coming to physicians with a cluster of symptoms of MCS," he said. "There are just too many of them for them to be ignored."

There are no firm estimates of how many Americans are affected by multiple chemical sensitivity. In an internal document, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 15 percent of the U.S. population is hypersensitive to chemicals to some degree -- but the percentage with the full-blown syndrome appears to be far smaller.

Mrs. Helinski's symptoms are representative of the disorder. She says that when she is exposed to the chemicals in her workplace -- even perfume worn by a co-worker -- she suffers from skin outbreaks, vision problems, migraines and breathing difficulties. She has a hard time reading or concentrating. Sometimes her heart rate races wildly, sometimes it drops dangerously.

Ms. Helinski was out of work from February 1992 to May 1993, when she went back to work for 10 days, only to have her symptoms return and her doctor advise her to stop work. The company ordered her back to work in August of this year, and she worked intermittently for a few weeks before her doctor advised her to stop again. She is returning to work today under a Bell Atlantic ultimatum to do so or be fired.

Dr. Ziem, a nationally known specialist in environmental illnesses, said that when Ms. Helinski tried returning to work last year, she wore a monitor that showed a dramatic rise in her overall heart rate as well as an alarming number of dangerous ventricular beats just minutes after entering the workplace environment.

"She had thousands of abnormal beats," said Dr. Ziem. "It's a condition that if aggravated could be life-threatening."

When Mrs. Helinski returns to work today, she again will be wearing a heart monitor. And she had blood tests done yesterday at her doctor's instructions. They will be repeated tomorrow for comparison purposes.

"Basically, I plan to work unless my doctor tells me to stop," she said.

Dr. Ziem said that of the companies she has dealt with on behalf of her patients, Bell Atlantic is one of the least willing to make reasonable accommodations so their employees can work safely.

"I think they're harming their employees by not facing up to this issue, and they should know better," Dr. Ziem said.

But Dave Pacholczyk, a spokesman for Bell Atlantic, said the company has gone the extra mile for Ms. Helinski. He said the company has long accepted the diagnosis that Mrs. Helinski is hypersensitive to carbonless copy paper and has gone to great lengths to make sure she doesn't come into contact with the product.

"In this case we've made a great deal of effort to accommodate something our physicians and independent physicians say is clearly nondisabling," he said. He said the company has carried Ms. Helinski on sick pay for most of the past two years and has carried out dozens of Dr. Ziem's recommendations.

"She has her own office. No other service representative in our DTC company has his or her own office," Mr. Pacholczyk said.

Ms. Helinski said the office Bell Atlantic gave her was dirty and filled with solvent residues that aggravated her condition when she reported for work Aug. 1, after an earlier decision to grant her disability retirement was revoked.

From there the case breaks down into a litany of charge and countercharge. The only thing clear about the case of Pat Helinski is that there will be many more like hers.

"This topic is really going front and center," Dr. Rubin said.

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