PETROCHEMICAL ILLNESS AND PHILIC-PHOBIC
DYSEQUILIBRIUM IN THE GULF OF MEXICO
I define "petrochemical illness"
as any and all symptom-complexes—whatever disease or
disorder diagnostic rubric is chosen for it—that
begin as new phenomena or worsening of old
conditions that develop after exposure to
petrochemicals. Labels, such as chemical sensitvity
syndrome and TILT (for toxicant-induced loss of
tolerance), in my view, do not shed any light on the
energetic-molecular basis of suffering caused by
petrochemicals. Petrochemicals can disrupt any or
all aspects of oxygen signaling—energetic,
metabolic, detox, developmental, differentiative,
and others—in different individuals and with varying
complexities. It is safe to predict, in light of the
above definition, that an enormous number of people
on the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere—probably
millions—will suffer ill-health due to the Deepwater
Horizon gusher, undoubtedly a greater toxic ooze
than the combined poisoning of the 1991 Persian Gulf
and 1979 Ixtoc-1 spills, the two largest prior oil
At the levels of oxygen signaling (presented at
length at www.ethics7.org), toxicity turns into
terror and terror turns into toxicity—the chemistry
of despair coalesces with that of rage. In
September 11, 2005 (2002), my main point was
that catastrophic events, such as the Persian Gulf
oil spills and 9/11 inferno, produce an enormous
number of human canaries—people who are more
vulnerable to environmental toxins than others. They
are more sensitive to functional nutritional
deficiencies than others. Their cells and tissues
are more readily injured by oxidative stress than
others. They develop an oxygen disorder sooner than
others. The oxygen disorder then leads to weakness
of the immune system, chronic illness, fatigue, and
problems of mood, memory, and mentation. In
September 11, 2005, I also included the following
quote from The New England Journal of Medicine
(February 21, 2002):
Although the events of September 11 were
profoundly traumatic for those directly
involved and clearly distressing for others,
they are not necessarily medically
significant. [italic added].
Of course, not everyone was as blind to the
toxicity potential of catastrophic events as the
Journal. Consider the following quote from Navy News
(September 13, 1995):
Long before the first veterans returned
from the Persian Gulf Dr. Majid Ali,
associate professor of pathology at the
College of Physicians and Surgeons at
Columbia University in New York, and
Director of the Department of Pathology,
Immunology and Laboratories at Holy Name
Hospital in Teaneck, NJ, predicted five
outcomes...Five years later these
predictions are now observable fact.
Headlines debate the cause and fate of those
men and women who left healthy and returned
home sick—nearly 75,000 at last count.
Not surprisingly, the voice of Navy News was
drowned in the noise made by The New England
Journal of Medicine and other journals.
The deceptions and distortions of government
officials and oil eco-monsters will undoubtedly
enlarge the scales of suffering. To cite one
example, consider the changing official U.S.
Government numbers for the Deepwater oil spill (in
barrels per day: (1) April 25, 2010, 1,000 ; (2)
April 28, 2010, 5,000; (3) May 27, 2010, 19,000; (4)
June 10, 2010, 30,000; and (5) June 28, 60,000
barrels. Independent scientific sources estimated
the daily amounts as close to 100,000 barrels daily.
What will be the long-term health consequences
arising from the economic disruption of Deepwater
Horizon? I cannot offer an estimate. I point out
that the annual economy of the seafood industry of
the state of Louisiana alone is $2.2 billion. How
will the spill affect tourism and other economies of
the region? Time will tell. I devote the rest of
this essay to what I consider to be yet more
Two Systems of Oceanic
Life evolved in oceans and then extended to land
masses.1-7 Nature evolved two divergent
systems of bioenergetics in oceans: a "top-ocean"
solar-driven system and a "deep-ocean" sulfur-based
system. Sunlight penetrates ocean waters for only
three to four hundred feet, limiting photosynthetic
energy generation largely to such depths, which is
designated as the top ocean. Photosynthesis evolved,
by current scientific evidence, more than two
billion years ago to harness sunlight to split water
and release free oxygen, which initiated the
development, differentiation, and expansion of the
kaleidoscope of marine and terrestrial oxygen-loving
(oxyphilic or "philic") species.
The second system of oceanic bioenergetics
evolved in the deep ocean—5,000 to 30,000 feet and
deeper—independent of solar energy. Unaccustomed to
oxygen in its ecologic niches and unable to harness
its energy, life in deep ocean became oxyphobic
("phobic"). The primordial precursors of phobic life
evolved around vents of the deep ocean that seeped
hydrocarbons—methane gas being the best recognized
form—enriched with sulfur and iron compounds. So
began the sulfur and nitrogen economies of the deep
ocean. Phobic microbes that produce nutrients create
the conditions under which complex multicellular
life developed. The bowels of the deep-ocean shrubs
and trees today are filled with such microbes.
Fibrillating Philic-Phobic Equilibrium
The "philic-phobic equilibrium,"which evolved
over a period of about two billion years ago, is now
under serious cumultative threats of global
overpopulation, climatic chaos, planetary
chemicalization, diffuse "oceanic plasticization,"
and biodiversity. By some accounts, the accumulation
of plastic waste now suffocates marine life in
swaths of the Pacific that equal more than half of
the Atlantic Ocean. All these geologic-scale changes
have in common two crucial elements: oxygen
depletion and incremental oxidative
stress—conditions that potently favor phobic life
over philic life.
Land-based photosynthetic biomass far exceeds its
aquatic counterpart. However, marine phytoplankton
carry out almost half of the global net
photosynthesis, since the rate of photosynthesis per
unit of biomass of the former is much lower than
that of the latter. This facet of the philic-phobic
equilibrium has profound implications for oceanic
regeneration following massive disruptions, notably
for the potential proliferative response times of
microbial assemblages to varying rates of oxygen
depletion and layers of oceanic redox potentials.
I discussed the profound relevance of the
top-ocean life to human health and disease in
Darwin, Oxygen Homeostasis, and Oxystatic Therapies
(2009) the tenth volume of The Principles and
Practice of Integrative Medicine.8
The deep-ocean life has drawn little, if any,
attention from physicians in the past. This—it seems
safe to predict—will change with the unfolding
Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
The long term human health consequences of this
massive disruption of the philic-phobic equilibrium
among the zones of varying oxygen conditions and
redox potential in the Gulf of Mexico will not be
known for decades.
Undoubtedly, massive geochemical, thermal, and
climatic events disturbed this equilibrium in past
eras. Specifically, one would expect that deep
oceanic vents would seep oil, methane, and related
hydrocarbons. That has been documented. One would
also expect that nature would have generated life
forms with an ability to break the seeped oil down
to oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon. That also occurs.
For instance, Alcanivorax borkumensis is a
microbial species—aptly named since it breaks down
the alkanes in oil as carnivora do to flesh—to
release energy for its metabolism. So, evolution
created "oil-eaters" to maintain its deep oceanic
ecologic niches in which microbes could thrive and,
in turn, serve as food for larger forms of life,
some as large as trees. Under experimental
conditions, certain Pseudomonas species have
been genetically engineered to contain enzymes that
enable them to break down different hydrocarbons.
These may be considered man-made oil-eaters. While
oil-eaters offer a tantalizing possibility of
cleansing high-density human habitat regions at some
future date, it clearly cannot resolve oceanic
The Deepwater geyser calls for a diligent study
of the long-term consequences of the philic-phobic
dysequilibrium in the broader context of growing,
massive, and cumulative anthropogenic and
non-anthropogenic influences. A sharp focus on the
burgeoning planetary carbon load and global warming,
and meaningful responses to it by the international
community, is essential. However, in my view,
frightening oxygen depletion and rising oxidizing
capacity of oceans are far more ominous
developments. Here I do not merely lament the
homelessness of polar bears, nor do I refer to the
scenario of the loss of other individual
species—only three white possums are known to remain
on the biodiversity hotspot relic which Mount Lewis,
once an abode of swirling mists, has become. Rather,
I speak about seismic planetary shifts in the philic-phobic
equilibrium that will not look at humans any more
kindly than the oceanic canaries, dolphins and
pelicans long after TV reporters have moved on to
more current 24-hour news cycles.
Physicians and Eco-sensitivity
Each massive environmental tragedy underscores
the need for a deep sense of "eco-sensitivity" for
physicians. Each time the response of the medical
community at large is deeply disillusioning. This
happened with the Ixtoc-1, Exxon Valdez, Kuwait War,
the Twin Tower inferno, the Iraq War, and now with
the Gulf’s gushing geyser of boiling tar.
Each time such a tragedy causes a large loss of
human life. I hope that The New England Journal
of Medicine will recognize the convergence of
the molecular consequences of terror and toxicity. I
hope it will clearly see the essential need for
holisim in medical thinking. How I hope it will
reconsider its pernicious opposition to
environmental medicine, nutritional medicine, and
energy medicine. Each time the Journal’s obfuscation
of real issues is reprehensible.
Fermenting Bowels, Fermenting Oceans
As a child’s belly continues to ferment long
after extended antibiotic abuse stops, so the oceans
will ferment for decades after the Gulf spill stops.
Antibiotics disrupt the delicate ecologic balance
between oxygen loving (oxyphils) microbes and
oxygen-shunning (oxyphobes) microbes. 9-12
Bowel fermentation occurs in children because
ill-informed pediatricians fail to protect the
children from the ecologic disruptions in the bowel
caused by antibiotics. Antibiotic abuse alters bowel
ecology—overgrowth of fermenting microbes, the leaky
gut state, food intolerance, mold allergy, and
immune deficiencies develop as its consequences—that
often has widespread systemic effects. 9,10
Clinical ecologist are aware of neurotoxicity
states caused by marine neurotoxins produced in
excess during red tides of oxygen-depleted ocean
water. It seems safe to predict that wide swaths of
the Gulf of Mexico will ferment long after the
gushing Deepwater Horizon geyser is stopped. Phobic
microbes will continue to ferment and unleash
poisonous red and crimson tides years after the
spill is arrested, whenever that occurs. This
happened on smaller scales in past oil spills and is
likely to occur on a much larger scale this time.
Treatment of Petrochemical Illness
There are no drugs to treat petrochemical
illness. People sickened by terror and toxicity
associated with massive chemical overload require
integrated, comprehensive, and effective nondrug
protocols for individualized care. I described those
protocols in The Canary and Chronic Fatigue
(1994) and September Eleven, 2005 (2002).
Will the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe force The
New England Journal of Medicine to have the
courage to go beyond its habitual thinking of denial
of petrochemical illness? I hope it will, though I
suspect it won’t.
Two Ways of Looking at the Deepwater Catastrophe
The Deepwater Horizon gusher caused a greater
environmental havoc than any other oil spill. There
are two ways we can look at the Deepwater
catastrophe. One way is to look at it as a colossal
humiliation for our country.11 For
decades the United States has claimed to be the
technological behemoth, the world leader in
innovation, the likes of which the planet has never
witnessed. Now this: we cannot cap an oil spill. Our
ocean oil brooms are overrun by waves just one foot
high. Our oil brems are expected to be wiped out
with the first hurricane. Chemical dispersants are
toxic, submerge the oil, and will undoubtedly worsen
delayed environmental damage. We beg Brits for
billions. It requires no large leap of imagination
to foresee the wars of greed and rage which those
British billions will unleash. This is the way of
indignity and despair.
The second way is of beyond-habitual thinking. It
is a way of deep reflection, with humility, about
our rightful place in the natural order of the
planet and the community of civilized peoples of the
world. What are a society’s legitimate needs for
energy? What might be the necessary short-term and
long-term energy conservation strategies? What might
be the environmental costs of specific energy
sources? How might be the environmental hazards
created by the invasion of deep ocean? How can
humans, animal, and plant life be protected when
major accidents do occur? How ethical have Congress
and successive administrations been in these
matters? To cite one example, Congress enacted the
Deepwater Royal Relief Act of 1995 to massively
reward deep ocean drilling companies. Hard to
believe, the act waived government royalties
totaling billions of dollars for many leases for
deep ocean drilling during 1996-2000. These, in my
view, are the questions that deserve open and
diligent public discourse in the future.
The Gulf Spill and Journalistic Lap dog
On August 4, 2010, The New York Times ran
a front page story entitled "U.S. Finds Most Oil
From Spill Poses Little Additional Risk . This was a
stunning display of ignorance and irresponsibility.
I predict that the Times will regret its
story in coming years. The editors might then
counter that we only reported what the U.S.
government claimed. If so, they would also have to
admit that they were being journalistic lap dogs,
not watch dogs. How can anyone state that massive
petrochemical pollution will not have significant
adverse health effects on people, marine species,
and coastal plants?
The Times’ position becomes more
reprehensible when we consider the headline of a
report in Nature of July 27, 2010 entitled
"Muddying the waters on Gulf oxygen data." Nature
went on to describe how the observation of
independent researchers refuted the claim of US
government report that significant oxygen depletion
in the Gulf of Mexico had not occurred. Amazingly,
the Times chose to believe government
officials rather than independent scientists. Long
live journalistic lap dogs!
Below are some images I saw with my first
look at the gushing geyser of Deepwater Horizon:
In ocean’s toxic ooze,
a dolphin, the ocean’s canary,
circled like an inmate
in an asylum.
How do I breathe oil?
A turtle asked.
How do I eat tar?
an urchin choked.
"How do I unglue my wings,
a black bird convulsed.
Then Earth’s belly stabbed
As a drunken medic might,
cut open a soldier’s bowels,
never trained to repair
gaping and festering wounds.
fumed and putrid,
old equilibrium busted,
phobic life proliferated.
People sickened and suffered.
Its crust gapping,
the Earth heaved.
the ocean seethed.
demented officials survived.
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