Mold Avoidance Pioneer Erik Johnson Describes Toxic Issues During the 1980’s Lake Tahoe Cluster Outbreak of ME/CFS

 

 

April 1, 2019

Mold avoidance pioneer Erik Johnson discussed his experiences during the 1980’s in the Lake Tahoe epidemic of the disease now officially called ME/CFS in an ME/CFS Alert video interview with Deborah Waroff.

Following is a transcript of the interview.

*

Deborah Waroff:

This is ME/CFS alert at the origins of the Tahoe outbreak that launched America’s recognition of its ME/CFS pandemic. Here we are at Truckee High School, where teachers using a certain room which later was proved to be vastly infected with mold one after another became sick. Erik, you can give us some background.

 

Erik Johnson:

I was a student at Truckee High School years ago, and I became reactive to that room. Pretty much everybody in the school knew that it was a place to be avoided. But most people managed to survive their exposure until the China Flu came along in 1985, which hit a whole bunch of teachers in that particular lounge, right up at the front of the school.

This was described on Page 28 of Osler’s Web by Hillary Johnson.

This incident scared Dr. Cheney and Dr. Peterson into thinking they were seeing an epidemic – something more than just the random, isolated cases of illness that were wandering into their office. They called the CDC to come out and investigate, but nothing was ever found in the room. Mostly because at this time, the toxic mold Stachybotrys was not yet in the medical literature and there was no understanding that toxic mold could even be a factor.

 

Erik Johnson and Deborah Waroff in front of Truckee High School.

 

Deborah Waroff:

The dirty trick about mold and toxic mold just yards away, with the wallboard. Mold loves cellulose, which is inside wallboard. Or it can be anywhere in the HVAC system. We hardly have a building without an HVAC system.

 

Erik Johnson:

Yes, and Stachybotrys in particular is a large and heavy wet spore, so most of the exposure comes from the toxin-laden submicron fragments.

One teacher sensed how bad it was in the room and decided to take evasive action. He hopped in his camper and graded his papers. And he alone, of these 10 teachers, managed to avoid the chronic illness.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

Let’s move a little further along the Tahoe north shore toward the east and look at some other aspects of this outbreak.

This is ME/CFS Alert visiting a historic spot. The cross behind me memorializes the Donner family.

 

Deborah Waroff and Erik Johnson in front of Donner Cross in Truckee, California.

 

Deborah Waroff:

Right before the outbreak we’ve been talking about, it was an unusually damp winter, wasn’t it? We had a lot of snow.

 

Erik Johnson:

Very heavy weather, yes.

 

Deborah Waroff:

And then you had a lot of disturbances in the wildlife, the flora and fauna. You had some kind of algal bloom.

 

Erik Johnson:

Yes, we were having a really bad algal bloom, something we’d never seen before. One of the things that convinced me that there was an effect from the algal bloom was that one morning I came down to the beach and it was completely covered with dead crawdads. Millions of them. So many had crawled out of the water that you literally could not walk on the beach without stepping on crawdads. I had never seen anything like it before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since.

As they exited the lake, you could see the trails where all of them were trying to get away from the water and none were going toward the water.

 

Deborah Waroff:

What size are the crayfish around here?  Are they about 3 or 4 inches?

 

Erik Johnson: 

Yes.

 

Deborah Waroff:

I had read that the bloom could in fact be that poisonous, and this sounds like an extraordinary poison. Did anyone go out and collect any algae and analyze it?

 

Erik Johnson:

No. In fact, I talked to people and said that we should look into the algal bloom because it could have been dangerous.

 

Deborah Waroff:

Well, it was dangerous to the crawfish, obviously.

 

Erik Johnson: 

Obviously. And they said, if it were dangerous, somebody would warn us. The authorities would warn us.

And I go, “Who? They don’t even know it’s here.”

 

Deborah Waroff:

What about the frogs? You tell me a lot of frogs died?

 

Erik Johnson:

Yes, at the same time, the meadows up in the trees where we had vast numbers of frogs – the frogs simply disappeared. The population crashed.

 

Deborah Waroff:

So we have this very wet climate for a while. We have the crawdads or the crayfish dying. We have the frogs dying. What comes next?

 

Erik Johnson:

A mystery illness that affected hundreds if not thousands of people in North Lake Tahoe.

 

Deborah Waroff:

And we know that the children who were playing on this beach came down sick.

 

Erik Johnson: 

Yes, we had an entire cluster of sick people directly behind this beach.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

And yet we’re in such a beautiful space. How could anyone get sick here?

 

Erik Johnson:

I think we had some special atmospheric conditions that existed at this time. That was when the pollution from the San Joaquin Valley first started to cross and fill up the Tahoe basin.

 

Deborah Waroff:

So you would be seeing brown haze over there, from San Joaquin?

 

Erik Johnson:

Absolutely. We saw it cross the mountains and fill up the basin with this horrible haze. We were terribly worried about what effect this would have on the trees, on the tourism.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

And did it hit the trees? Could you see spots on the trees?

 

Erik Johnson: 

Yes, the trees all got sick at the same time.

 

Deborah Waroff:

How many did you lose?

 

Erik Johnson:

We had stands of trees that all suddenly died off at one time, with no reasonable explanation for it. We looked at automobile exhaust. We looked at bark beetles. Many theories were ventured for why the trees were getting sick, and some people did blame the pollution. But no extensive investigation was done to try to find out whether that was the case.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

Do we know what was in the pollution, what the chemicals were? Were they special? Was it just more automobiles?

 

Erik Johnson:

Well, this is conjecture, but we can only assume that whatever pesticides, particulates, acid rain that would normally exist in the pollution plume in the center of the San Joaquin Valley blew into the lake and affected the soil flora, the microbiome, and unleashed an algal bloom such that we had never seen before and never had since.

 

Deborah Waroff:

Of course, San Joaquin is a great agricultural province, and so you would have pesticides and herbicides and so on.

 

Erik Johnson:

Well, this is the very beach where Chris Guthrie brought her son when they filmed the “20/20” interview. That 1986 ABC news segment was filmed on this very beach.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful even now, in October.

 

Erik Johnson:

The same time of year as when the CDC investigation took place.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

That’s right. October 25, they arrived, didn’t they?  Did the CDC sample any of the algae or any of the water?

 

Erik Johnson:

The CDC was only interested in finding out if this was an outbreak of the chronic mononucleosis syndrome. They weren’t here – it was no part of their mission to try to find out anything else that was going on. So they came and they collected viral testing for EBV, and then they were out of here. That was it.

But during their stay, CDC epidemiologist Jon Kaplan and Gary Holmes climbed Mt. Tamac down at the south shore.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

It must have taken them quite a while.

 

Erik Johnson:

It took them all day.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

It kind of wore them out for doing the old epidemiology, I bet.

 

Erik Johnson: 

Contrary to popular belief, the CDC epidemiologists were not out here skiing. It’s a little bit warm for that. No, they were out here climbing mountains.

 

Erik Johnson and Deborah Waroff at the beach in Lake Tahoe.

 

Deborah Waroff:

There’s one thing we haven’t talked about yet, in the matter of environment and microbiomes and so forth.

That winter, in 1984-85, they were having problems getting enough snow. And they were seeding the clouds with nanoparticles.

 

Erik Johnson:

Yes, our first theory for the alteration in the algal bloom, and the possibility of the trees getting sick, and the mystery illness itself, was the intense cloud seeding that was taking place at this time.

 

Deborah Waroff:

Did that go on into 1985-86, or was that a better year for snow?

 

Erik Johnson: 

They started installing snow making equipment immediately after the outbreak. I’ve always suspected that the discontinuation of the cloud seeding was due to their own fear that possibly this may have resulted in their own environmental alterations.

The Desert Research Institute had an official cloud seeding program. They had mountain top cloud seeding devices all scattered upwind of the ski areas. But the ski industry had hired private aircraft to, in a completely unregulated fashion, douse every cloud that was headed our direction.

 

Deborah Waroff:

So we have at least five different chemical/environmental factors coming in over the mountains, from the clouds, from the natural snow. Everything was changing at Tahoe in a very short space of time.

 

Erik Johnson:

Yes, and the common denominator and the outcome of all of this seemed to be a eutrophication event, where the fungus and the algae just acted in ways that we had never seen before. Eutrophication is enhancement of the microbial growth from nitrogen and run-off from agricultural sources.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

So there were agricultural sources running into the lake?

 

Erik Johnson: 

No, there’s no agriculture up here at all.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

So it’s only what’s coming over the mountain.

 

Erik Johnson:

If we had a eutrophication event, it had to arise from something other than the customary sources. The blooms exist in all those other places. This is the most beautiful place you can possibly imagine. So what could have possibly happened here?

My suspicion was that it was pollution from the San Joaquin coming over the mountains at this time.

 

Deborah Waroff:

And long ago, this had all been perfectly  pristine.

 

Erik Johnson:

Oh, yeah. You could look across the lake and see the color of the green trees and the granite rocks.

 

Deborah Waroff:

And it is a little foggy, even now.

 

Erik Johnson: 

This is about as good as it gets now.

 

Erik Johnson and Deborah Waroff in Incline Village, in front of the office building formerly used by Dr. Paul Cheney and Dr. Dan Peterson.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

Here we are in Incline Village, Nevada. And we are right in front of the famous and sometimes notorious office of Drs. Cheney and Peterson, who were the people who realized that they were looking at some kind of outbreak or epidemic or pandemic, whatever you want to call it. The CDC never agreed with it being an outbreak. Tell us a little bit about how the office interacted with the town.

 

Erik Johnson: 

The townspeople were so worried about the outbreak of hysteria created by these two “quack doctors,” Cheney and Peterson, that they tried to drive them out of town or have their licenses revoked. They were banned from the hospital here.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

This is a town and a region that lives and dies on tourism and real estate. That’s all there is anymore. The timbering is gone and the mining is farther east.

 

Erik Johnson: 

The CDC actually chose the bad name “chronic fatigue syndrome” to disguise the scary nature of the outbreak and spare the Tahoe economy.

 

Deborah Waroff: 

It worked. Of course, we do want to stress that Tahoe is back to normal. The algae blooms are gone and it’s looking pretty good.

We’re at the Incline overlook now. And with this incredibly beautiful scene in our background, we want to stress that the numbers of factors that may include five biological factors that conspired to create this outbreak have passed on, or at least the combination of factors and viruses and other inputs have passed on. Would that be correct?

 

Erik Johnson:

Absolutely. By October of 1985, the algal bloom and the virus and everything that had come together to create this phenomenon had disappeared, and when the CDC had arrived, Dr. Cheney was reporting that there were no new cases.

 

Deborah Waroff:

And now Dr. Peterson, who I saw here for ME/CFS Alert a few years ago, also told me that he’s treating cases from all over the country, but none of them are new Tahoe cases. There are no more to be found. Aren’t we lucky, we can come here for vacation.

 

Erik Johnson:

Absolutely, it’s perfectly safe.

 

Erik Johnson in the early 1990’s.

About Erik Johnson

Erik Johnson became aware of the negative effects of toxic mold on his health in the early 1970’s as a student at Truckee High School in the Lake Tahoe area of California.

He later became very severely ill with the disease that went on to be named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the Lake Tahoe epidemic in 1985 (and was one of the first patients to be examined by Dr. Paul Cheney and Dr. Dan Peterson).

He recovered part of his health as a result of mold avoidance in the late 1980’s.

Then in 1998, he used the training in bioweapons protocols that he had learned 20 years earlier while serving in the U.S. Army to develop a protocol allowing him to avoid even tiny amounts of cross-contamination from mold toxins.

As a result, he went from being extremely sick to climbing Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S.) within six months.

He has continued to work full-time and to exercise vigorously on a regular basis since that time.

Since 2000, he has spent most of his free time helping scientists to understand the role of toxic mold in chronic multisystem illnesses as well as educating other sufferers with regard to how they can use his techniques to improve their own health.

Erik’s story is presented in the 2013 book Back from the Edge: How One Man’s Discovery Brought Him From Desperately Sick With Chronic Fatigue Syndrome To The Top of Mt. Whitney in Six Months.”

His mold avoidance approach is outlined in the book A Beginner’s Guide to Mold Avoidance (written by Erik Johnson and Lisa Petrison).

A collection of his writings is presented in the book Erik on Avoidance: Writings About Mold Avoidance From 2000-2015.

A longer collection of writings (including discussion of the Tahoe outbreak) is called The Role of Toxic Mold in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

More Information

 

Erik Johnson and Deborah Waroff in September 2018.

 

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