Sunday, December 10, 2006

Killer Jeans

Sometimes toxins take the form of drugs or too much alcohol. This time blue jeans, a simple pair of blue jeans, nearly killed me.

Button or zip fly, flare or slim fit, baggy or boot leg, millions of pairs of jeans are bought by U.S. teens every year.

For years, I’ve worn Calvin Klein jeans. They fit me well and, like most jeans, last forever. Buying them usually won’t break the bank. But the pair I bought last week ended up costing me $335.

Here’s what happened.

I’m a creature of habit. My days often follow a predictable pattern. That morning I had two cups of coffee and skipped my usual breakfast of plain yogurt. I wrote for five hours, and then went for a long run in Central Park. On the way home, I stopped at a store near Columbus Circle called Blues. They were having a going-out-of-business sale, and I found a pair of Calvin Klein jeans. Thirty-five dollars on sale. A bargain.

At home, I ate leftovers – half a roasted chicken breast and spinach salad. Then I showered and put on my new jeans. A close friend constantly scolds me for my habit of wearing new clothing without washing it. “You’ll have inspector #7 all over you!” she says.

Within minutes, I started to itch. My body felt as though it was on fire. My ears, scalp, and hands itched. My eyes swelled. I got massive welts all over my body, and a red rash followed the seams of the jeans around my waste and down my belly.

I ripped off the jeans and jumped back into the shower. It didn’t help.

I called Hogan, my close friend who worked in a hospital for 35 years. He wasn’t home. My colleague, Kettie, happened to call and instructed me to take a Benadryl®. I did, and it got stuck in my throat. I called my friend Dierdre. “Something is terribly wrong!” I said, describing the symptoms as if she could help me from 400 miles away. “And my tongue is starting to swell. I can barely talk.”

Dierdre told me that she could understand me perfectly and tried to reassure me. “You’ll be OK,” she said.

I knew differently. “No, this is an emergency. I have to go!” I said, slamming down the phone.

I ran out of my apartment and around the corner to Windsor Pharmacy. I lifted up my shirt to show the pharmacist, Kathleen, my inflamed torso. Kathleen called a doctor. While the phone was ringing she said, “If the doctor isn’t in, you’re going to the Eye and Ear Hospital.”

Luckily, the doctor two blocks away was available. Off I ran. As I burst into his office I told the receptionist, Mary: “Kathleen called. I’m having a severe allergic reaction.”

Mary gasped when I took off my sunglasses revealing eyes that had swollen shut. She quickly ushered me in. As Dr. Hamid Mouallem took my blood pressure, he asked me what I’d eaten. I told him the chicken and spinach salad wasn’t the culprit. It was a new pair of blue jeans. I just knew it.

He took my blood pressure again and left the room to call Kathleen. “Send an EpiPen®,” he said. “It’s urgent.”

We waited for the pharmacy to deliver the EpiPen®, an automatic injector that contains epinephrine, the medicine that treats anaphylactic shock. Dr. Mouallem came back and held my hands to comfort me and to try to prevent me from itching. He explained that the severe allergic reaction I was experiencing was anaphylactic shock.

Within minutes, a courier arrived with the EpiPen®. The doctor jabbed it into my thigh. I felt almost instant relief.

The doctor explained that my blood pressure had dropped 30 points in 10 minutes. “If you hadn’t gotten help, you would have gone plunk,” he explained, pointing to the floor.

The next day, I returned to thank Dr. Mouallem and Mary. The doctor again reviewed everything I’d done the previous day. “It was the jeans,” he concluded. “Throw them away.”

“Can’t I just wash them?” I asked foolishly.

He rolled his eyes and said, “You almost died!”

In the days since my incident with the killer jeans, I’ve repeated the story to many people. Everyone has an opinion on what caused the reaction. Some say jeans shipped from outside the U.S. are sprayed with pesticides. Others insist that, because there is 1 percent spandex in them, it suggests I’m allergic to latex. My childhood friend, Mary Louise, told me of a similar reaction to the sizing on a new, unwashed pair of sox.

At Hogan’s urging, I’ll schedule an appointment with an allergist to find out whether I’ve developed an allergy to latex. And at Dr. Mouallem’s insistence, I now travel with an EpiPen® that I’ve learned to use. I’m told the next reaction would be even more severe.

I went back to Blues and told the sales person what happened. “We’ve never had that happen before,” she said. “Maybe someone bought and returned them.”

The thought gave me the creeps. I’ll leave it at that.

The next day I bought a pair of Calvins at Macy’s. I’ll wash them before I wear them.

So, please, heed my advice: Wash new clothes, sheets, towels, before you wear or use them. You never know where they’ve been, what’s been sprayed on them, or how your body might react to it. I still have the Calvin Klein jeans wrapped up tightly in a bag in my kitchen closet. I don’t know why I’m having a hard time tossing them. Perhaps I think they should be disposed of as hazardous waste.


olivella said...

Incredible story! Quite scary...
I know one of the chemicals that is used to protect clothes is formaldehyde - which helps prevent mildew and is most common for clothing that needs to be transported long distances. Some persons are allergic to it and it's anyhow dangerous for health. I've read a few articles on such problems on clothes imported from China. Check if you're allergic to formaldehyde when you go for your tests. I just realized I never wash new clothes. Apart from formaldehyde or anything else, I've never really thought that someone might have bought and returned something. Far enough to wash it before wearing it!

December 29, 2006 3:40 AM


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