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Four-and-a-half years ago, Martha and Nicole Gethmann became very sick.
By Trista Steers
Larson Newspapers
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Four-and-a-half years ago, Martha and Nicole Gethmann became very sick.

Their heads ached. They had difficulty breathing and experienced nausea, burning throat, upset stomach and loss of appetite.

The Gethmanns didn’t have the flu.

They were being poisoned. Poisoned by 2,4-D — or 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid — the same chemical found in herbicides sprayed in the city of Sedona.

Now, they are both chemically sensitive. Nicole’s case is much more severe.

According to Dr. Annemarie Welch, chemical sensitivity sets in after individuals experience intense exposure to a chemical. Exposure combined with genes susceptible to sensitivity causes people to develop the condition.

Welch treats people like the Gethmanns in Sedona to the best of her ability.

“They’re very difficult because they’re so ill,” Welch said. “As long as they’re being exposed to the toxins, there’s not a lot I can do.”

Herbicide use by the city of Sedona and private land owners exposes chemically sensitive people to toxins.

The Gethmanns lived in Illinois when they were poisoned. Their next door neighbor hired a company to spray their entire yard with herbicides and somehow the actual droplets got into the Gethmann home, Martha said.

“After about 15 minutes, my daughter and I could smell those chemicals in our home,” she said.

After the fact, Martha said she did some research and found that because the home sat downhill from the neighbors, and the wind happened to be blowing toward her house that day, the droplets became airborne.

“I felt as if I was eating those chemicals,” Martha said.

The Gethmanns’ doctor advised them to leave their home until it aired out. They spent five nights in a hotel before going home.

After the incident, Nicole became very chemically sensitive, Martha said, and would get extremely sick whenever she came in contact with herbicides.

Martha knew they had to move. They needed to move to a place where people wouldn’t be dousing entire lawns with herbicides.

They chose Sedona.

When they first arrived, Martha said Nicole — now 31 years old — started feeling better.

In Illinois, her sickness stopped her body from metabolizing food and she had difficulty breathing.

Things were looking up for Nicole in the new location, Martha said, until the city started spraying herbicides.

“Right away after that began she began having some of the same symptoms,” Martha said.

Martha’s sensitivity has subsided since the poisoning, but she was recently treated for breast cancer.

According to Martha, the doctor told her the chemical exposure was to blame for the cancer.

Welch said Martha has a weaker immune system, making her more prone to cancer. The chemicals also could have played a part, Welch added.

Now, every time the city sprays, Martha said she has to seal their home as airtight as possible. They can’t leave for days for fear of the chemical clinging to their clothing or vapor floating into the house.

“They [chemically sensitive people] get extraordinarily ill every time the city sprays,” Welch said.

Carol Grohs knows how the disease impacts people’s lives.

Grohs was poisoned as a child while canoeing with her father in Canada. A crop duster sprayed them with pesticides.

Now, Grohs lives in a home in Cornville built by another woman with chemical sensitivity specifically for her needs.

Grohs can’t live in Sedona because of the spraying and can’t come get groceries when it’s done.

In Cornville, Yavapai County doesn’t use herbicides, according to Grohs, and the Arizona Department of Transportation agreed not to as well.

“These people have to find someplace to go every time the city sprays,” Welch said.

According to Welch, chemical sensitivity isn’t a diagnosis recognized by insurance companies, but she says it’s very real.

Welch treats 20 to 30 patients for the condition and some of those over the phone because they are too sick to leave their homes.

“They are the sickest people I treat,” Welch said.

These chemicals, Welch added, don’t only affect those who are sensitive. Those who aren’t sensitive just don’t feel the effects until later.

The fact that chemically sensitive people do react should tell others these chemicals aren’t safe, according to Welch.

“They’re the yellow canaries for the coal mine of our society,” Welch said.

Many people move to Northern Arizona thinking they will find clean air, Welch said, but it can’t be found even here.


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