Citation: Schmidt CW 2011. Questions Persist: Environmental Factors in Autoimmune Disease. Environ Health Perspect 119:a248-a253. doi:10.1289/ehp.119-a248
"After his first child was born, black and blue marks started showing up on Stanley Finger's body. Jolted awake most nights by his crying infant, Finger would stumble half asleep toward her room, bumping into walls and furniture in the dark. "My wife and I would joke about it," says Finger, a chemical engineer from Bluffton, South Carolina. But during a routine checkup, Finger learned his easy bruising was caused by a precipitous drop in blood platelets. The body relies on these cell fragments for clotting, and Finger's platelet count had dropped to nearly a third its normal value. After ruling out cancer and other illnesses, Finger's doctor eventually arrived at a diagnosis: immune thrombocytopenia purpura (ITP).
ITP is an autoimmune disease, a condition that occurs when the immune system attacks the body's own cells and tissues. When Finger was diagnosed in 1974, autoimmune illnesses weren't yet perceived as the public health menaces they're often seen as today. But according to Fred Miller, director of the Environmental Autoimmunity Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, autoimmune diseases are now recognized as among the leading causes of death among young and middle-aged women in the United States.