In this newly described condition, some patients report strange plastic fibers growing from their skin.
Today the skeptical eye focuses on a newly described condition from the medical fringe: Morgellons disease. This is a skin condition in which a painful rash or other open sores appear on various parts of the body, but with a unique characteristic: Found embedded within these sores are colored fibers, apparently made of plastic or other synthetics.
Morgellons has created something of a battle line drawn in the sand between sufferers and medical science. Sufferers believe these fibers are being extruded from the body itself, while doctors and psychiatrists generally agree that the fibers come from the environment and are merely being caught in the sores as always happens with scabs.
Skin rashes and sores are one of the physical symptoms of acute stress, and to most doctors who are aware of it, Morgellons appears to be nothing more than this. It’s often compared to delusional parasitosis, where the patient believes that the normal itching of a stress-induced rash is caused by unseen parasites living in or on the skin. No parasites are ever found, but some patients tend to react with hostility toward any diagnosis that does not support their preconceived notion. But doctors can only go by the best state of our current knowledge, and are the first to admit that we don’t know everything about the human body or about diseases. So to take a truly skeptical perspective, we start by setting aside what we think we know and looking at the evidence, beginning with the history.
Morgellons had a particularly inauspicious beginning. In 2001, a former hospital lab technician turned stay-at-home mom, Mary Leitao, noticed a raw patch under the lip of her two-year-old son Drew. She took him to eight (!) different doctors, dissatisfied with each diagnosis that there was nothing unusual wrong with Drew.
She picked fibers from the surface of the scab and examined them under Drew’s toy microscope. Her own conclusion was that the fibers were being extruded from Drew’s skin, rather than coming from a blanket or stuffed animal or anything else that toddlers bury their faces in. Drawing on the word morgellons from an old French reference to black hairs, she created the name Morgellons Disease.
Leitao demanded that the doctors prescribe antibiotics, which they would not do, given the lack of any apparent illness. She became obsessed with finding a doctor who would validate this new disease she’d invented. One doctor at Johns Hopkins wrote to another “I found no evidence of [anything suspicious] in Andrew… Ms. Leitao would benefit from a psychiatric evaluation and support, whether Andrew has Morgellons Disease or not. I hope she will cease to use her son in further exploring this problem.”
Another doctor at Johns Hopkins agreed, and even took it a step further, stating that Leitao appeared to be a case of Münchausen’s by proxy. Münchausen’s Syndrome is where you pretend to be sick because you love getting attention from doctors and hospitals. Münchausen’s by proxy is a psychiatric syndrome where you take a child or other family member, and promote them as being sick, to get the same attention. It need not be a conscious deception, Mary Leitao almost certainly does genuinely believe her son is ill; but the psychiatric pathology is the same. She has since gone on to found the Morgellons Research Foundation, which currently lists 14,700 registrants.
An Internet search today reveals that Morgellons has become conflated with chemtrail conspiracy mongering. Some believe that contrails left by airplanes are actually the government spraying toxins to sicken the population with Morgellons. An article on the conspiracy theory web site Rense.com compares two pictures, one claimed to show a fiber from a Morgellons sufferer, and another claiming to show a fiber from chemtrail spraying. It says:
Common characteristics of both types of fibers appear to be similar size and chaotic, uncontrolled growth. If these fibers are the result of highly advanced nanotechnology then we have found the disease, and possible who is behind it. But what would be the purpose of forcing this ailment on the population? Torture? To create a new pandemic in order to sell a new drug for a “treatment?”
Many pro-Morgellons sources claim that the fibers have defied all explanation: They are not human hair, they are not synthetic fiber, and they are not natural plant-based fibers. But I found two significant problems with these assertions. First, they seem to be nothing more than assertions, often accompanied by a story that someone looked at them under a microscope and was somehow able to rule out all known fiber compositions. Second, there is little agreement on the characteristics of the fibers, and thus no way such an assertion can be broadly applied. Some sufferers describe hard, solid plastic shards, often in bright colors. Some describe them as thick hairs. The most common photograph on the Internet shows a tangle of fine filaments. Others find curly threads consistent with synthetic fibers from brightly colored blankets, carpet, or sweaters.
So now let’s look at the common medical explanation for Morgellons . . .