As celebrity actors John Travolta and Kelly Preston mourn the death of their 16-year-old son Jett, they raise questions about the potentially lethal effects of past exposure to toxic chemicals in carpet cleaners, as well as about the mysterious Kawasaki Disease -- which their son reportedly suffered from.
According to CNN, Jett died while on vacation in the Bahamas with his parents and other family members. He reportedly had a seizure and hit his head, though an autopsy has been scheduled for Monday to better determine exact cause of death. For years, Travolta and Preston have blamed their son's ill health on a poorly understood condition known as Kawasaki Disease, a noncontagious problem that is thought to be associated with a failure in the immune system, and which affects many organs, including the skin and mucous membranes, lymph nodes, blood vessel walls and heart.
Kawaski diease was first described in 1967 by Dr. Tomisaku Kawasaki in Japan. The disease is most prevalent in young children, especially boys and most commonly in Japan, though its incidence is reportedly rising in the U.S. as well. It affects 15 out of 100,000 U.S. children under the age of five, and is the country's leading cause of acquired heart disease. In Japan about 175 out of 100,000 kids get it.
Kawasaki disease is thought to have a component of genetic susceptibility. Yet like other autoimmune and similar problems, it may have an environmental trigger. These days the medical community is most focused on looking for an infectious agent, though no specific one has yet been found. For some time, experts thought an environmental toxin could be to blame, particularly one found in carpet cleaners. In fact, Travolta and Preston have long pointed to that route, since they say they used carpet cleaners extensively in their home when Jett was young.
However, the carpet cleaning link has lost favor among many investigators, since the results of an early study have not been replicated. A relationship between Kawasaki Disease and carpet cleaning was first reported in a case-control study published in 1982 in the medical journal Lancet (Vol. 2 No. 8298 pp 578-80). Researchers found that 11 out of 23 Denver children with Kawasaki Disease (48%) were living in homes where carpets had been shampooed within 30 days of the onset of symptoms; 10 of these children had played on the carpets two hours after they had been shampooed. In the control group (those who did not have the disease), only nine of 86 families (10%) had also shampooed carpets within 30 days. Some suggested that Kawasaki Disease could be caused by hypersensitivity to the detergents used, or by inhalation of an infectious agent (such as a bacterial toxin or virus) that becomes suspended in the air during cleaning.
When subsequent studies were done, the picture became more muddled. Three additional studies did find an association between exposure to freshly cleaned carpets within 4 hours of the cleaning process and Kawaski disease -- however, the results were the same if the carpets or upholstery were cleaned with chemicals or simply plain water. Four studies found no associations at all. When researchers tried to follow up and determine if the causative agent might be disturbing of dust mites, which they reasoned might harbor disease agents, that lead did not pan out (Can Med Assoc J. 1984 October 1; 131(7): 720.).
Currently, there is not enough evidence to suggest a causal link between carpet cleaners and Kawasaki Disease. However, there are other reasons to avoid using strong cleaning chemicals in your home, including suspected increases in susceptibility to allergies, respiratory trouble and other concerns. To be safe, a number of concerned parents are giving green cleaning a try instead.
Further complicating the issue, some pundits have argued that restriction of medical care for Jett due to his parents' Scientology beliefs may also be to blame. There has also been speculation that Jett may have suffered from autism, which isn't recognized by Scientology.
Clearly, there are more questions than answers in the unfortunate case of Jett Travolta.
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