If you were to meet eleven-year-old Lexi DiBenedetto, you would probably be startled by her beauty. She is, not surprisingly, an aspiring actress, with a bright smile, friendly sparkling hazel eyes and healthy, almost glowing skin. Sharing a Sherman Oaks, California, apartment with her loving parents, Joe and Michelle, she attends two to three auditions per week and is already building a résumé on film (she recently landed a co-starring role in CBS’s Medium). She also has a genuinely positive attitude—after you spend a few minutes with her, her enthusiasm and optimism start to rub off.
If you had seen Lexi several years ago, however, your heart would have jumped into your throat from outright pity. She was covered, head to toe, in red bumpy rashes that were constantly itching, and was persistently ill with a runny nose and fever. She slept badly and couldn’t concentrate in school. She was severely restricted in what she could eat and drink, for fear of allergies. In short, it was far from a happy, normal existence.
The journey from where Lexi was then to where she is today is a remarkable story as well as a cautionary tale.
The Medical Maze
At the time the story began, the DiBenedettos were living in the waterfront city of Wilmington, North Carolina, right where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean. They had a mail order business and were looking forward to raising their new child.
But from the start, there were health problems. “As a baby, Lexi had little rashes on her feet or behind her knees,” Michelle DiBenedetto told Natural Vitality Kids. “When we took her to the doctor, they told us it was eczema. They prescribed steroids.”
The steroids were not effective, but the DiBenedettos didn’t know what else to do. The rashes continued for several years with the same treatment—and in fact worsened. “It got progressively a little worse or it would pop up in different places,” Michelle said. “For example, she had a spot on the back of her head that they thought was ringworm, and they kept treating it and it wouldn’t go away.”
As time went on, the mysterious condition affected Lexi in other ways. She was plagued with insomnia and also experienced hallucinations at night: she would see crawling lizards.
Around the age of five, with no relief in sight for the other symptoms, Lexi started suffering even more. “She began having a constant runny nose and high spiked fevers up to 104, 105,” Michelle recounted. “We’d have to put her in the bathtub to get them down, they were so high. And that’s when we were having her tested for everything including leukemia. They couldn’t find anything that was causing those high fevers.”
As Lexi reached the age of seven, the DiBenedettos’ daily routine with her was the stuff of parental nightmares. “By the time Lexi was seven the rashes and hives were severe, where they covered her body,” Michelle continued. “We had things like the teacher saying she wasn’t focused at school—but by this time she wasn’t sleeping, so that was no surprise. She was covered in itchiness. Our nightly routine was to wrap her body in Ace bandages—her torso, her arms and her legs—and then put icepacks on them, just to try and get it to subside to where she could kind of doze off and go to sleep. The doctors’ recommendation was to drug her with antihistamines, and we were also doing things to dry her up or to unstuff her, so we were giving her over-the-counter medicine.”
By this time they had graduated from general practitioners to dermatologists and allergists in an effort to cure Lexi’s maladies. None provided effective treatment.
The Turning Point
The DiBenedettos ended up with a doctor they had been told was the “allergy god”—but he only ran the usual gamut of skin-prick allergy tests. He prescribed what all the others had been prescribing; however, he also told them something rather shocking.
“We had been using a couple of different steroid creams to keep the rashes under control,” Michelle said. “This doctor told us that one of those creams had been called into question by the FDA because there had been studies done that indicated it caused cancer. He said that the studies ‘weren’t conclusive,’ though, and he still felt comfortable prescribing it.
“For several years we’d been putting this cream on Lexi’s face and all over her body as a moisturizer. So when he told us that, we walked out of the doctor’s office and my husband and I just looked at each other. I was crying. I said, ‘We’re finished with the traditional approaches.’ Despite all these treatments, things had only gotten progressively worse. Everywhere we had gone we got the same answers, the same prescriptions. No matter the symptoms I brought up—the stuffiness, the hallucinations or any of them—they’d just attribute these to allergies. ‘Kids have dreams, have nightmares; it’s no big deal.’ Nothing seemed to be a big deal to them.
“That’s when we started looking for outside methods, people that weren’t traditional, other ways of finding out what was causing these things. I researched on the Internet every waking moment of my life.”
In addition to research, Joe and Michelle began taking Lexi to naturopathic doctors. One of them suggested they put Lexi on a 30-day food elimination diet, to discover if there were certain foods that were causing reactions. “By the end of those 30 days we were able to stop wrapping her in Ace bandages at night,” said Michelle. “So just by doing that simple diet we saw huge changes. And that’s when I really started digging in with research, because I knew there was a connection with what was going into her body.”
During this time, Michelle kept very careful track of what would cause a reaction with Lexi. Initially she would discover things through trial and error, such as adding canned tomatoes into Lexi’s diet and it causing a reaction. She saw a reaction from lemon juice that came packaged in a plastic lemon. Lexi had a reaction to corn, so for a year corn was stricken from her diet.
But Michelle dug deeper with her research. She made the interesting discovery that Lexi had absolutely no reaction to fresh, organic tomatoes but did to the canned tomatoes, even though the canned tomatoes had only “tomatoes” listed as ingredients. Lexi wouldn’t react to lemon juice squeezed from a fresh lemon, but would to store-bought lemon juice containing citric acid. After a year, she even discovered that Lexi was not, in fact, allergic to corn—if it was organic corn.
Eventually Michelle established that Lexi wasn’t allergic to any specific foods at all—if she got them pure and additive free.
Michelle knew she’d found an answer in food additives, and in the end she didn’t even want to trust the “natural” or “organic” labels without knowing what types of chemicals had been used to process the food. To satisfy her concerns, Michelle began dealing directly with farmers so she would know exactly what processes they used. “We got to know our farmers and were getting produce directly from them and eating very simple foods. We had a rule that we bought nothing that had more than three ingredients on the list. When we stuck to that, Lexi started getting much better.”
Michelle would interview each farmer as to his practices. “I was talking to these people. I visited the farms,” Michelle said. “We found a chicken farm and a beef farm, and they weren’t certified organic but they lived by all of the rules that the organics did. In the end, I found as many farmers as I could that were aware of their environment. If they were aware of it and were raising things sustainably and not polluting their soil, then we were able to use their products even if they weren’t certified organic.”
It finally came to a point where Lexi was having no reactions to the food Michelle gave her—an enormous victory—but there were still reactions occurring. It was then Michelle began to notice that Lexi would have an observable breakout when, for example, she got into a car that had an air freshener.
“I realized that Lexi would shower with whatever we had and she would break out in hives,” Michelle said. “While we were still refining the foods she ate, that was the priority; so I just knocked out all the body care products we were using entirely, and for a while we pretty much lived on baking soda and vinegar. We washed with it, brushed our teeth with it, washed our laundry with it; and that way I felt like I could avoid whatever was in commercial products.”
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Michelle expanded her research into safe body care and cleaning products, and at this juncture she encountered the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization dedicated to making the environment safe and chemical free. “EWG has a whole list of products—they tell you what’s in them and they rate them on a scale from 0 to 10. I started trying some of those. It still took a long time—even a few of these products had been processed with things. I had to be really careful.”
It was at this point that Michelle reluctantly paid a visit to a doctor several parents had recommended—a neurodevelopmental pediatrician from Johns Hopkins University named Karen Harum. “I didn’t know how this doctor could help me,” Michelle recalled. “It took me a while to go see her. When we did go, though, we were there over two hours. She appeared to be really interested in everything that I had done and everything that was going on. She seemed to really believe what I was telling her. I told her that when Lexi showered she broke out in hives and when she got in the ocean she broke out in hives. Dr. Harum started keeping a journal of everything we were doing, and she began doing some tests for me that typically only non-traditional doctors will do—for example, heavy metal testing. She did a hair analysis for mercury and blood work to test for other heavy metals.”
Joe and Michelle learned that Lexi’s mercury levels were very high. “The doctor saw a lot of autistic kids and children with neurological issues and they usually had very high levels of mercury,” Michelle said. “Her opinion was that Lexi wasn’t showing signs of autism only because we were already eliminating so many toxins from her body by avoidance.”
The doctor continued to monitor Lexi’s progress as part of a study on the effects of heavy metals on children that she was conducting. In addition to mercury, it was also found that Lexi had high levels of arsenic and lead.
Michelle began researching for possible sources of these elements and discovered that trace amounts were commonly found in body care, cleaning and even food products. But because of the preventative measures Joe and Michelle had already taken to avoid many of these, Michelle became especially suspicious of the one thing they still were exposed to: the city water supply. “We immediately got a whole house water filter—a charcoal system,” said Michelle. “That was the first time Lexi was able to shower and not break out in hives.”
Michelle was also coming across information about chemicals used in the production of furniture. “All of the time we’d been going through this, I’d tell these doctors that at night her hives were worse,” Michelle said. “It wasn’t until I got onto some Internet groups that I started learning about all the fire retardants in bedding and mattresses, even pajamas. So Dr. Harum tested Lexi for formaldehyde and found she was very sensitive to that. I found out they use formaldehyde in everything. All of Lexi’s furniture was pressed wood and it contained formaldehyde, and we had put a Pergo floor in her room and it contained formaldehyde. I mean, literally, if it’s not solid wood, metal or glass, they’re using formaldehyde in it.”
“We made that discovery on a Sunday afternoon,” Michelle related. “At this time Lexi was between eight and nine, and I came outside with my husband and I said, ‘We have to get rid of everything in this house that has formaldehyde in it.’ I was really desperate, but also very determined that we could fix this. On that Sunday afternoon we put just about everything in our house out on the front porch. We had carpet in a couple of rooms; we had that Pergo floor in her room. We pulled it all up. We put everything on Craig’s List and people came and got some of it for free.
“We really kind of gutted our house but couldn’t afford to replace it, so we made pallets on the floor with organic blankets for her because we couldn’t afford a mattress, plus I had to do a lot of research on mattresses. We ultimately went with one that was wool, as wool is a natural fire retardant.”
Since they didn’t yet have the money to replace their furniture, the DiBenedettos pulled the Amish wooden furniture in from their front porch, and for eight months these became their home furnishings.
Outside Environmental Quality
Through the DiBenedettos’ concern for Lexi and the environment, they became informed about the toxins in their immediate area—and the information was a bit of a shock. “We found out that Wilmington was at 6 percent air quality, with optimal being 100 percent,” Michelle said. “This was per a study done by USA Today. It’s some of the worst air quality in the country.”
This made a lot of sense to Joe and Michelle. Every summer, they would send Lexi to camp in Brevard, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. She always did extremely well there healthwise—but upon returning home, she would relapse in an outbreak of rashes.
The DiBenedettos also found that many local factories dumped pollutants into the Cape Fear River—which emptied into the Atlantic Ocean practically in front of their house. That also made sense, as every time Lexi swam in the ocean, her skin would break out.
It was then they realized it was time to move. “It was the last piece of the puzzle,” Michelle said.
Once the DiBenedettos left Wilmington and moved to a different environment, the remainder of Lexi’s rashes cleared up. Looking at her now, you wouldn’t even begin to guess there had ever been a problem.
Walking around their apartment, you can see that Michelle is practicing everything she learned. All the cloth furnishings are organic; everything else is either solid wood or metal. All visitors are asked to remove their shoes when they come in. Michelle does her food shopping at local farmers’ markets, where she still checks up on the farming methods used.
But aside from these few clues, you would never know by visiting them that they had been through such a frightening ordeal. The beautiful Lexi is a typical “tween”—listening to music, watching TV, spending time with friends and very much looking forward in life. Because a majority of her health issues have been virtually eliminated, things have become a lot more normal. Lexi no longer has to be so careful of what she eats and the objects she comes in contact with.
Joe and Michelle now maintain a website called GoChemicalFree.com, on which they share all of their research on environmental, food and chemical toxins with other concerned parents, along with the solutions they have found.
“Reducing chemical exposures restored our daughter’s health,” Michelle concluded. “By sharing our story and the knowledge we gained, we hope to help other families who may be battling similar circumstances and frustrations.”