Inside a tiny sauna located underneath a brick business park in Annapolis, Maryland, a large man has been sitting and sweating for almost four hours.
Participant No. 29 is a veteran of the first Gulf War and a subject in a government-funded study aimed at treating the nebulous cluster of symptoms known as Gulf War Syndrome. Wearing gym shorts and a wide grin, he rakes a hand towel up and down his soaked upper body, then waves and yells through the glass door, “C’mon in!”
“I was going to be done today,” he tells Dr. Crystal Grant, the project’s affable coordinator. “But… I had some more junk come out of my legs. Some black stuff. So I’m going to do one more day and see if I can clean it all out.”
The room just outside where Participant 29 perspires is filled with cardio equipment, a couple of stationary bikes and treadmills where the veterans begin their sessions by running. According to the project’s hypothesis, this will dislodge “toxins” that have been stored in the veterans’ fat deposits for more than a quarter of a century, and which they can then perspire out in the steam bath. This theory about the toxins, and how to get rid of them, is known as the “Hubbard method.” It’s named after L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology, who was also the man to concoct it.
The entire Annapolis space is covered with memorabilia—photos, plaques, and letters—from the rescue and cleanup effort after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. In the frames, firemen pose amidst the rubble, holding up their own sweat-stained towels from the center Tom Cruise built in downtown Manhattan to treat sick first responders free of charge.
“You see the color?” Grant says, pointing to a grayish dirty towel hanging on the wall—an artifact that, she says, shows off the program’s efficacy at ridding the body of nasty toxins.
Grant flips through a photo album filled with snapshots of similar towels. An identification number is taped on each one. “These are from the Gulf War veterans. You see the stains? Pink, blue, brown, purple, orange, and this one also has light yellow. The color is beautiful, but it’s not good for the body.”
Colored towels are just one of the interesting yet controversial aspects of this study, to which the Department of Defense awarded $633,677 in 2009. The project has faced major delays, but now is finally reaching its home stretch—the researchers say results are expected next year, and Grant says some 90 percent of the Gulf War vets are reporting health gains. But critics say the soldiers are merely reaping the benefits of plain old exercise and perspiration, and that Scientologists plan to use the skewed results to validate Hubbard’s quack theories—and even push for a Nobel Prize. Caught in the middle are the veterans and their advocates, who are asking themselves a simple and perplexing question: Does it matter where an idea comes from if it manages to ease their pain?
Hubbard first laid out his “Purification Rundown”—known also as the Purif or, simply, the Rundown—in the late 1970s and later in his book Clear Body, Clear Mind.
Using a special blend of sauna detox, aerobic exercise, and niacin (aka Vitamin B3), Hubbard believed the Purif would allow humans to continue on a path over “The Bridge,” to a higher plane of existence—and also rid the body of LSD remnants, increase IQ, and give followers their only hope of surviving World War III. As he posited in a 1980 memo (PDF), the treatment created the “interesting possibility that only Scientologists will have had the spiritual gain that would enable them to function in areas experiencing heavy fallout in an atomic war.”
The Purif’s popularity is hard to ignore. Beyond Scientologists, for whom the Purification Rundown is part of their religious practice, the church credits the program with helping “hundreds of thousands” of others over the past 30 years. Even if these numbers are inflated—as critics often claim—Narconon, the Scientology-affiliated drug rehab program that uses Hubbard’s sauna detox method, boasts 100 locations in more than 30 countries. And the Heroes Health Fund, started by the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists (a group founded in 1994 to promote Hubbard’s theory) and represented by church ambassador John Travolta, has expanded its outreach from cleanup workers from the 9/11 attacks to cops in Utah, firefighters in Baltimore and Florida, Deepwater Horizon cleanup workers in Louisiana, and now, Gulf War veterans.
At the heart of all of these various manifestations of Purif lies the belief that “toxins”—which can be anything from the aforementioned LSD to meth fumes or biochemical weapons—slow not only the body, but also weigh down the soul.
“The whole idea—and it’s nonsense—is that drugs and toxins are getting in the way of the spiritual releases that you get in auditing,” said Chris Shelton, a former Scientologist who left the church in 2013 after 25 years. Auditing is the Scientology brand of counseling that consists of recalling things from childhood and past lives, “back millions and billions of years,” said Shelton.
On Scientology review boards—like Yelp for Scientology services—practitioners report better memory, increased self-confidence, and an improved mood after the Rundown. But Shelton looked over self-reports as a part of administering the program to some 40 church members and called such reactions “literally delusional.”
“Some people would report effects like ‘Oh, I felt a bit woozy and it must be the anesthesia for surgery when I was 5,’ but most often they’re ‘nothing,’” he said. “People misattribute something that’s going on in the sauna [like being tired or overheating] for something they’re told to expect [like sweating out toxins],” he said.
The Church of Scientology did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story by the time of publication.
In real and online recruitment centers, Scientologists administer a “How toxic are you?” quiz to newcomers with questions like: “Have you felt fatigued now and then for no apparent reason?” and “Do you have unexplained aches and pains?” When I took the church’s online test, I received a toxicity grade of “moderate”—even though I’m a healthy, fairly happy, woman in her 30s taking no medications other than a daily vitamin. But my results told a different story: I could have considerable accumulated toxins, making me feel dull, lifeless, or “wooden.”
Luckily, the website determined, “The Purification Program can help to remove biochemical factors inhibiting your spiritual freedom.”
As it turns out, unexplained aches, pains, and fatigue are among the cluster of symptoms—along with headaches, muscle and joint pain, respiratory disorders, memory loss, and indigestion—that make up the condition commonly known as Gulf War Syndrome.
Since 1994, three years after the end of the war, the federal government—Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and Health and Human Services—has spent millions of dollars trying better understand and treat the mystery illness that affects some 30 percent of the 700,000 men and women who served during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
For the first two years, millions were spent on studies that focused on stress, chalking up the symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder. But by 1997, research started to acknowledge what vets and their advocates had been saying all along: that their health woes might be due to the long-term effects of chemical exposure, which had happened during incidents that the Department of Defense and the CIA had either denied or downplayed.
Still, knowing that 200,000 vets were dealing with a new, real disorder didn’t make its causes any clearer. According to even the most recent research, the causes of Gulf War Sydrome may be as numerous and complex as its symptoms. Weapons demolitions, Kuwaiti oil-well fires and smoke, pyridostigmine bromide (PB) pills that service members had taken as a guard against nerve agents, the use of pesticides during deployment, and genetic factors have all been named as possible explanations.
Twenty years and half a billion dollars later, no definitive cause or treatment has been found.
Meanwhile, down in Annapolis, Participant No. 29 and other vets like him are hoping that DOD dollars and Scientology methods will finally provide a cure for their battle scars.
With science offering them little more than a cabinet full of prescriptions, it makes sense that some Gulf War veterans would turn toward more unconventional treatments. And few therapies have been more hotly contested in recent years than the one being tested in Annapolis.
In New York City, Tom Cruise’s 9/11 attacks first-responder program, which uses the Purif method, prompted concern from Fire Department officials that rescue workers were discarding their medications and ignoring the advice of medical doctors to enroll in the program. (Veterans in the Gulf War Syndrome study are also required to go off most of their medications—including those for pain, seizures, and mood disorders. The program’s researchers insist this is only done with the consent of personal physicians.) Meanwhile, Narconon has been criticized for failing to employ proper medical personnel and using Hubbard’s techniques instead of proven drug-treatment therapies, practices that have been blamed for a string of recent deaths inside Narconon facilities across the country and caused the organization to settle several wrongful-death lawsuits in recent years.
Many academics and doctors have protested the lack of medical and scientific evidence for the supposed benefits of sauna overexposure and vitamin mega-dosing that make up the Hubbard protocol.
To be fair, Hubbard was far from the first person to subscribe to the idea that contaminants in the body can be flushed out with sweat. Communal sweat lodges were common in ancient Rome, in Native Americans communities, and in Celtic and Teutonic society. The earliest known sweat house—used, according to the archaeologist who found it, for “the simple cleansing of the body, the purging of nasty things in the body and opening of communications with the supernatural”—was discovered in Central America and dates back to 900 B.C.
And yet the medical efficacy of sweat therapy is dubious, according to medical doctors and toxicologists.
“Good diet and sweat and exercise is good for anybody and should make you feel better eventually,” said Peter Orris, professor and chief of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois, who has contributed to research on Gulf War Illness for Canada’s Department of National Defence.
However, Orris said, there is no proof that “any of [the Gulf War] toxins are amenable to that kind of therapy.”
Even if a sauna-goer managed to sweat out the compounds that do bind to fat—like dioxins, PCBs, and some pesticides—there has yet to be found a correlation between their elimination from the body and improvement of the chronic health effects that Gulf War vets suffer from. “I’m not saying you can’t eliminate some of these, you can,” Orris said. “But it’s unclear whether that’s significant.”
And what about those sweat-stained towels?
“It’s not proof of anything but it may be proof of something,” Orris said. “We had a very interesting case when I was working outside of St. Louis—a chemical factory where people were complaining about sweating yellowish sweat into their pillows at night. And when we finally figured it out, it turns out they had changed the formulation [of the chemical] just a bit and people were getting a new fatty acid stuck on their skin and were sweating it out in the evening and it was yellow. So, sure, we have fatty acids on our skin all the time. Yes, it’s indicative of something, but it does not indicate at all that you are ‘detoxifying’ your body in one way or another.
“In fact, what comes off of the skin, that’s really a poor way of getting out of the body. Feces and urine are much better and easier.”
Up to this point, all of the research supporting the Hubbard method has been published by Scientologists. That makes the Annapolis study the first of its kind, as it’s headed by a researcher unaffiliated with the church.
Chief investigator David Carpenter, a professor of environmental health and the director of the Institute for Health & Environment at the University of Albany, is the man responsible for the findings at Annapolis. He is, in his own words, already “up to his eyeballs in controversy”—not just because of Annapolis, but because of his other research interests, which include something he calls “electromagnetic hypersensitivity.” That’s the idea that people are getting sick from exposure to cellphones, Wi-Fi, or power lines. Indeed, it’s his work with electromagnetic hypersensitivity that Carpenter thinks convinced the Scientologists to approach him about running the Gulf War Syndrome study. “I have a reputation of not just dismissing things just because it’s popular to dismiss them,” he told me.
Carpenter’s study is set up to follow the Hubbard protocol to the letter: The subjects come in and do cardio for 30 minutes, followed by two to four hours of sweating in a sauna, a mega-dose of vitamins, especially niacin, (one participant said by the end she was drinking two large canning jars of vitamins per day), and a few spoonfuls of peanut oil, to replace the “toxic fat” with “healthy fat.”
Just where the $633,677 from the Department of Defense is going isn’t entirely clear. “Budget information is not releasable due to the terms of confidentiality provided in the federal acquisition regulations,” Ellen Crown, the Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s deputy of public affairs, wrote in an email. Severna Park Health and Wellness Center, the Scientologist-led group that provides the therapy, charges $2,000 per participant, a substantial discount from the $3,000 price tag for regular folks that was quoted by Grant, the project coordinator.
Outside of Grant’s office is a break room with a refrigerator and a cabinet for snacks where vets can cool off from the marathon sauna sessions and take the fistfuls of vitamin supplements the regimen calls for. Another metal cabinet holds an industrial supply of “Dr. Price’s vitamins,” the bottles labeled with the smiling, lab-coated Dr. Price. (Stephan Price is a Scientologist, who in addition to his recent foray into the supplements business, also worked as Scientology leader David Miscavige’s personal chiropractor, according to former church members.)
The dosages of niacin and other vitamins are determined by a non-medically trained administrator—in this case, a man named Joe, whom Carpenter describes as a “die-hard Scientologist.” Joe decides, based on the participant’s feedback, just how much of each vitamin and mineral is needed to produce a physical reaction that indicates the treatment is working.
Niacin is started at 100 mg per day, according to the study protocol, and increased up to 5,000 mg (143 times the maximum daily dose recommended by the Food and Nutrition Board. Overexposure to niacin causes hot, flushed, and prickly skin, chills, upset stomach, headache, dizziness, and blurred vision. It is, in fact—as laid out in the Hubbard protocol and relayed by program participants—some of these very symptoms that program administrators look for as evidence of fleeing toxins.
Some participants say they were told that past exposures to toxins “lived in their cells” and drawing out the gunk would cause them to relive the exposure. Researchers allegedly claimed “if you’re a drug addict, while you sweat, certain particles get stuck in those fat tissues and you can feel like you’re having a trip,” one study participant recalled. “If you had sunburns earlier in your life, you may see tan lines.” (Science would appear to dismiss these claims—LSD, to use Hubbard’s own example, has a half-life of a few hours and the drug is fully excreted in urine in about a day.)
The 30 participants in the Gulf War Illness study were evaluated before and after the treatments for reported pain, fatigue, mental health issues, and overall quality of life. The researchers did use a kind of control for the tests, sending half of the vets home to wait for 30 days before they even started the treatment to see whether just taking the tests twice would result in health gains.
Blood samples were taken before and after the treatments—and in fact, medical experts, including the study’s lead investigator, say blood tests would be the only way to accurately measure whether biomarkers of toxic exposure had actually decreased after the Purif regimen.
And yet the study does not plan to actually analyze the blood samples it has collected.
“Unfortunately, to analyze for PCBs is very expensive,” Carpenter told me. “And so there just was not enough money in the grant that we got from the DOD to do the analyses... but that’s really the ultimate test of whether this thing does what it says.”
To test the blood will cost some $90,000—additional funds that Carpenter will probably request from the DOD, depending on the success of this phase of the study. And Carpenter expects the results to be good.
“At the end of the program, most say, ‘This is great, I feel much better,’ and I guess I’m not surprised at that. If I didn’t go to work for a month and instead exercised and spent time in the sauna, and had people fussing over me, I’d feel better too,” Carpenter said. “I think the people who have gone through it have been satisfied. Now whether it’s a short-term or long-term thing remains to be seen.”
Anecdotal testimony from half-a-dozen participants mirrors Carpenter’s early analysis.
“This gave me some of my life back,” said Missi Phillips, a Kansas veteran living with a spine full of herniated discs, chronic fatigue, degenerative joint disease, fibromyalgia, and all-over pain so debilitating that, before the treatment, she would sometimes stay in bed all day. “When you go through life with never-ending pain, day after day, year after year, it takes a toll on the body.”
Phillips led the charge to recruit fellow vets for the program, and says most of them have improved. She does have some concerns about the treatment (her hair fell out in clumps, and after coming home she encountered some new health conditions that she can’t explain), and, as a devout Christian, also worries about the project’s links to Scientology. She says someone from the church helped her buy a plane ticket home from Annapolis, and then approached her about contributing to a book on the Hubbard method. (This claim was denied by the church member.)
“If someone were a Buddhist or a Muslim and had a cure for cancer, am I going to try it? Yeah. As long as they don’t use me or proselytize me. Now if they take my information and use it to promote their doctrine of religion? Absolutely not,” Phillips told me. “I’m not a part of that, nor would I agree to that. And there’s no way I would have recruited all those veterans if I’d have known that’s what they were going to do.”
Yet former church members say that promoting the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard is exactly what the Scientologists plan to do with the study results.
“It sounds like this one is going to be another anecdotal ‘study,’ but the church will make a big deal about it saying it’s funded by the DOD and naming Dr. Carpenter at the University of Albany, who will become the poster child for Purif,” said Mike Rinder, the church’s former international spokesman, and current headache-inducing apostate who left the church in 2007 after 20 years leading the Office of Special Affairs.
“It will be hyped up as if this is absolutely scientific proof that L. Ron Hubbard has discovered the salvation for man’s drug problems and deserves a Nobel Prize (PDF). Believe me, that’s what’s going to happen.”
Rinder pointed specifically to the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education (FASE) as an example of what the Church of Scientology might be planning to do with the Annapolis study.
FASE was created by a pair of Scientologists in 1981 with the intention of validating Hubbard and his research in the fields of both science and education, according to Rinder and other defecting church members. Ex-national spokesman Robert Vaughn Young called secular-ish organizations like FASE part of Scientology’s “master plan to infiltrate all of these areas according to Hubbard’s doctrine.”
Though Hubbard was known to refer to himself as a Ph.D, he never actually earned a degree from any institution and had no formal training in medicine or science.
Nevertheless, FASE has been trying for decades to validate Hubbard’s teachings, Rinder said, with the underlying purpose of allegedly raising funds for the church by way of government subsidies and insurance coverage for detox programs. Rinder also said the Purif programs are regarded inside the church as prime recruiting grounds, and are known as an entrance point into Scientology.
“There are a lot of accusations made that the purification program is just quackery,” Rinder said. “For 25 years or so now, they have been trying to validate it, and haven’t managed to do so. Meanwhile, detox is heavily pushed as a way of getting people to come into Scientology, by talking to them about toxins in their body, and in the atmosphere. They ask people ‘Do you come in contact with household cleaners? Or secondhand smoke? Do you this, do you that? Well, we can do something about that with the purification program.’ But of course, anyone who Googles will find a lot that says [the program] is just bunk, this is not real. They want something to counteract that.”
Like Narconon and other groups that are staffed by Scientologists and trumpet Hubbard’s methods while claiming to be separate from the church, Keith Miller, president of FASE, says his organization deals in objective data and that religion has nothing to do with it.
Miller provided The Daily Beast with a 1998 letter from FASE’s then-legal counsel stating the group “is not part of the Church of Scientology or any other church or any other organization for that matter; and any statement, report, or inference to the contrary is false.”
“The many physicians and caregivers who have worked with us over the years—and, most importantly, the large communities of veterans, firefighters, and other first responders who would like to have access to this program—all benefit from such efforts,” Miller, who said he was out of the country, wrote to The Daily Beast in an email. “They are sustained by a shared desire to help those who are suffering and who are unable to find relief.”
I told Miller I’d heard that now that the Annapolis study was complete, FASE was going to open their own detox program to more Gulf War vets. “Apparently, there are some GW veterans who have heard about the program who would like to do it. My understanding is that making it available to them will be dependent upon the availability of funds. Any statement about specific plans for further outreach and efforts to help them, or other veterans, would be premature,” he replied in an email.
“Subject to the availability of funds, [FASE] has supported firefighters and veterans for years who have applied to go through the program. We’re proud of the fact that we have contributed to these efforts.”
According to financial disclosure forms filed by the International Academy of Detoxification Specialists (IADS)—that’s the group that started John Travolta’s Heroes Health Fund—FASE was not only involved in the founding of IADS, but, over the years, was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for project management, research coordination, and administrative support. The two organizations have also shared an office space. IADS raised $2.6 million for detox projects from 2009 to 2013.
On the Annapolis study, Miller also noted “Dr. Carpenter is one of the most respected people in the field of environmental health. It’s quite an insult to imply that he would allow his findings to be slanted. No one who had real familiarity with him or his work would say such a thing,” Miller said.
As it turns out, in 2006—according to 990 forms—IADS gifted Carpenter’s employer, the University of Albany, $20,000 for “detoxification program research.” Calls to IADS, the group’s accountant, and the University of Albany requesting further details on this gift were not returned.
Carpenter isn’t the only investigator working on the Gulf War Illness study. His co-investigator is Kathleen Kerr, a physician and lecturer at the University of Toronto’s Department of Family and Community Medicine. A longtime and prominent Scientologist, Kerr appeared in advertisements for the church in the 1980s and served as chair of Narconon Toronto’s board of directors until 2011, according to federal tax forms.
Though you won’t find those disclosures in the study’s protocol, Kerr says her religious affiliations hardly matter.
“We’ve disclosed our biases, I mean affiliations, to the Department of Defense,” Kerr said. “And they are very aware that there is a relationship to Scientology. They’ve been very helpful really, because they know it can be considered controversial.”
Kerr also insisted that she remains blind to the identities of the subjects as she interprets the results of the study, and said not knowing which vets are in the control group vs. which received immediate treatment should remove any doubt about research bias. “We only see numbers. And we did that because we knew that this could be... I didn’t want to have my hand in anything to do with interpreting the data.”
Raymond Nickerson is a research professor of psychology at Tufts University and an expert on confirmation bias (PDF)—the habit (conscious or not) of selective thinking, or seeing results that confirm a pre-existing hypothesis.
Of Kerr’s blindness, Nickerson said: “That helps, but I’m still uneasy about the fact that someone who is deeply vested in a certain outcome would be in control of what’s going on... I would want unquestionably firm data collected and analyzed by people with no firm interest in the outcome.”
Carpenter said he wasn’t aware of Kerr’s affiliation to the church.
“That’s unfortunate, because I was trying to have this project be independent. The DOD must have found that connection as well, but I didn’t know,” he said. “It’s certainly going to affect the perception of whatever we come up with.”
Regardless of the church’s ties to the Annapolis study, not all are ready to lump Carpenter’s research in with the other Scientologist-led studies of the Hubbard method that suffer from small sample sizes and biases.
“I don’t know where L. Ron Hubbard came up with the idea, but I think it’s ingenious,” said study participant Bella Smith, 50, who suffered from debilitating migraines before the detox (they have since waned). She also no longer needs to take a drug for pain that made it hard for her to think clearly. “Whatever it was in my body, I’m pretty sure it’s gone,” she said.
“An idea isn’t responsible for its origins,” said Beatrice Golomb, a doctor and professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and a member of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses since 2002. Golomb said a study like this one is exactly the kind of creative treatment research that the VA should be looking into. “The question isn’t where the idea comes from, but if it works… whether people really get better and stay better,” Golomb said.
And Carpenter says that’s what he’s determined to find out. “If [the program] really is beneficial, then it should not just be something that the Scientologists use.”
“On the other hand, if it’s all a façade, or a sham, that needs to be determined and exposed.”