A group of California doctors has concluded that the theories of clinical ecologists, who treat people for chronic illness ostensibly caused by exposure to the modern environment, are unproven and may prevent people from seeking care they need.

"There is no convincing evidence that supports the hypotheses on which clinical ecology is based," the Task Force on Clinical Ecology reports in the current Western Journal of Medicine.

Clinical ecologists treat people for what has come to be called environmental illness. Its causes, or "stressors," include urban air, fresh paint, plastics, newspaper print, perfume, tap water and many foods -- "virtually everything that modern men and women come into contact with," the panel said. Symptoms include mental, skin, digestive, respiratory, muscle and joint problems, among others, and may affect "every system of the body."

Patients are often treated with tiny doses of the offending substance to neutralize the ill effects and by avoiding the substances.

Rather than seek other treatments for their symptoms, they may become "psychologically dependent" on the clinical ecologist, "believing themselves to be seriously and chronically impaired."

The California doctors said that while "it may even be true that some or all of the hypotheses and treatments proposed by clinical ecologists are valid," there was "no evidence to support them." None of the papers presented to the panel by the Society for Clinical Ecology included random samples of patients, and none met scientific experiment standards, the panel said.