When Pest Killers Make Mistakes
By ANTHONY DePALMA
Even as summer starts to melt into fall, thousands of landscapers and
exterminators throughout the region continue to spread, spray and squirt
an ocean of potent pesticides every day. Whether they use a hose to wipe
out grubs on a sprawling bluegrass lawn or a slender wand to surprise
pests in the hidey-holes of a house, applicators are expected to be
state certified and trained to handle chemicals safely.
But environmental groups say that the training and testing of
applicators is far from adequate, and that inexperienced workers pose a
danger to residents, workers and, in some cases, themselves.
While the pest control industry says mistakes are relatively rare, some
serious accidents involving pesticides have raised concerns about
¶ The owner of an exotic bird shop in Queens went out of business in
January after most of her 400 macaws, cockatoos and parrots died after
pesticides were sprayed at the McDonald's restaurant next door by an
improperly certified exterminator.
¶ More than 35 people at a girls' softball game in Moreau, N.Y., were
taken to a local hospital in 2001 after the teenage son of a local
landscaper mistakenly sprayed an insecticide for mosquitoes while the
game was still being played. The teenager did not have the proper
¶ A 24-year-old pesticide applicator who had not yet received his
certification finished spraying the trees of a house in Berkeley
Heights, N.J., on a hot summer afternoon in 1997 when he knocked on the
front door, presented his bill, and collapsed in the homeowner's arms.
Within half an hour he was dead. An independent examination found that
the most probable cause of death was chemical poisoning.
"The current regulations are totally inadequate and fail to protect the
public health," said Laura A. Height, a senior environmental associate
of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "There are people out
there who are inadequately trained or not trained at all. Many of them
are teenagers, many are immigrants who don't speak or read English. So
how can they be expected to understand the label instructions that tell
you the risks of using those chemicals?"
State regulations in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut establish two
general categories of pesticide applicators: certified operators and
technicians. Operators are thoroughly trained and certified to handle a
broad range of pesticides.
But most of the people who show up at homes and offices to do the work
are technicians. They receive a minimum of instruction and must pass a
simple test. At first they work directly under an operator, but after a
few days they are on their own. Technically, they are still supervised,
but the operators may be miles away.
Robert M. Rosenberg, director of government affairs at the National Pest
Management Association, said training had been beefed up substantially,
and testing was more rigorous. Open-book examinations have been
eliminated, and trainees are no longer asked self-evident questions like
"Insecticides are used to control insects - true or false?" which were
on exams in the 1980's.
Mr. Rosenberg said that regulations in the Northeast already were strict
"The key thing to keep in mind," he said, "is that, with the exception
of fumigation, the products we use are general use products, either
similar to or identical to things that people would encounter at Home
Depot or a local supermarket."
A stroll through any garden center underlines Mr. Rosenberg's claim.
Diazinon, malathion and other sprays and poisons are openly for sale,
without training requirements. But Ms. Height said individuals applied
pesticides only in their own homes, not in public places, and in far
Environmental groups have tried for years to tighten regulations, but
the pest control industry has effectively blocked most proposals. A 2000
New York law required applicators in participating counties to post
warnings before applying pesticides. But few counties have adopted the
While drifting insecticide and overspray are fairly common problems that
sometimes cause discomfort, occasionally there are more serious
accidents involving pesticides.
Sally Stockbridge is convinced that pesticides destroyed her livelihood.
In 1999, she and her husband, Konstandinos Lataniotis, opened a small
exotic bird shop in a strip mall in Bayside, Queens, and called it Look
Who's Talking. They used the basement to breed birds.
"That store was my family and my life," said Ms. Stockbridge, 43.
About a year after the store opened, she smelled chemicals in the
basement. In time, she realized pesticide was wafting over from the
other side of the space, which she shared with the McDonald's next door.
Soon many of her birds seemed sick. Some trembled on their perches.
Others swayed over their water bowls. Many were lethargic or had labored
She checked with veterinarians, who suspected the pesticide was harming
the birds. She complained to the restaurant manager, but the spraying
continued. By the middle of last year, most of her birds were dead.
Ms. Stockbridge called the state Department of Environmental
Conservation. No violations were found, but the applicator, a janitor in
a nearby building, was not certified to do extermination work in a
public restaurant. Records also indicated that he used the pesticide
Dursban well after federal officials had said it was dangerous and would
be phased out.
The applicator, James O'Rourke, was fined $1,000 for operating without
the proper certification. He agreed to give up his certification
altogether. Mr. O'Rourke did not respond to repeated calls over several
weeks. Nor did the owner of the McDonald's, Peter C. Miller.
Last July, Ms. Stockbridge's husband died. She suspects the chemicals
hastened his death, though the official cause was listed as heart
disease. He was 44. In January, Look Who's Talking went out of business.
In another case, a landscaper was fined $10,000 in 2001 after his
teenage son sprayed Fyfanon ULV, a mosquito-killing type of malathion,
in a park in Saratoga County while a 14-and-under girls' softball
tournament was being played. More than two dozen players from the
Invaders and Miss Shen Sparks teams and a few adults were taken to a
local hospital for examination after the mist spread over the playing
Most were released without being treated, but one adult and a few girls
who said they developed respiratory problems have sued the owner of the
landscaping company, James Hunt.
Mr. Hunt said his crew was fulfilling a spraying contract with the town.
He said investigators used the incident to pile on minor bookkeeping
violations that he felt amounted to harassment, underscoring how
regulations can create more problems than they prevent.
"Thirty-five people went to the hospital to find out what their personal
health implications might have been from a pesticide they could have
purchased themselves," Mr. Hunt said. Education rather than fines, he
said, would make using pesticides safer.
Sometimes, it is the applicators themselves who are hurt most by the
chemicals they are applying. Shannon Walsh had dreamed of a career in
forestry when he joined the F. A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company, a
national landscaping firm, in 1995, soon after graduating from the State
University of New York at Morrisville.
In early 1997, after attending a daylong training program, he was
assigned a route in central New Jersey. He started work at 7 a.m. on
July 7, mixing a 1,000-gallon batch of pesticide using the chemicals
Orthene and kelthane. He then started his route, spraying trees at seven
New Jersey homes. He completed his last stop at about 4 p.m. A few
minutes later he collapsed on the homeowner's doorstep and was taken to
a hospital. Half an hour later he died.
New Jersey regulators investigated but the only violation they found was
that Mr. Walsh had not yet received his technician's certification. For
that, the company was fined $300.
Since her son's death, Nancy Walsh has testified at public hearings on
the lack of training and safety precautions in the pest control
industry, and she has pursued her own investigation of her son's death.
When the Union County coroner's report did not give a cause of death,
she contacted Dr. Sheldon L. Wagner, a professor of clinical toxicology
at Oregon State University. He found evidence that Shannon, who had no
known heart ailment, had probably died from overexposure to the
chemicals he was spraying.
Mrs. Walsh said she wanted to prove that Shannon's death was
pesticide-related so it could be included on a national registry of such
deaths and used to argue for more stringent rules. "This way," she said,
her voice crumbling under an old sadness, "his death would have meaning."
David G. Marren, the director for regulatory affairs at Bartlett, said
the company immediately reviewed its use of Orthene and kelthane, but no
connections could be made to his death.
"We tried to understand whether this was a pesticide-related issue," Mr.
Marren said. "We were very disappointed when the results were so
But Mrs. Walsh believes that if Shannon had been properly trained and
equipped, he would not have died.
"The rules and regulations," she said, "are just not there to protect
Kevin Rivoli for The New York Times
Jerry and Mary Walsh, of Solvay, N.Y., want tougher laws for training
pesticide workers like their son Shannon, left, who died on the job in
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