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When Pest Killers Make Mistakes

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  • Teresa Binstock
    When Pest Killers Make Mistakes By ANTHONY DePALMA http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/01/nyregion/01pesticides.html Even as summer starts to melt into fall,
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 1, 2004
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      When Pest Killers Make Mistakes


      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
      current laws:

      ¶ 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
      smaller quantities.

      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
      new standard.

      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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