Sprayed Away

Did calling in an exterminator put health and home at risk?

[Read a Letter from Heidi]

For Heidi DeBoer and her family, the question will always be there. Anytime a health problem hits, they will ask themselves, “Is this because of the pesticides?”

There’s good reason for asking.

In a case that bears striking similarities to Angela Essenmacher’s, the Grand Rapids family hired a local exterminator to treat their home for carpenter ants in 1995. Three chemicals were used, including Ficam D — a form of bendiocarb that attacks the nervous system. As of December 2001, use of that chemical has been voluntarily halted by its manufacturer.

According to Michigan Department of Agriculture reports reviewed by Metro Times, the DeBoers were allegedly told the chemicals being sprayed in their attic were safe. But, as is alleged in the case of Angela Essenmacher, the pesticide was allowed to get into the home’s heating system and spread throughout the house.

For several days following the treatment, the four DeBoers — Heidi, her husband and their infant twins — seemed to be suffering from the flu: vomiting, respiratory problems, diarrhea and burning throats.

“Then we realized we’d been cleaning up cat vomit the whole time,” says Heidi DeBoer, 44.

Eventually they contacted the Department of Agriculture, which tested and found that the furnace was spreading pesticides throughout the home, including in the playpen and on the toys of the twins, then 9 months old.

While admitting that the pesticides were misapplied, however, the company refused to concede that’s what caused the illness. In June 1995, following the clean-up, the Department of Agriculture conducted more tests and found no pesticides in the living area of the DeBoer home. The family moved back in. But their health problems persisted.

“We thought we were suffering long-term health effects because of the initial exposure,” says DeBoer, a part-time office manager.

According to Department of Agriculture records, the company that treated the DeBoer home — Griffin Pest Control — committed 38 alleged violations in eight cases between 1994 and 1998. In February 1999, the company agreed to pay a $4,000 fine.

In April of 1999, the DeBoers asked the department to retest their home, but were told the case was closed. They hired a private toxicologist who, according to court records, found the house still contaminated.

“We moved into a travel camping trailer the next day and stayed there for 15 months while fighting Griffin’s insurance company,” recalls DeBoer. Unlike Angela Essenmacher’s contract, the one signed by the DeBoers did not have a mandatory arbitration clause.

Last year, they won a judgment from a jury. But when the insurance company threatened to appeal, they settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

“Our house was condemned by the Department of Agriculture,” wrote DeBoer on a Web site containing the stories of people who say they were poisoned by pesticides (www.getipm.com). “Our house, now condemned by the Health Department, would cost up to $100,000 to make it livable with no guarantees. We ended up with nowhere near that. Our health costs went through the roof and, with the cost to fight these people, we had to [go] bankrupt so we could afford to rent a townhouse to find some normalcy for my twins.”

But normalcy is the last thing the DeBoers have found. DeBoer’s husband, Chester, who designs and builds Christian bookstores, suffers from short-term memory impairment. He also developed diabetes and is now insulin dependent. Both twins suffer from a number of medical conditions. One has been hospitalized frequently for respiratory problems. The other has begun to have seizures, and a small cyst was recently found on his brain.

Heidi DeBoer says she continues to suffer from chronic sinus infections, nose bleeds, headaches and fatigue.

“With everything that keeps going on, we wonder how much of it is due to the pesticides,” says DeBoer. “We’ll always wonder.”

 Read Curt Guyette's related stories in this edition: 

"Sprayed away" – Did calling in an exterminator put Angela Essenmacher's health and home at risk? 

"Nontoxic avenger" – Former exterminator Steve Tvedten is now an evangelist for nontoxic pest control, and he's willing to share his techniques. 

"Poisoning primer" – Environmental toxicologist Dr. Michael Harbut offers pointers to those who suspect toxic exposure.

 Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or send e-mail to cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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