Orkin Pest Control

Another House contaminated - another family ruined

A Boise couple say their lives are in ruin after exterminators used Dursban in their home

Sunday, May 7, 2000

By Alex Pulaski and Brent Walth of The Oregonian staff

BOISE -- Before fleeing their home in the belief it was killing them, before the lawyers, the expert witnesses, the dead dog and the bankruptcy, Bill and Laurie Enger had just one question: Why is this happening?

Laurie Enger's numbed brain offered no help. Nor could anyone else explain why, in those spring days in 1994, her pounding skull forbade sleep or why her lungs pumped out fluids. Or why, when she walked down her hallway, she careened off the walls as if she were a drunk on a rolling ship.

The Engers later believed they had found their answer: They had been poisoned by Dursban, the most widely used insecticide in America.

The Engers say exposure to Dursban, sprayed in their home by Orkin Exterminating, ruined their lives and finances. Their story is one of the latest examples of what regulators say are the dangers posed by Dursban. The mounting problmes with the bug killer have led the Environmental Protection Agency to target the insecticide for what could be dramatic restrictions.

The EPA changes -- affecting Dursban's hundreds of uses, from termite control to flea collars -- could come within a few weeks.

Recognizing the EPA's growing concerns, Orkin already has stopped using Dursban for residential jobs unless the homeowners specifically request it.

In the Engers' case, an expert the couple hired concluded that Orkin misused Dursban in their home and found residues of the insecticide 3,400 times higher than levels considered safe.

But thousands of reports of poisonings in EPA files come from Dursban use well within the current rules. The agency's own scenarios of how Dursban is used in homes and yards conclude that the insecticide poses a serious risk, especially to children.

Orkin, which denied any wrongdoing, last month paid $175,000 to settle a suit brought by the Engers. Orkin officials declined to discuss the case. In court papers, Orkin said the Engers, who had previous health problems, could not link their suffering to the company's actions.

The Engers' doctors have concluded that both are permanently disabled from toxic exposure but acknowledge they cannot connect the health problems to the Dursban sprayed by Orkin.

The Engers, though, have little doubt.

"We had no language to conceive that nerve poison could be sprayed in your house," Laurie Enger said. "Now that I do, I feel like I'm in a burning theater, screaming about the danger, and my voice is coming out like a croak."

A pesky house problem Laurie Enger, 55, once envisioned herself as the spotter in the crow's nest, searching out new shores, fast currents, green slivers of opportunity. Bill, 61, her husband of 36 years, held the tiller of the family business.

"It was enthusiastic and dynamic and there was so much energy," their daughter, Nancy Enger Barrera, says of her parents.

For 20 years, the Engers lived in Southern California, running an oil-drilling company in which they held partial ownership. But they lost control of it in the early 1980s when the bank called in their loans.

The Engers moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and later Boise, where they marketed portable painting systems to cover graffiti and dreamed of selling out to a national or regional paint company.

Meanwhile, the Engers had an everyday but pesky problem in their house: ants.

Laurie didn't worry much about it until one of her two daughters mentioned that they looked like carpenter ants, wood eaters that are the termites of the Northwest. She plucked Orkin Exterminating from the Yellow Pages.

Orkin is one of the biggest and best-known names in the exterminating business, made famous through its Orkin Man ad campaigns. The company specializes in residential jobs to rid homeowners of termites, roaches, ants, fleas and rodents.

Owned by Atlanta-based Rollins Inc., the 99-year-old Orkin serves 1.7 million customers through more than 400 branches in North America. With Orkin as its primary business, Rollins reports annual revenues of $586 million.

The Orkin representative who called on the Engers was Steven J. Christensen.

Before Christensen set to work, Laurie Enger says, she told him she suffered from respiratory allergies. According to her account, Christensen told her not to worry, that his products were safe and were routinely sprayed in schools and nursing homes.

In a deposition two years later, Christensen said he handed Enger a list of the chemicals he might spray and suggested that she consult with her doctor before spraying. Enger denies that Christensen ever issued the warning.

Ongoing sickness On March 5, 1994, Christensen went to work to kill the carpenter ants in the Engers' ranch-style home on Stone Ridge Way. Laurie Enger was gone on a trip, but Bill Enger remembered feeling sick in the days that followed.

When he left for Sacramento on business a few days later, he said he felt flu-like symptoms and could barely speak. The couple returned home to Boise near midnight on March 22, more than two weeks after Orkin had done its work.

In the days that followed, Laurie Enger remembers being robbed of sleep. Her head throbbed. Her throat knotted. She could barely breathe. She sat doubled over at night, a roll of paper towels in hand to catch the fluids she coughed up.

Doctors could not pinpoint a problem. Leaving the house to go to the doctor's office, she felt her symptoms ease and she would feel euphoric. Doctors' reports pointed to possible allergies. Maybe menopause. Maybe something in her head.

Three months later, rummaging through a kitchen drawer, she recalls finding a receipt from Orkin. She had forgotten about the spraying. She wondered, Could there be a connection?

She called the Idaho Department of Agriculture, which regulates pest control companies. Agency officials concluded, based upon Christensen's statements and the labels on the chemicals he used, that he had done nothing wrong.

The Engers shampooed the carpets twice and did other work on the house, but say their health problems persisted.

Laurie Enger developed a stutter and says she couldn't think clearly. Bill Enger's health worsened. He became more depressed and lethargic, spending more time at home. He dropped 60 pounds from his usual 220-pound frame.

"There was a period of two or three weeks where I was afraid to reach over and touch him because he'd be dead," Laurie Enger said.

They debated between themselves and with their daughters whether they would have to leave their home to survive.

They had already buried Paddles, their 11-year-old black Labrador mix, after he developed a cough, could not control his bladder and lost feeling in his rear legs. The family vet never pinpointed why Paddles became ill, but what the Engers learned convinced them the symptoms were consistent with damage from nerve agents.

In July 1996, the Engers finally moved out.

Orkin in and out of court

A few months before leaving their home, the Engers filed suit against Orkin and Christensen. Records produced by Orkin for the Engers' suit show that disgruntled customers have taken the company to court 74 times nationwide since 1987. The company has won two-thirds of the cases.

In the Engers' case, Orkin and Christensen deny any wrongdoing. In court papers, the company says chemicals were used properly.

Among other issues, Orkin attorneys focused on the Engers' medical history. Both had been treated for depression for years, and Laurie Enger reported symptoms two months before the spraying to her doctors that included labored breathing, throat constriction, poor memory and nervousness.

But an expert brought in by the Engers said the trail leads back to the overwhelming presence of the nerve-agent pesticides persisting in the Engers' home, a chemical called chlorpyrifos but better known as Dursban.

Dursban, the bug killer sprayed in the Engers' home, is a cousin of the deadly nerve gas developed by German scientists during World War II. Dursban and similar insecticides, called organophosphates, kill by depleting the body of enzymes essential to normal operation of the nervous system.

Scores of lab tests over the years show Dursban can enter the body through the skin or the lungs. As with all organophosphates, Dursban at low levels of exposure causes dizziness and nausea. As exposures increase, victims can suffer lasting neurological problems. At higher levels, Dursban will kill.

What sets Dursban apart from similar bug killers is both its potency and the wide array of products in which it's used. Environmental Protection Agency records show Americans used 20.9 million pounds of Dursban last year.

Dursban in everyday products

Farmers use the same insecticide under a different trade name -- Lorsban -- on crops, most often on corn. But the EPA counts 822 products that contain Dursban that come into contact with people every day. Its manufacturer, Dow AgroSciences, says 70 percent of Dursban is used to kill termites. But other Dursban products are used outdoors on lawns and shrubs, and indoors in offices, schools, hotels, hospitals and restaurants.

Dursban also is used frequently in pet flea collars. These opportunities for exposure have led to about 7,000 accidental poisonings every year involving Dursban and other chlorpyrifos-based products -- more than any other insecticide of its type, EPA reports say.

New York's attorney general called for a ban on Dursban earlier this year after a Rotterdam, N.Y., woman miscarried twice and her husband and 3-year-old son experienced health problems that they allege stemmed from a 1996 Dursban spraying for termites in their home.

Dursban's dangers have prompted a sweeping review by EPA, which is now considering ways to curb the insecticide use both on crops and for residential use. EPA officials considered 11 different scenarios in which people might face a typical Dursban exposure. The agency concluded typical uses -- including Dursban use on lawns, in cracks and crevices inside the home, and in pet collars -- posed too great of a health risk, especially for children.

In court documents, Orkin and Christensen said Dursban was applied consistent with the label and the law. The Orkin applicator, Christensen, said in pretrial depositions that he followed proper procedures when spraying the Enger home for carpenter ants.

Expert stunned by toxin levels

The Engers' hired expert, Richard Lipsey, a former EPA toxicologist, has often served as an expert witness in similar cases; Orkin itself had hired Lipsey in many cases to help investigate claims of pesticide problems.

When he looked at the Engers' home, Lipsey said in pretrial testimony, what he found stunned him. Tests of the carpet -- already cleaned twice by the Engers -- showed high levels of Dursban.

Lipsey testified that Dursban levels of 5 to 25 micrograms per square foot would be considered safe. In his career, he said, he had never seen levels exceeding 100 micrograms per square foot.

The results from the Engers' house: 85,000 micrograms of Dursban per square foot.

Lipsey said that Christensen used overkill. Rather than seeking out the ant nest, Christensen sprayed inside the house's walls, drilling holes from the outside and applying the bug killer through switch plate holes from the inside.

Lipsey concluded the holes were not properly capped and that Dursban had been spilled in the house entryway and was tracked inside.

"You don't soak the house with Dursban," Lipsey said in a deposition. "It's negligence; willful, wanton, reckless misuse of a neurotoxic chemical."

Day in court won't come

In May 1996, Orkin issued a service alert to its branches advising that "aerosols, dusts and large volumes of pesticides should be avoided" around clients with respiratory problems.

The Engers, saying they were too sick to work, filed for bankruptcy protection, lost their home in foreclosure, saw their cars repossessed and know that most of their personal belongings ended up at the dump. They moved in with their daughter Nancy and her husband and settled into a routine as their long-delayed trial approached.

Bill did dishes, watched TV and picked up his grandson from school. Laurie often cruised the Internet and even created her own Web site, where she tried to publicize her case.

Bill Enger once told his wife that if they left their house on Stone Ridge Way, he feared they would break into a million pieces. A trial wouldn't glue their life together or restore their health, but it would allow them a chance to tell their story and maybe, if they won, pay their bills and own their own home again.

But none of their preparation had equipped them for the possibility that Orkin, through a bankruptcy court action, could keep their suit from going before a jury.

Laurie Enger spent years preparing for her day in court against Orkin. Now it will probably never come.

"It's like you can take an eraser to justice," she said.

Here's another note from Mrs. Enger

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