Pesticide drop worries families - Officials say Cape accident poses no danger

(11/11/04 - See updated note from family at bottom)

CAPE CORAL - One mother is concerned about her 2-year-old's health while another worries about her pregnant daughter after a mosquito control helicopter pilot accidentally dumped 300 gallons of  insecticide (POISON) on a neighborhood in the southwest part of the city.

But Lee County Mosquito Control District and environmental officials say there's nothing to be concerned about. 

"We won't let our son out of the house," said Renee Harvel, 23, of Southwest 14th Street, whose home was washed with the pesticide fenthion. "He doesn't understand, he wants to go out and ride his bike." 

Lisa Carson's home on Southwest 13th Lane also received a dose of the pesticide that killed her two pet iguanas in cages on the outside porch when the accident occurred.

"It was a disaster," said Carson, whose 19-year-old pregnant daughter has been advised by her doctor to remain inside. "Especially after the terrorists, we were scared to death."

Dennis Moore, an entomologist with mosquito control, said the mixture of diesel fuel and the mosquito killing fenthion that was released would not affect people or animals. 

"The concentration of pesticide was very low," he said. "I would not be uncomfortable being out there myself."

Moore said that the pilot of the Vietnam War-era "Huey" helicopter hit the wrong switch while answering a radio call last week and dumped a load of the pesticide fenthion, which chemical giant Bayer manufactures as Baytex. He was not spraying at the time but was flying to another area.

"It was human error," he said. "We're going to rectify it by moving the dump switch."

All district aircraft and helicopters are equipped with "dump" switches that allow the pilot to release their payload in the event of an emergency.

"It wasn't a dump per se, it was a slow release," said Moore, who added that the helicopter was flying at an altitude of 600 feet and 100 mph when the accident happened. "It was released over a half-mile area."

Moore said that the district's last similar incident happened about 13 years ago when a mosquito control C-46 aircraft had to dump its pesticide load when one of its two engines malfunctioned.

But that was little consolation to Harvel, her husband Josh and their 2-year-old son Matthew who were just waking up on Sept. 19 when the helicopter flew over. Moments later they smelled the strong odor of the petroleum/insecticide mix, as residue covered their home, lawn and cars.

"No one called us," Harvel said. "By 10:30 or 11 my husband called mosquito control and had a hard time getting someone to listen.   They're not the most cooperative.

"They wouldn't give us any health information. They said it wouldn't hurt us, but that stuff is not user friendly."

Moore said that the district has tried to mitigate any effects of the accident on Harvel's and Carson's residences.

"We washed down the homes and notified all the agencies," he said.  "We've made ourselves available to the homeowners to help."

Fenthion has been used to combat mosquitoes in Florida for about 30 years. The Environmental Protection Agency rates fenthion as moderately hazardous; its label contains a "warning" as a restricted-use pesticide. 

The highly regulated pesticide - it's not available to the public - fenthion has been blamed for the deaths of almost 200 shore birds on Marco Island between 1998 and 1999.

The Florida Wildlife Federation, a conservation group, has mounted a campaign to get the federal EPA to ban fenthion for the control of mosquitoes in Florida because of its toxicity to birds.

Moore said he couldn't estimate how much of the pesticide actually hit the ground because much of it was atomized into the air and carried away by the wind.

Dr. Wayne Tabachnick, director of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory in Vero Beach, said there are high margins of safety built into the application rates for pesticides such as fenthion, but it was impossible to accurately determine how toxic the spill was without knowing how much hit the ground. 

Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials said they looked at the area and were not planning any further inspections.

"It appears to have dissipated," said Tim McMullen from the emergency response section of DEP.

However, Harvel said that she and her husband are experiencing some health problems associated with the spill.

"I'm having a hard time breathing and my husband has had headaches and dizziness," she said.

Her biggest concern is for the long-term health of her son. So they've hired an attorney to help ensure they're treated fairly.

"I don't want them to get us on some small fine print," she said.

Lee County health officials said they haven't been able to test the water well at Harvel's home because they didn't have the special containers needed for pesticide testing.

Becky Ledbetter, a field technician with the environmental engineering section of the health department, said they just received the special containers and will make the tests on Monday.

 Fenthion facts Uses: Fenthion is an insecticide used on cattle and swine and for mosquito control in Florida only.

Cautions: The mosquito control use of fenthion is restricted due to ery high toxicity to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates. Mosquito application is both aerial and ground.

Health risks: Fenthion can overstimulate the nervous system in humans causing nausea, dizziness, confusion, and at high exposures - accidents, major spills - respiratory paralysis and death.

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

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