Pesticide on trial with EPA

ENN News
Pesticide on trial with EPA
Monday, January 24, 2000

By Robinson Shaw

In August 1996, Bruce and Karen Trimper's house in Rotterdam, New York, was sprayed for termites. A month later, doctors couldn't explain why the couple's 3-year-old son was having difficulty breathing or why his fever wouldn't go away.

Today, the Trimpers believe they know why. The couple is embroiled in a $215 million lawsuit against Terminix, the largest termite and pest control company in the world.

The lawsuit blames Terminix for a wave of medical problems that the Trimpers allege were caused by the pesticide formula Dursban TC.

According to the lawsuit, Karen Trimper suffered two miscarriages in 1997. Bruce Trimper has difficulty breathing. Both parents also suffer from "impaired reproductive capacities," the suit notes.

In 1998, the family moved from their home after tests by the state and a private lab turned up chemicals used by Terminix two years earlier.

The active ingredient in Dursban TC is chlorpyrifos, a controversial, widely used pesticide and the focus of many studies and debates. The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing the pesticide for the second time.

Every year about 30 million pounds of chlorpyrifos are sprayed into American homes, businesses and fields. "There's a lot of information out there about the dangers of chlorpyrifos that shows it shouldn't even be used at all," said Pam Hadad Hurst, executive director of the New York Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Chlorpyrifos kills pests by disrupting normal nerve transmission, inhibiting an enzyme in the insect's nervous system. In humans, chlorpyrifos can cause headaches, blurred vision, nausea, convulsions, flu-like symptoms and even seizures. In extreme cases, it has been linked to quadriplegia, genetic damage, birth defects, immune-system abnormalities and death.

The Trimpers are not alone in their suffering. From 1985 to 1992, 25,995 cases of chlorpyrifos exposure were reported to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Two children, A.J and Christie Ebling, suffered seizures, learning disabilities and incontinence after their family's apartment was repeatedly sprayed with Dursban TC.

Studies show that chlorpyrifos is generally safe when it is used in recommended amounts. But while chlorpyrifos is no more toxic than other pesticides, data shows it has caused the most life-threatening medical conditions of any organophosphate pesticide on the market. Organophosphates are a group of closely related pesticides that affect the nervous system.

Researchers studied Poison Control Center data from 1993 to 1997 to determine the hazards of organophosphate pesticides used in homes. Of 13 insecticides analyzed, chlorpyrifos showed the highest percentage of life-threatening or fatal effects. From 1993 to 1997, one child died and 34 other children and adults suffered life-threatening illness from exposure to chlorpyrifos.

Individuals with low levels of the enzyme paraoxonase are especially vulnerable to the damaging effects of chlorpyrifos.

Dow AgroSciences, which began manufacturing chlorpyrifos more than 30 years ago, stands behind its product. "Three decades of use have shown that chlorpyrifos products can be applied safely by homeowners, gardeners, pest-control operators and others," said Garry Hamlin, a spokesman for the chemical company. "Unless these products are seriously misused, their margins of safety are wide enough to protect both adults and children with the potential to be exposed."

The EPA is the fourth phase of a review of chlorpyrifos. For 90 days, beginning in April, the agency will consider comments, data and risk-mitigation proposals from the public on chlorpyrifos. The EPA will also develop a revised risk assessment, which will be sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for review.

The agencies will then conduct public meetings and technical briefings to share its assessment and discuss risk-management strategies.

Terminix has repeatedly denied that Dursban TC caused the health problems alleged by the Trimpers. The company has filed a motion to dismiss the couple's lawsuit, arguing that the contract signed by the Trimpers voids their claims.

New York's Department of Environmental Conservation filed a related complaint against Terminix for the company's failure to: use termiticides properly at the Trimper residence; give proper notice to the homeowners; and keep records required for pesticide application under New York state law. The DEC has asked the company to restore the Trimpers' home to a safe standard and pay $25,000 in fines for violation of state laws.

Safe household alternatives to chlorpyrifos include boric acid and silica gels for household pests, and solutions of vinegar, soap or garlic for outdoor insects and fungi. Sealing cracks and crevices, storing food in sealed containers and eliminating water leaks in roofs and pipes can significantly decrease roach, ant and rodent infestation.

Biological controls such as microbial agents (Bacillus thuringiensis and certain fungi), plant extracts, insect hormones and natural enemies (parasitic wasps, nematodes, and ladybugs) disrupt the mating patterns of pests.

Farming strategies such as mulching, natural biotic communities, crop rotation and cover crops, which break up weed and insect cycles, keep agricultural pests in check.
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