Children fall ill after pesticides sprayed -- 2,4-D applied to lawns near family's home


July 6, 2002 from The Ottawa Citizen City Section, Page E6 entitled: Children fall ill after pesticides sprayed -- 2,4-D applied to lawns near family's home By Kate Heartfield.

Elena Pidtchenko scoops up her baby daughter, Veronica, and gently pushes the hair out of Veronica's big, blue eyes.

Those eyes are red around the edges. Veronica has been cranky, restless and sick for more than a week. Although they can't prove it, her parents blame pesticides.

Ms. Pidtchenko, 32, lives in a condominium in Nepean with her husband, Alexei, 30, and their two daughters, Veronica, i, and Nadya, 6. Both girls were sick for several days beginning June 30.

"It's unusual. They're normally such healthy girls," says Ms. Pidtchenko. "Usually, if there's something in the family, everybody gets it."

The Pidtchenkos knew the condo board had decided to spray weedkiller 2,4-D around the townhouses on Wrenwood Crescent in Nepean, where they have lived for more than a year.

The Pidtchenkos like to point out that their pesticide-free lawn is just as green and lush as the rest of the condo lawns. They asked that their lawn be left pesticide-free, and it was. But their lawn is very small. The sprayed lawns are just a few feet away from the house.

On June 20, Ms. Pidtchenko kept the girls inside with the windows shut for several hours. When she did go out with them, about noon, she took care not to go near the sprayed areas.

That afternoon, Veronica wouldn't nurse or take a nap.

"It was really out of character for her," her mother says.

Nadya went out later to play in a nearby park, but was told to keep clear of the sprayed area.

By the evening, both girls had fevers, headaches and dizziness. Both were sick for almost a week.

The Pidtchenkos' doctor said the girls might have become sick from the 2,4-D even though they never came in direct contact. The doctor pre- scribed lots of water and vitamin C.

"I feel like a prisoner in my own house," says Ms. Pidtchenko. "It's not in our budget to just go away for a few weeks."

Other parents share the Pidtchenkos' fears. Last week, in response to parents' concerns, Algonquin College enlarged a buffer zone around a day-care centre to separate it from grass treated with pesticides.

Some parents would still prefer the college didn't use chemicals at all, but they say the farther away the pesticides, the better.

"It wasn't done in that buffer zone, so I feel a little better about sending my son there," says Cindy de Cuypere.

Jill Courtemanche, a nurse who has worked at CHEO's Poison Information Centre for more than 20 years, says the centre gets about six calls a week from people who suspect they are sick from pesticides.

"We get a lot of calls where people have symptoms, the symptoms are ill-defined, they're vague and they're trying to find the cause for the symptoms," she says.

She can't remember ever getting a call about such "incidental" exposure to pesticides that required medical intervention.

"The general consensus is that the average person will not get sick.  You have to be in direct contact and usually prolonged contact"

Nonetheless, Ms. Courtemanche says some chemical pesticides can be toxic, and some symptoms could be a sign of exposure.

"We can't generalize. It's product-specific and dose-related."

General flu-like symptoms have been associated with several chemical pesticides. The group of insecticides called organophosphates can cause a specific set of symptoms ranging from runny eyes, vomiting and diarrhea to seizures.

Organophosphates can also show up in blood tests.

With other pesticides, it can be impossible to determine if a child was exposed. Don Houston of the Canadian Institute of Child Health says warning signs on sprayed sites are a good idea, but parents should not put too much faith in them.

"You don't really know if a child has been exposed, even if there is a sign, because (pesticides) might have just been on a group of weeds and the child may not have gone there. On the other hand, you may have a lawn that has pesticides all over, but no sign because it was applied by the homeowner."

He adds that different people have different reactions to environmental chemicals. Children are usually more vulnerable, but one child may get sick from an exposure, while another does not.

Thorn Bourne, owner of the Nutri-Lawn lawn-care company, says fears of pesticides drifting and harming bystanders are unfounded.  "There's no unacceptable risk. The risk is eliminated because the quantities are so small."

One-time exposure is the "tip of the iceberg" in the debate over pesticides and health, says Mr. Houston. In the long term, pesticides have been accused of causing several diseases, from cancer to attention deficit disorder.

"It's very difficult to say anything definitively, but we do see associations. In all likelihood, if we weren't using pesticides, we'd see a drop in cancer rates."

Fears of health risks are causing governments around the world to consider banning non-essential pesticides.

On Wednesday, the Quebec government announced a ban on government property for certain chemicals (including 2,4-D), which will apply to private property in three years. Ottawa's council has already restricted pesticides on city grounds, and may extend the rules to private property.

Ms. Pidtchenko says we need a ban, because even the precautions she took might not have protected her daughters.

"When they spray a huge area, and it rains, it goes everywhere. My little one still likes to put her hands in puddles. Why do we have to deprive them of their childhood because we don't like dandelions?"


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