You Spray, You Pay

A pilot program in Fort Lauderdale challenges the notion that the grass is always greener when treated with chemical pesticides

Just about every morning, Peterson's fax machine spits out a pesticide-spraying notice, which tells her where Fort Lauderdale maintenance workers will be spraying that day. She's the only resident in the city who receives such notices from Willie Arnett, the city's parks and recreation department pest-control supervisor. Peterson put up such a fuss after getting sick in 1995 that top city officials agreed to the arrangement. Simply smelling pesticides causes her head to ache and sinus tissues to swell, she claims. If she inhales the vapors, her breathing passageways may become completely blocked.

Dr. Bruce Dooley, one of Peterson's doctors at M.D. Med Center in Fort Lauderdale, backs up Peterson's claims and considers her condition chronic. In fact, he's written a letter addressed to "Whom It May Concern," meaning any pest-control operator or neighbor who doesn't believe pesticides make Peterson sick. "Her respiratory syndrome can become life-threatening on exposure to pesticides," the letter reads, "because of the reactive inflammation which occurs in Ms. Peterson's airways following exposures to pesticide vapors, fumes, spray, or dust."

Neither Dooley nor Albert Robbins of Boca Raton, who treats Peterson for exposures, returned several phone calls for comment on Peterson's condition or MCS.

What Peterson is up against in Fort Lauderdale she'd be up against in any South Florida city. Bugs and weeds love the humidity and warmth of the region, and using toxic products is considered the most cost-effective and labor-saving way of clearing public parks of pests and weeds. On a daily basis, parks workers visit public places with two-and-a-half-gallon spray bottles of Roundup, a brand-name herbicide, and douse unwanted weeds. They use the pesticide Orthene to kill armies of mole crickets, which burrow under playing-field turf and feed on grass roots. Left to their own devices, mole crickets are capable of killing entire patches of grass, which would have to be replaced with sod.

Peterson isn't the only one to complain about toxic-product use. In 1990, two years before she was diagnosed with MCS, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services created the Registry of Pesticide Sensitive Persons in response to numerous complaints statewide. Today the registry lists 108 people, including Peterson, who are notified by commercial pest-control companies planning to spray in their neighborhoods.

Another solution to the growing problem is Integrated Pest Management (IPM), which has become a buzz term among toxic-pesticide users. The idea behind IPM is to mix less-toxic pesticides with better gardening methods, such as using native plants that require less maintenance and changing watering and mowing schedules. Governments across the country are beginning to make use of IPM, and a few have created oversight boards to help find less-toxic pesticides and herbicides. In fact, in the last three years, Fort Lauderdale's parks and recreation department has decreased the amount of toxic pesticides that it uses. Between 1995 and 1996, parks workers spread 3800 pounds of dry toxic product and 340 gallons of liquid product, according to parks supervisor Kathy Connor. Estimates for the 199899 season are 932 pounds and 232 gallons, she says.

"[The reduction is] all about safety, health, and welfare," Connor adds. "It's being concerned with how all this interacts with the little guy, who's out there using the parks and ball fields. You never know."

Connor insists that the city has been actively reducing toxic-product use for years. But it wasn't until Peterson stepped in and complained to politicians directly that the city began to publicly address the amount and types of chemicals it was using.

"She is the resident expert on this and has been instrumental in getting us to change the way we do things," Mayor Jim Naugle says. "[City parks department employees] see her as an annoyance, but she's only trying to help."

The city primarily uses three products to control bugs and weeds in public places, according to Connor. Threatening manicured medians and mulched fence lines are torpedo grass, dollar weed, and spurge. The biggest pests in picnic and recreation areas are mole crickets, chinch bugs, and fire ants, which are capable of inflicting a painful sting. Logic, a biological product that prevents bugs from reproducing, is a slow-acting agent, which an ant eats, then takes back to its mound, where the pesticide eventually kills other ants. Roundup, the world's best-selling herbicide, which kills anything green it touches, is sprayed on weedy spots. If an area becomes infested with bugs and must be treated right away -- say a Boy Scout picnic is overrun with fire ants -- Connor may authorize the use of Orthene, a highly toxic pesticide that attacks a bug's nervous system, killing it instantly.

MCS sufferers like Peterson argue that pesticides and herbicides are just a couple of the chemically based contemporary luxuries that make their lives so difficult. But they don't have much evidence to back up their claims. Research on the effects that a chemical or group of chemicals has on humans has been inconclusive, mainly because it's extremely difficult to identify a causal relationship between chemicals and MCS suffers' symptoms. The symptoms range from chronic fatigue to mental confusion, from headaches to a rapid heartbeat. Without evidence of a causal relationship, renowned groups such as the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, and the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology have refused to take a position on MCS.

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