You Spray, You Pay

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

Some doctors argue, however, that numerous exposures to toxic pesticides, or even one excessive exposure, may harm just about anyone. Irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat may be felt within hours or even minutes of coming in contact with a toxic pesticide, according to Dr. Marion Moses, founder and director of the Pesticide Education Center in San Francisco and author of the book Designer Poisons. Even worse, rashes or blisters may develop on the skin, and a full-fledged poisoning of the blood may result in headaches, nausea, mental confusion, and seizures. Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure and may develop lifelong illnesses as a result, Moses says. Two of the biggest reasons: a child's immune system is less mature than an adult's; and a child takes more breaths per minute, thus increasing his or her chance to ingest poisonous vapors.

"You wouldn't give your child a pill each day of even a low level of neurotoxins. But with pesticides, that's what you're doing. These are avoidable toxic exposures."

Peterson says that she couldn't avoid the pesticides she was exposed to on July 26, 1995. She was at the International Swimming Hall of Fame just off the beach in Fort Lauderdale that day, swimming in the outdoor pool, when she noticed a strange smell. The city-owned building is surrounded by beds of flowers, and across the street is a grassy lot. What Peterson didn't realize was that city workers were spraying the area with the pesticide Dursban, which, like Orthene, goes directly to work on an insect's nervous system. (Some argue that the widely used product affects the human nervous system as well. One of the major producers of chlorpyrifos, the active ingredient in Dursban, was fined $700,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to report studies that showed nervous-system damage in users of pesticides.)

Peterson says that she'd just started her daily half-mile swim when she got a whiff of the Dursban. Suddenly her sinus tissues started to swell, and before long her nasal passages were completely blocked. She cut her workout short and headed home to rest. But the next day she went straight to the office of her doctor, who set her up with an IV of vitamins C and B complex to help rid her body of the chemicals. As a result of that incident, Peterson asked the city to stop spraying pesticides near the pool. Connor and her bosses resisted, insisting that the minimal spraying couldn't be harmful.

"They aren't recognizing my disability," Peterson says indignantly. "My doctors have recommended that I train to help with my immune system and keep me healthy, and spraying around the pool prevents me from doing that. I don't want to be excluded. I want a reasonable accommodation. It's not reasonable for me to have a choice to either risk further damage to my health or not train."

Peterson, of course, didn't give up. She continued to demand satisfaction, eventually in writing. In an effort to appease her, City Manager George Hanbury suggested she put together an advisory board that would review Fort Lauderdale's use of pesticides in public places and suggest less-poisonous alternatives. The Toxics Reduction Education Committee met for the first time last October. For various reasons, Peterson is no longer on the committee, but her goal of reducing toxic-product use in city parks will soon be realized with the pilot program TREC has developed.

As part of the program, the city will replace Orthene with a biological product that will be used on playing fields in Bayview Park, located on Northeast 44th Street, east of Federal Highway. Biological products are comprised primarily of living organisms, not chemicals. In three baseball infields at Bayview, workers will use BotaniGard, a brand name for a fungus found in low concentrations in soil. When mixed with water and sprayed over infected areas, the fungus works its way into the mole cricket and eats it from the inside out. The Bayview experiment, which is expected to begin this month, will take two to three months to complete, according to TREC chairman Reeves.

The city will also experiment with three or four biological fertilizers designed to strengthen soil by allowing natural predators to thrive. Chemicals kill not only weeds and bugs but also some beneficial elements of healthy soil, such as microscopic worms, bacteria, and beetles. Soil rich with these natural predators keeps weed and insect infestations in check and thus reduces the need for toxic pesticides, Reeves says. The fertilizer experiment, which will be conducted on four baseball infields at Floyd Hull Stadium in southwest Fort Lauderdale, will take six months or more to complete, he adds.

Although the project is not officially a part of the pilot program, the city will also provide Peterson with her "reasonable accommodation" by figuring out a way to rid the grounds around the International Swimming Hall of Fame of weeds, thus eliminating the need to use Roundup. Reeves says that a better landscape design may do the trick.

Should the experiments prove successful, the city would have to determine just how cost-effective and labor-intensive biological product use is. Cost will definitely be an issue, because at roughly $48 a quart, BotaniGard is about three times as expensive as Orthene. But the tradeoff, Peterson points out, is less use of harmful pesticides and safer parks for kids and adults.

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